Colleges in all regions of the country are strengthening their educational programs by bringing students and faculty together to productively engage and study the diverse communities that exist on their campuses and in their immediate neighborhoods.
Through these programs, students from Queens to Los Angeles to Memphis are learning how diverse communities function and how research and scholarship can be used to understand and solve pressing social problems. These projects, which join together diverse teams of students with faculty members to conduct research projects in the community, have many educational benefits for all those involved. Students delve into pressing diversity issues by directly experiencing the challenges and promise of diversity in local communities. They learn about each other's diverse backgrounds and about the knowledge they each bring to the project from their own community experiences.
Especially at urban commuter schools, many students engage in multiple boundary crossings as they move from home and work communities into college and classroom communities. These boundary crossings can be teaching and learning opportunities. Community-based research projects challenge traditional pedagogical models of faculty as "holder" and student as "recipient" of knowledge. Frequently, students bring crucial "inside" insights into community issues that contribute greatly to the design and execution of community-based research projects.
City University of New York-Queens College
At Queens College in New York, eight students worked on a research project that examined relations among African American and Asian American residents in Brooklyn directly following a boycott of a Korean grocery store by African American residents that made headlines across the country. Students, many of whom were Asian American or African American and from the local community, conducted interviews and found that there was less animosity between the two groups than many assumed after learning about the boycott from the media.
One African American student in the project, Sharon Bradley, expressed her surprise "at how many people thought that the boycott incidents were blown out of proportion." Andrew Kolodny, one of only two white students in the project, remarked on what he learned in preparing the survey. "We discussed everything with the black and Korean students, which gave us all broader perspectives on the questions we needed to ask."
Another African American student, Mica McCarthy, reported talking to more people who felt the boycotts were justified because of a pattern of "lack of respect for black customers." She believes that the project gave all of the students deeper insights into multiple perspectives on racial questions. "We met and freely discussed the survey results. We argued back and forth. I learned from the Korean students that Korean merchants are not getting rich off these small stores. It helps me to understand that they are being exploited as well."
Sociology professor Andrew Beveridge mentored a group of students on another project that used the latest census data to show the distribution and economic status of ethnic groups in Flushing. He notes that "the college team is especially qualified to learn from and to understand these data, since they bring a unique perspective on the communities being studied."
Other projects at Queens have involved research on variations in New York City dialects, including how English is spoken in new immigrant communities, as well as a project on the effects of immigration on women and family relations.
California State University-Los Angeles
At California State University (CSU-LA), teams of students worked on projects using the city of Los Angeles as their laboratory and text. They worked with persons in the community to design and conduct a needs assessment of Boyle Heights, a neighborhood adjacent to the campus with a largely Latino population. They studied student drop-out issues and prevention programs in ethnically diverse high schools. They surveyed and assessed the impact of the informal economy of local street vendors.
In one project, students created and performed a theatrical production based on the stories, cultural traditions, rituals, and customs of diverse Los Angeles communities. This project began in the wake of the civil uprising in Los Angeles following the first Rodney King/Los Angeles Police Department trial. Students investigated both historical and present attitudes toward violence and racial and ethnic stereotyping, as well as the economic basis of racism in Los Angeles. Another project following the civil unrest was centered in the psychology department and involved students delivering to the Los Angeles Police Department and Board of Supervisors an oral and written report based on surveys of citizen attitudes toward the police.
Sue Steiner, director of research and sponsored programs at CSU-LA, believes that these projects accomplish several goals including higher student retention rates and increasing student interest in graduate school. She also believes the program helped to forge more productive bonds between the university and its neighboring communities.
Historically black colleges and universities have long histories of involvement in and service to their surrounding communities. At LeMoyne-Owen College, students and faculty members are involved in a variety of community research projects designed to increase the viability of the enterprise zone in which the college is located. Working with faculty members from a variety of disciplines, students are playing an integral role in providing solid social and economic information about an urban African American neighborhood. They are adding to the corpus of knowledge about a local population while at the same time providing practical data for the improvement of life in the city. Students in both the social sciences and business are also working in teams with local high school and middle school pupils to conduct a survey on businesses in the enterprise zone.
In other projects, a Program for Environmental Justice Research and Education is sponsoring student-faculty research on the physical and environmental conditions of local communities. Business students are conducting case studies for fledgling minority entrepreneurial endeavors under a project of the Tennessee Small Business Administration. All of these projects provide students with academic credit and significant research and community experience while building strong ties among campus and community members.
Many community-based research projects have been funded by the Ford Foundation as part of its Campus Diversity Initiative. The projects described at LeMoyne-Owen College were funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Ford/United Negro College Fund (UNCF) Community Service Partnership Project, Learn and Serve America of the Corporation for National Service, and the Council of Independent Colleges.
Research projects like those described here have considerable news value. Media tend to be interested in new data and in students who are breaking new ground in their studies.
Consider asking a local newspaper columnist or radio or television public affairs program producer to cover projects like these you may be sponsoring. This request can be made through a short pitch letter that describes the project, its goals and likely outcomes, and who is involved.
Generally, it is better to inform the columnist or producer early so she or he will better understand the project and can determine which students and community members will be the most effective spokespeople.
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