Engaged Scholarship & Outreach to Urban Communities

Engaged Scholarship Brings Education and Outreach to Urban Communities

When I decided to pursue my master’s and Ph.D. in sociology, I thought about what we in the Latino community call the “grandmother test.” That means that you must be able to easily explain to your grandmother what you are spending your time and money on. Why does your work matter – not just to you – but for the people in your community? I wanted to do work that passed the grandmother test, which is why I’ve devoted my career to what we call “engaged scholarship.”

Community Education and Outreach Builds Bridges

Those of us who term ourselves “engaged scholars” view the three areas of our work (research, teaching and public service) being connected through the concept of community engagement. Throughout my career, I’ve closely tied my research to outreach and providing better access to educational institutions like the University of Minnesota for underrepresented communities.

In the past, the burden has been placed on individuals and families to figure out how to gain opportunities and access to education. As a sociologist, I believe the burden should be placed on institutions and society to figure out how to engage with underrepresented communities. This principle has been the focus of my work, and I’m proud of the fact that, as director of the University of Minnesota’s Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC), we’re partnering on projects important to communities centering on research, teaching and public service.

Making a Difference in North Minneapolis

At UROC, we work closely with the community in North Minneapolis on projects that exemplify the spirit of engaged scholarship. UROC’s mission is to enter into vital partnerships with urban communities to solve critical urban problems. The North Minneapolis community identified three areas they wanted the University to focus on: education and lifelong learning, health and wellness, and economic development. I’m extremely proud of the projects that we’re conducting in each of these areas.

Education and Lifelong Learning

Generation Next – UROC Faculty Fellows

This project challenges six University of Minnesota researchers to create teams to tackle the question: “Why is there an achievement gap in the context of Minneapolis-St. Paul and what promising practices are helping close that gap?” These faculty come from many colleges and departments across the University of Minnesota, including the College of Liberal Arts, the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center, and CEHD’s departments of Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development (OLPD), Curriculum & Instruction, Educational Psychology and the School of Social Work. The projects these groups are working on range from helping students understand their identity through digital storytelling to working with schools to create better relationships between parents, teachers and school administrators.

Health and Wellness

Sex Trading, Trafficking and Community Wellbeing Initiative

Led by UROC Director of Research Lauren Martin, this project is an academic-based initiative on the forefront of tackling the problems related to sex trading and sex trafficking through collaborative research designed to impact practice and spur action. Through research and outreach, we’ve brought this issue out from the shadows, and helped influence legislation like the Safe Harbor Act. The initiative is also helping the city prepare for issues related to sex trafficking and Minneapolis’ hosting of Super Bowl LII in February 2018. Recently, we provided perspective and facts for a high-profile Star Tribune story on sex trafficking and the Super Bowl.

Economic Development

Northside Job Creation Team

With a goal of attracting 1,000 sustainable-wage jobs to North Minneapolis by 2019, the Northside Job Creation Team (NJCT) is working with business owners and community leaders to identify potential sites for start-up businesses and company expansions. The NJCT has received grant funding from several local foundations including the Minneapolis Foundation’s Northside Funders Group, the Minneapolis Foundation, and the Schulze Family Foundation to hire a project director and student researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management to oversee the segments of the project.

We’ve successfully partnered with over 30 organizations, including Thor Construction, which is building its new headquarters in North Minneapolis, right next door to UROC.

Three Skills Vital to Engaged Scholarship

Listen, then act. The ability to listen is a key skill for anybody in a leadership position. However, equally important is the ability to act on what you hear. As educators, we often convene and listen to people from the community, but we don’t take them seriously enough to act on their feedback.

Build trust. This is the most important work we do as engaged scholars – and it must be done continually. When you’re working on projects that deal with issues that are sensitive and important, there are bound to be disagreements about how these issues should be approached. Having a real trust and spirit of partnership between the institution and the community is the key to working through these problems.

Reflect on what you’ve done. To do work that’s truly impactful in a community, you must take risks – and that’s why you need the first two skills I’ve listed. However, once you’ve taken these risks, it’s important to go back and reflect on your project and ask, “Is this doing what we intended it to do?” Engaged scholarship is about constantly evaluating your approach and making changes to improve your results.

Heidi Barajas

About the Author

Heidi Barajas, Ph.D.

  • Director of the Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center
  • Department Chair, Associate Professor
  • Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development (OLPD)

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