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Together While We’re Apart: Dr. Suchitra Gururaj, Community and Economic Engagement Assistant VP

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Suchi head shotNext up in our series, we checked in with Dr. Suchitra Gururaj, assistant vice president for Community and Economic Engagement in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. She oversees our Center for Community Engagement, which serves as a bridge between the university and the Austin community. Read on to learn more about how she and her team are working with faculty, staff and students to support community members during this difficult time.

 First and foremost, how are you doing? 

I’m doing well, and I’m thankful that my family is well, too. I’m feeling particularly grateful to be able to continue the work of the Center for Community Engagement in these uncertain times. That said, I’m afraid to say I’m not doing as well as my kids’ homeschool teacher! As we’ve all discovered, teachers, along with our frontline workers, deserve all our respect.

How is the Center for Community Engagement still connecting with community members during this time of social distancing?

 As Center lead, I’m impressed at the ways our innovative and tech-savvy staff seamlessly transitioned our work online. In the first week, our team not only moved to Zoom and Slack for our internal communications, but we also helped all our stakeholders – including students, faculty, and community partners and members – gain access to our programming through online platforms. Through our networks and our board commitments, we were also diligent about checking in with many of our community partners throughout the area – just to see how they were doing and to express support.

Our student engagement team, led by Amory Krueger, is still advising and supporting our student leaders. Harriet Sedgwick of the Texas Grants Resource Center has consulted with over 150 nonprofits in the last month about their current fundraising needs. Community members have recently convened for our virtual Housing Hub Clinic, organized by Virginia Cumberbatch and her community advocacy team. And, with the support of graduate students Dr. Brianna Davis Johnson and Lakeya Omogun, the Community-based Learning team continues to outreach and provide content for faculty.

Do you have any upcoming virtual events on the horizon?

The Center just recently hosted a Housing Hub Clinic and will soon be hosting the Tower Awards. While we are unable to gather in person in celebration at the Tower Awards, I’m thrilled that we are still going to celebrate—and post the names of our winners on all our social media.

As well, this year, our Community-based Learning team created a valuable resource for all our faculty members, particularly those who’ve never been able to convene in person with our faculty learning community. We’ve developed a new podcast called The Bridge: UT’s Community-based Learning Podcast, which discusses the best practices of six outstanding UT community-based learning faculty. Brianna and Lakeya and I have been developing this program all year, so little did we know that this content would be so welcome and important to our faculty’s continued professional development. All kudos go to my team for learning how to script, record, and deliver a polished series of podcasts.

What are some problems affecting Austin’s most vulnerable communities and how can we all pitch in and help?

 As we’ve already observed, this crisis will impact different communities disproportionately. Data have already shown that African Americans are at greater risk during this pandemic. We know that food banks are struggling to keep up with the needs of low-income families, including many immigrant families, with children at home. And we know that a recession or depression will have lasting effects on working families for a long time. For me, the most harrowing thought is that many victims of domestic violence are at home in potentially very dangerous situations.

The CCE continues to connect our students and faculty with our community by mobilizing our work-study students and graduate students toward remote Covid-19 response service work. In my role as vice chair of the Community Advancement Network, I’m supporting the work of organizations to share their stories of success and to reach out for resources. And I’m happy that I’ve had a chance to work with Milly Lopez in the Office of the Vice President to ensure that emergency sponsorship funding is distributed to Austin-area nonprofits that continue their good work to support some of our most vulnerable groups

Do you have any advice or words of inspiration to share during this time of fear and uncertainty?

 I was alone living in NYC on 9/11. At the time, all I had to keep me connected was my cell phone; I didn’t have internet at home.  And, so, when the city shut down, I felt the additional dread of isolation and uncertainty. The days that followed were, of course, difficult for so, so many families and for a country that was anxious and scared. But, what I realized from witnessing the long lines to donate blood, the marches in solidarity with the city’s (often harassed) South Asian and Muslim communities, and the way the city eventually returned to a “new normal” was that people need and will find each other, especially in the darkest days.