Educational Initiatives Spread Benefits to Community and Beyond

December 02, 2013William Schmitt

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The Institute for Educational Initiatives, as a center for Notre Dame’s scholarship on K-12 education, is privileged to contribute to an endeavor encouraging civic engagement and creative expression for young South Bend residents.

And the Institute’s involvement will translate into research and teaching that can expand the impact of the local project’s success.

This neighborhood development project is called Engaging Youth, Engaging Neighborhoods. It emerged three years ago from South Bend’s non-profit Neighborhood Resources Corporation (NRC) and its desire to create a youth program that would give children a voice in improving their neighborhoods. Naomi Penney, then head of the NRC board, established the structure and direction, and current NRC executive director Diana Hess has been instrumental in its continuation. 

Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, well known for facilitating partnerships between local organizations and the University, offered assistance to the EYEN initiative early on. Grounded in the young people’s desire for safer, cleaner places to play and for a stronger sense of community, grass-roots efforts led to improvements in local parks. Collaborations have prompted even broader connections among the middle school and high school students, city government, civic groups, and Notre Dame scholars who are helping to assess and spread the word about the successes taking place.

The park repairs are not yet complete, but they are in process, explains Penney, who holds a Ph.D. For a time, she served the Center for Social Concerns as a liaison to community organizations interested in pursuing Notre Dame research collaborations. Now she is an adjunct affiliated with the Eck Institute for Global Health. She says the EYEN project has paved the way for a grant from the Neighborhood Resources Corporation that is helping to pay for further park improvements.

Through the Center for Social Concerns, three Notre Dame educators became particularly involved: Maria McKenna, senior associate director of the Education, Schooling, and Society (ESS) academic minor housed within the Institute for Educational Initiatives; Stuart Greene, the founding director of the ESS who teaches in the departments of Africana Studies and English; and Kevin Burke, assistant professional specialist with the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE). ACE’s many activities are housed within the Institute.

McKenna described the South Bend partnership’s initial aspirations in a recent interview with Emma Borne of The Observer.

“The goals were twofold—one, to have youth voices heard in community planning and development; and two, to engender a sense of agency in youth that would sustain them into adulthood,” she was quoted as saying.

One key approach used to bring the sense of empowerment to young people of color and residents of low-income neighborhoods was to express their local needs and hopes in photos they took in their own surroundings. The interest level and sense of success with neighborhood improvement grew over a couple of years. Park repairs began, and the young people moved toward a more sustained community leadership model.

Penney points out that the initiative, which is open to all South Bend youth regardless of race or economic status, goes beyond the use of photography to include a specific qualitative methodology called Photovoice. This “participatory photography” methodology was developed by Caroline Wang and Marry Anne Burris from the University of Michigan, according to the Photovoice website.

“We would like youth to come to the point now that, as they become older, they’ll be in the position to mentor young people, and that will be a really nice perpetuating cycle of youth working with youth to change the city and have a strong enough voice,” Greene said in the Oct. 14, 2013, Observer article.

The young people are doing their part to keep the prospects for neighborhood improvement and leadership development alive. The scholars from the Institute for Educational Initiatives are doing their part, too.

They have jointly authored an article about the South Bend success story for the academic journal Urban Review. Furthermore, McKenna and Greene plan to teach a Community Based Learning Class this spring allowing undergraduates in the Education, Schooling, and Society (ESS) minor to work directly with the South Bend young people. Greene is no longer an IEI fellow, but his instincts for connecting education, creativity, and community remain influential in the ESS.

Innovative collaborations involving professors and Notre Dame’s neighboring communities are good news to James Frabutt, himself an Institute for Educational Initiatives faculty fellow. He directs ACE’s Teaching Exceptional Children program, but this fall he was also named the University’s director of academic community engagement.

“Notre Dame faculty members and programs are connected to the off-campus communities in the South Bend region in many ways,” Frabutt says.

“These connections yield excellent win-win situations. The communities gain from faculty expertise and students’ independent research, as well as the Notre Dame community’s genuine encounters with its neighbors and with the challenges they face in daily life. In turn, Notre Dame faculty and students gain insights, and the broader world of academe gains. Lessons learned can generate impacts far beyond South Bend and the campus.”

Frabutt, who works in concert with the Center for Social Concerns as a nexus for off-campus engagements and community-based learning opportunities, says the Engaging Youth, Engaging Neighborhoods collaboration with South Bend’s Neighborhood Resources Corp. is a good example of this win-win tradition he aims to nurture.

“My Institute for Educational Initiatives colleagues Maria, Stuart, and Kevin are demonstrating the multiplier effect that comes from Notre Dame’s close connection to the local community,” Frabutt says.

First, they and their students can have an immediate impact in helping young people improve their neighborhoods and their sense of creative empowerment right next door. Then, they teach a course to tomorrow’s educators, allowing such programs to be emulated in the future. Plus, they contribute to Notre Dame’s broad spectrum of published research that can spread ideas to all campuses and all communities, so successes in South Bend can have potentially unlimited impacts.”