(Editor’s note: Because of the National Forum’s long-term commitment to collaborating with the residents of the Brightmoor neighborhood, and owing to the distinctively action-oriented nature of our research in the community, Jana has decided to frame this article as a narrative. Hopefully this captures not only the considerable accomplishments of the various Forum researchers who have worked in Brightmoor, but also the spirit of the collaborative work. Special thanks to Liz Hudson, Forum Legendary Musician, for her years of research and networking in Brightmoor, and for her mentoring and support of Kai-Lynn and her colleagues.)
The role and responsibility of higher education institutions to engage with their surrounding communities is an issue prompting dialogue and action on many of our nation’s college campuses. At center stage is an effort to increase college access, specifically among underrepresented populations. The goal to double the postsecondary degree attainment rate over the next decade heralds from the presidential office and has generated growing interest among state agencies, colleges, communities, and foundations. How this goal translates within a given community through an institutional-community partnership has been the central focus of research and networking efforts of the community engagement team at the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good. Kai-Lynn Rim, a Forum Legendary Musician, was introduced to these efforts and the Brightmoor community in the fall of 2010 as a graduate student intern. A community she knew nothing about would soon become the proving grounds for learning many important lessons and gaining awareness regarding how institutional-community partnerships form, develop, and coalesce around college access and success initiatives.
The National Forum’s partnership with the Brightmoor community, a four square-mile area in the northwest region of Detroit, was an outgrowth of Access to Democracy (A2D), a National Forum study which sought to investigate how various communities throughout Michigan respond to the question, “Who is College For?” The purpose of the project was to improve access to higher education through policy changes at the state, community, and individual levels. A key recommendation from the study to the Governor’s office emphasized the role of communities. This ultimately influenced the creation of the Michigan College Access Network (MCAN), which is charged with supporting the development of community-based college access networks throughout Michigan. Brightmoor was one of the communities who participated in the A2D study and subsequently was one of the pioneering communities to apply for and be awarded an MCAN start-up grant.
Yet, the conditions that would make an institutional-community partnership possible was years in the making prior to A2D. Brightmoor community members had been meeting regularly to discuss educational improvement and how to leverage existing assets to achieve better outcomes for their youth and residents. The desire for uplift through education was rooted in the community, thereby providing an opportunity and receptive conditions for the partnership with an institutional entity to form. A2D facilitated the investment of time and dialogue, critical to developing relationships and trust with key community leaders and members. Collaboration on the initial and second year of the MCAN grant produced significant progress in building the Brightmoor Career and College Access Network (BCCAN) because there was trust and ongoing communication among participating stakeholders.
As Kai-Lynn considered lessons learned throughout this process, what stood out is the complexity of institutional-community partnerships. From the outset, it has been important to recognize that a state of inequity exists in this partnership. In order to minimize the ivory tower shadow, it is important for institutions to maintain a position that supports, informs, empowers, and helps create agency within a community. Conducting meetings in the community, taking the time to build consensus, and ensuring a democratic process are vital. These are fundamentals that Kai-Lynn observed time and again with her team leader, Liz Hudson, who demonstrated what it meant and the extent of resolve required to persistently exercise these principles. Another notable aspect of this actionable research was an ever present sense of urgency to improve educational outcomes. However, this urgency is often challenged by the considerable time necessary to maintain a trust relationship and build consensus among partners towards collaboration. It is only through collaboration that partners can develop a shared vision and collectively work towards intended outcomes. Most critical to a community-institutional partnership is a commitment to the long-term. Hallmark to educational improvement efforts is that considerable investment of time and hard work typically sees marginal initial returns. Entering into a community-institutional partnership with long-term expectations may help to avoid discouragement and diversion of attention and resources.
Finally, these partnerships offer numerous points of interaction that can mutually benefit both communities and institutions. Communities are comprised of individuals and groups who possess a range of assets, talents, and resources. These capacities can be enhanced through connecting with institutional know-how and resources. Institutions also have access to different networks and systems, which can be directed towards and funnel additional resources into the community. In return, engaging with communities offers innumerable opportunities for students to develop as individuals and professionals and gain awareness that challenges assumptions and shifts perspective. Ensuring and providing these opportunities is the paramount role and responsibility of higher education institutions to its students, community, and society at large.