In the McEniry building at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, students moved out the chairs on a recent afternoon to clear the room for guests and presentations. Pizza boxes, soft drinks and ice arrived for a reception for students in Janni Sorensen’s social inequality and planning class.
It was time for a celebration.
The undergraduate students in the class had formed teams as part of service learning to work on planning and community building in five Charlotte neighborhoods: Reid Park, Enderly Park, Farm Pond, Graham Heights and Windy Ridge. The neighborhoods work in partnership with the university and with the city of Charlotte in the Charlotte Action Research Project. Sorensen, their teacher, an assistant professor in the department of geography and earth sciences, researchers community development, diversity and urban planning, with a focus on participatory neighborhood planning.
This end-of-semester celebration allowed the students to present their work in reports and displays to faculty and guests. They showed photos, charts and maps and talked about what they learned working with neighborhood leaders.
Guests included Owen Furuseth, associate provost for metropolitan studies and extended academic programs; Nancy Gutierrez, dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences; and Sorensen’s former professor, Ken Reardon, a national leader in pairing serving learning with grassroots efforts and director of the graduate program in city and regional planning at the University of Memphis.
Student projects ranged from community gardening and playgrounds to studies of strategies to organize diverse neighborhoods. Undergraduate teams worked with graduate students who often had established contacts and partnerships in the neighborhoods. Some of the neighborhoods had grants in hand before the semester began for improvement projects through the city of Charlotte or other programs.
The Windy Ridge project, a neighborhood that has become a bit of a national example of the costs of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, serves as one example of the challenging work students faced.
Foreclosures hit hard in 2007 in the neighborhood, a geographically isolated community of 133 homes in northwest Charlotte, off Brookshire Boulevard. The homeowners association now has four members and the neighborhood has 35 vacant homes and about 90 renters. The renters, the students said, were somewhat suspicious of outsiders, and it’s difficult for university students to pop into a neighborhood for one semester and establish relationships.
But the students were aware of the perception of themselves as outsiders, and they knew that any transformational change in the neighborhood could take years.
“The goal of the semester was to build a brick,” or a foundational starting point for relationships, said Torrence Raines, from Fayetteville, one of the students on the team.
Another project focused on creating a community garden in Enderly Park, which is off Freedom Drive near its intersection with Interstate 85. The neighborhood had grants in place, written by Jabari Adams, a graduate student studying counseling and serving as community liaison. Undergraduates in the group said Adams had established ties in the community that helped ease the path for undergraduates to work with community leaders. Small grants from Crossroads Charlotte’s Achieving Community Today program and the city of Charlotte helped fund the garden work as well as special events that draw neighbors together.
The students said they found that choosing a site for the community garden within the grant constraints took creativity and presented challenges, but they worked with raised beds and reflective materials to increase light, and they shoveled lots of dirt.
In Reid Park, the student team worked with graduate student Artie Pryer, on plans to sustain a playground, funded in part by a KABOOM grant, involve youth in community projects and fight issues facing the neighborhood such as illegal dumping. The neighborhood has 597 households and a population of 1,600. Young teens and elderly residents fill the neighborhood, and the UNCC students worked hard to reach out to those teens to foster civic involvement.
Students in the group were glad of recent support from the DVA group, a nonpartisan organization working with the host committee of the Democratic National Convention. The group brought out a large group of volunteers in mid-April to landscape the grounds of Amay James Recreation Center, but more work lies ahead. This semester’s team members plan to be back in the neighborhood Oct. 13 for a workday involving residents, who need to raise $8,500 as their part of the KABOOM grant. Students have explored other donations from businesses and Habitat as part of their work.
The future paths of the students on the Reid Park project show how Sorensen’s class can serve as a launch pad for students as well as serve as a way to sustain communication with the neighborhoods. One student, Jonathan Walker, said he is graduating and moving on to AmeriCorps in Denver. Another, Miles Thomas, said he will continue exploring the sustainability of the project in the fall with an independent study project.
Class work as well as neighborhood service sounds like a daunting load for undergraduates, but the projects the students presented showed real-life learning as they connected planning and community theory to reality in the neighborhoods.
Said Whitney Patterson, from Greensboro, a member of the Reid Park team:
“It’s a really good class. It’s my favorite this semester.”
Shortly after the student presentations, Reardon, Sorensen’s previous professor, gave a lecture in the Cone Center about his work connecting university students to community projects in East St. Louis, New Orleans and other challenged areas. His stories showed a deep understanding of the complexities involved when universities insert themselves into neighborhood groups but also showed how learning becomes a two-way street. He credited Ceola Davis, a community organizer in East St. Louis, with showing him the need for respect and community involvement when educational institutions partner with neighborhoods. Davis and he invented the “Ceola Accords,” or rules for community engagement, while working together.
Reardon, now in Memphis, is working on a project to build neighborhood-based, producer/consumer-owned food markets in challenged neighborhoods. He has watched how churches in the neighborhoods feed people frequently but count on suppliers who don’t return value to the community. He challenged students and professors in his audience to get neighborhoods to think about how their communities spend public money, including federal and state grants to lure new businesses.
“When we’re using public dollars, we have to make sure the ‘who benefits’ questions gets a public hearing,” he said.
If you value PlanCharlotte.org’s unique mission – covering growth and the environment in the Charlotte region – consider a tax-deductible gift to help us continue our work. Click here and choose “UNC Charlotte Urban Institute” as recipient.