Community-Based Courses in Education Generate Research and New Insights for Campus, City

November 06, 2015Bill Schmitt

A neighborhood development project encouraging creative expression and civic action among young South Bend residents has reached a milestone in its nearly five years of connection-making through a partnership between the city’s non-profit Neighborhood Resource Connection and the University of Notre Dame.



The community-based learning initiative, “Engaging Youth, Engaging Neighborhoods” (EYEN), has generated a powerful display of local young people’s message-driven photographs, now on exhibit (through Nov. 15) at the South Bend Museum of Art.

The initiative, under the direction of Institute for Educational Initiatives fellow Maria McKenna and associate professor of English Stuart Greene, has flourished in its many collaborations. Formal or informal partners have included associations with roots on the campus or in the city, including the Robinson Community Learning Center and the Notre Dame Center for Arts and Culture

Its multiplying accomplishments have generated powerful impacts for young city residents, as well as for undergraduate students in the Institute’s Education, Schooling, and Society (ESS) minor program.  Greene, who was the founding director of the ESS minor, started the tradition of connecting experiences of education on- and off-campus. This initiative’s impacts now extend to area museum-goers, scholars at Notre Dame and across the country, and stakeholders supporting education through local engagement.


“This venture in teaching and learning through community-based service and research has generated amazing synergies, with the latest being a photo exhibit at the South Bend Museum of Art and academic presentation at the Great Lakes Place-Based Education Conference in Grand Rapids,” said McKenna.

As senior associate director and assistant professor of the practice in the ESS program, as well as director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Africana Studies, McKenna pursues many collaborations with her students. Faculty colleagues such as Greene have joined her in engaging students in outside-the-classroom interactions helping young people in disadvantaged neighborhoods to broaden and pursue their visions for improving the world one step at a time.

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Tangible steps toward improvement and learning at various levels—and a bolder vision of how to educate, motivate, and empower middle school and high school students—have sprung from the partnership that started in 2011.

These are key steps, with some especially timely elements:

·         Park renovation phase one completed. In 2012, the EYEN initiative prompted the Kelly Park Project, a long-term effort to renew a centerpiece of a section of South Bend. The project, recognizing local students’ desire for safer, cleaner parks and a stronger sense of community in low-income neighborhoods, has led to the full-scale renovation of Kelly Park. Phase one of the restoration was completed recently, and the park will be fully operational next spring.

·         Ganey seed grant utilized. In 2014, EYEN was awarded the Ganey Collaborative Community-Based Research Seed Grant. This grant provided funding for project materials and digital cameras that allowed the local young people to personally express their needs by taking photos that continue to capture the attention of city and neighborhood leaders.  The Ganey seed grant, part of a generous local benefactor’s community outreach through Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, involved yet another campus unit in offering support and raising awareness among students and scholars.

·         Photo exhibit open to the public. Community leadership among young people has now been nurtured and shared among five cohorts over five years, producing a youth leadership council and an annual youth summit for their neighborhoods. Most visibly, with the help of the cameras provided, the youth’s desires to tell their local stories has produced a wealth of public displays of photographs—and poems, drawings, and other media, too—that speak out to more South Bend citizens. The South Bend Museum of Art asked to display the young people’s work in an exhibit now open until Nov. 15, 2015.

·         Undergraduates gained insights into education. Since the partnership began, Notre Dame undergraduates in service-learning research courses in the ESS minor have worked alongside the local youth. A new team of undergraduates is sustaining Notre Dame’s solidarity with the initiative and the partner organizations. Both the undergraduates and the high school students have gained confidence and experience through civic engagement—efforts that included pushing for the Kelly Park renovation and establishing long-term relationships with local leaders.

·         Conferences allowed for learning to be shared. Each year, the Engaging Youth, Engaging Neighborhoods group of professors, undergraduates, and young residents travels to an academic conference to present their research. McKenna said she and Greene see this as an extension of their work building capacity and agency in the youth and their young scholars. The cohorts were scheduled to make a joint presentation in Grand Rapids  at the Great Lakes Place-Based Education Conference this

·         Approach spread to another university. Kevin Burke, who collaborated in the EYEN initiative for years with McKenna and Greene, has joined the University of Georgia’s College of Education as an assistant professor. Building upon his South Bend collaborations and his work in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) in Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives, he said he is developing a graduate-level course that will draw upon and extend the impact of education in civic engagement.

·         Book set to spread community-based research insights. Burke, Greene, and McKenna are co-editors of a book, Youth Voices, Public Spaces, and Civic Engagement, to be published next year by Routledge.

“The book represents a growing desire for youth voices to be heard in the educational landscape,” said McKenna.

The interdisciplinary ESS minor, one of the most popular undergraduate minors for students in Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, uses a big-picture perspective to study the purpose, practice, and social relevance of education and schooling. The program requires independent research by students.

McKenna said the ESS collaborations with South Bend’s Neighborhood Resource Connection and other organizations and civic leaders will continue. “There’s still much to be learned by all parties as we maintain a commitment that deepens our relationships to the local community, to young people, and to undergraduates,” she said. “This combination of courses and research holds benefits for scholars and students around the country, as well as for colleagues and classmates on this campus and our neighbors and organizations throughout this area.”    ---    For more information: Bill Schmitt