“What does it mean to be an anchor for the community instead of an ivory tower?”
This is the question posed by UT’s Community Engagement Center’s own director, Virginia Cumberbatch when she spoke at the Building Bridges conversation on September 15th. Ms. Cumberbatch was there to discuss the work of The University of Texas at Austin’s Community Engagement Center (CEC) and the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DCCE).
UT Austin’s Community Engagement Center is part of the University of Texas Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. The division is under the UT President Gregory L. Fenves’ office. Dr Gregory Vincent was the founding Vice President of the DDCE, and Dr. Leonard Moore currently serves as the interim Vice President.
The DDCE has two mandates:
- Address issues of equity and diversity at the University of Texas. To that end, the DCCE focuses on recruitment and inclusion. The DCCE looks at how the University of Texas can recruit a more diverse student body, and how can UT make sure that that diverse body has their academic and cultural needs met. They sponsor 20-30 academic and cultural programs that work to achieve those goals.
- Increase community engagement and partnership. The University of Texas has not always had a positive relationship with the community. Like Texas, the university has a history of discriminatory practices. With this mandate, the University is working to be a partner with the community, instead of the aloof ivory tower, like the one Ms. Cumberbatch mentioned in her initial question.
This second mandate is the purview of the Community Engagement Center, and at Building Bridges that Friday, Ms. Cumberbatch expanded on what it means to truly partner with the community. Partnering with Austin’s underserved communities means not telling the community what they need to do to improve. The community is home to the real experts. There are community members who have already been working for equity in their community for years. They are the ones who have shed “blood, sweat, and tears” for their community.
Therefore, the CEC strives to create continued mutual benefit by connecting Austin’s underserved communities with University of Texas resources in the ways that the community asks for. All too often underserved communities are treated like laboratories. Researchers look to underserved communities as a place to test out their ideas and then they leave. Ms. Cumberbatch emphasized that Austin’s underserved communities are not a place to try out university ideas. Instead, the University and the CEC’s role is to listen and to be of service to the community.
Currently, the CEC is focused on two projects whose goals are to listen to and engage with the community: the Front Porch Gatherings and Community Assessment.
The Front Porch Gatherings are held once a month with a focus on a topic that affects the community from immigration to gentrification. The goal of the FPG is not to lecture the community about issues that they have lived and already know well. Instead, the FPG creates a space where members of the community can engage in a dialogue about an issue and come out of that dialogue with new connections and action steps. The Front Porch Gatherings are a “space where everyone in the room is an expert because everyone has experience.”
Each Front Porch Gathering begins with a short introduction of the issue to give context. The speakers who introduce and contextualize the topic are people who have lived and studied the topic itself. Then, the attendees are randomly sorted into smaller breakout sessions where they discuss various aspects of the topic. The breakout sessions represent an opportunity for community members to collaborate and create action steps that move towards a solution.
Upcoming Front Porch Gatherings and their topics for the 2017-2018 series are as follows:
- November 14 | Affordable Housing
- February 20 | Re-entry and Mental Health
- April 17 | Health Disparities and Mental Health
The goal of the Community Assessment is to set priorities for the Community Engagement Center. The assessment’s purpose is to understand the needs of Austin’s underserved communities at this moment by asking the community itself.
The Assessment will have two parts:
- A Survey
- Focus Groups that community members can choose to join
From this assessment, the CEC will create a white paper that can guide action steps, not just a report that will get discarded.
The effects of gentrification mean that Austin’s underserved communities are no longer just in Austin. They are pushed to the outskirts and even out of the city, and the CEC still has a responsibility to them.Therefore, the survey and focus groups will focus on East Austin, Dell Valley, Manor, and central Texas.
Ms. Cumberbatch concluded that the work of the CEC is ongoing. The effort to be an anchor and not an ivory tower is continuous cycle of engaging with and listening to the community, and she welcomed the opportunity to share the CEC’s work at the Building Bridges conversation.