Reflecting on UEP’s Community-University Partnership Practices

This post was originally published on UEP professor Penn Loh’s personal Practical Visionaries blog. Read the original article, posted on June 11, 2021, here.

On May 21st, students, alumni, and faculty in the Tufts UEP program gathered online to reflect on their involvement with the Co-Research/Co-Education (CORE) community-university partnership. CORE is a multi-year, community-based collaboration that integrates teaching, research, and practice. The goal of this event was to provide graduating students an opportunity to share their experiences and lessons learned with current and incoming students. With CORE’s wide variety of work, this event also allowed participants to learn more about other CORE activities. It was a largely student-focused event but a number of educators and community members also attended.

To view the Zoom recording, use this link.

Screenshot of CORE reflection event attendees.

CORE faculty lead, Penn Loh, provided a brief introduction to CORE entails. CORE’s key values include joint learning, equitable sharing of resources, and long-term co-evolution between the university and our community partners. Over the last few years, a CORE partnership was implemented with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Students have been involved with DSNI through a co-designed practicum course, Field Projects, Tisch Summer Fellowships, masters theses, and the Teaching Democracy popular education training.

You can read more about a recent assessment of CORE at this link.

Six student and recent graduate speakers.

Below are summaries of the reflections shared by six students and recent graduates guided by the following questions:

  • What have you been working on through CORE?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What was most challenging?
  • What have you learned that could be valuable for others?

Joceline Fidalgo, a mid-career MPP student and former Deputy Director at DSNI, worked helped secure funding for Upham’s Corner research. She then joined the Upham’s Corner research team in this past year, after she left her position at DSNI. Joceline admitted that it took a while for her to decide to join the team because she debated on what it would mean to join as a student versus a community member. She was sensitive to what a university-community relationship could look like, especially with her previous experience working with universities. She mentioned that community-university partnerships can feel superficial and not allow for deeper relationships to grow when universities participate in a condensed time period. Joceline understood the perspectives she could bring as both a student researcher and community member. For Joceline, this was challenging but also what she was most proud of. She learned when to step up or step back as a student. She is also proud of the longevity and flexibility of the relationship between Tufts and DSNI. She sensed the investment from UEP students and DSNI staff. She was excited to see students continue to engage with DSNI after graduating Tufts.

Luisa Santos was involved with a number of CORE activities. She also worked on the Upham’s Corner research project, conducted a field project with the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network (facilitated by DSNI), and completed a CORE summer fellowship, funded by Tisch College. With her work in Upham’s Corner, she is proud to be able to provide research support between the city of Boston and DSNI. Through the approach of action research, “the research was directly informing the work and it was exciting to see it in real-time,” Luisa expressed. She felt that their research was responsive to the needs of the process. For example, there was a critique early on that the process was not engaging enough with youth. The UEP-DSNI research team then worked with DSNI’s youth summer program to support the youth to develop their own visions for Upham’s Corner. One of the challenges for a researcher is taking on an observing role and not dictating changes to DSNI’s programs. Through CORE, Luisa appreciated the level of depth that students can achieve through this process. She believed that communities tend to get the short end of the stick, but this is not the case with CORE. Luisa concluded, “we have deep roots in DSNI and deep roots in the community and a lot of community work is about having that trust.”

Molly Kaviar was a research assistant on the Upham’s Corner project for the past two years since she began her master’s program at UEP. She just completed her thesis on the Upham’s Corner implementation process. Previous to Tufts, Molly has worked with community-based organizations and saw firsthand the unequal dynamics with university-community partnerships. She knew she did not want to be part of that, and CORE stood out because UEP and DSNI’s partnership has been deeply rooted through a long term partnership. One of her challenges working on the project was the timing. When she first joined the research team, the project was moving slowly and she felt there was not much to do for the Tufts team. The work started to pick up in the last two months, and she wished it could have happened throughout her time as a student. She understood that it was outside of anyone’s control due to restrictions with COVID. She felt like she did not get to spend much time in Upham’s Corner with people at DSNI due to COVID. Her interactions with DSNI have mostly been virtual. She is most proud of the team for showing up and providing tangible and useful products. For example, Molly and her team were able to provide meeting notes to help answer specific questions from community partners. She also learned a lot from navigating internal politics in this process, working with the City and other community partners.

Zoë Ackerman, a recent graduate, wanted to take it to a more personal level in how CORE has shaped all parts of her life. She participated in Teaching Democracy as a student, then co-facilitated the class with instructor May Louie for two years, and wrote her thesis evaluating CORE and its values. Before Tufts, Zoë was working at a white-led environmental organization focused on environmental justice work. She asked, “How can I, as a white person coming from managerial class, challenge how knowledge is valued in policy practices?” She continued, “at every point that I can, [how can I] disrupt these white, straight, wealthy forms of knowledge that dominates so many spheres of power.” Going to graduate school was a way to explore how to support the voices and communities of those who are most marginalized. Through Teaching Democracy Zoë sat – uncomfortably at times – in the space between the community and university where different forms of knowledge and power are shared. What set her experience with UEP and CORE apart from other places is that there is time to reflect and engage in both one-on-one and group settings. She expressed, “it’s so easy to stay in the action space but the reflection space is where the transformation lies and I feel so grateful to actually have the space to build trust with people…” It’s something she carries with her work now.

Sarah Saydun was a teaching assistant for Teaching Democracy this past year, after being a participant last year. She wanted to highlight that this year’s Teaching Democracy was held virtually and incorporated simultaneous interpretation for some of the participants. It was a huge learning experience for Sarah and the teaching team, especially to understand language justice as more than providing interpretation. She continued, “there is so much more to making a learning experience valuable and inclusive to folks.” She feels most proud of helping create this space. Another tangible result of Teaching Democracy was the large number of young organizers that were part of the learning community. Sarah concluded, “this is about not having transactional relationships with community organizations. This has been one of the most valuable learning experiences that I’ve had at UEP.”

Hoai Tran started her work last year with VietAID as a research assistant on a climate justice planning initiative centered around Fields Corner in Dorchester, the neighborhood that she was raised up in. She worked with Dorchester residents to get a better understanding of their relationship with climate change, how they understand it, and what their priorities were. Hoai dealt with language barriers and technical challenges when it came to remote work. Hoai gave an example of conducting workshops over Zoom very early in the pandemic where people were first learning to use the platform. An additional challenge for Vietnamese immigrants is learning to use the platform in a language you don’t speak. “You think about not being able to access all these social spaces over the internet and using technology that you’re not familiar with.” She continued, “by having to rely on Zoom for these workshops, we missed out on a segment that doesn’t have access…” She is most proud of working with VietAID youth and facilitating workshops, especially because she did not have previous experience in community organizing. One of the most important deliverables she helped produce was a booklet written by youth leaders at end of last summer. Hoai explained further, “through series of questions and interviews, an idea came up for what VietAID could potentially pursue and the organization really liked the idea and it ended up being a topic for field projects.” Thus, UEP’s work with VietAID extended through this spring with a UEP Field Project team. Through CORE, she learned how community-university partnerships can be done in practice and learned how there is a lot of flexibility in how knowledge is determined in the community.