To accomplish Pitt’s strategic priority of strengthening communities, the University is putting more emphasis on collaboration among University faculty, staff and students as well as building stronger relationships with neighborhood residents and organizations.
This increased collaboration will happen through Pitt’s place-based community engagement strategy.
In support of Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement Kathy Humphrey, the Office of Community and Governmental Relations and Lina Dostilio, assistant vice chancellor for community engagement, have been implementing the University’s place-based effort. Dostilio said a place-based approach is accomplished through long-term commitments of 15 years or more to a focused set of neighborhoods into which the University has been invited. By working with neighborhood partners, the University leverages all that it can offer to advance community agendas while enriching teaching and research.
Next week, Pitt will take another step forward in this effort with the start of renovations on the University’s first-ever Community Engagement Center (CEC). The first phase of this 10,000 square-foot facility in Homewood is scheduled to open in fall 2018. The second phase is expected to be available in 2019 along with a Hill District center. Other locations may be developed in the future.
Dostilio said: “Our neighborhood commitments throughout Pittsburgh are supported, in part, by developing Community Engagement Centers that are vibrant, welcoming spaces that facilitate collaboration between the University and neighborhood residents and leaders. The CEC is a front door to Pitt located right in the neighborhood.” She emphasized the strategy goes far beyond the development of physical centers: “Our intention is to work with those communities where we’ve had historic relationships and make a long-term commitment to being a better partner. Through the efforts of our neighborhood-based staff and enhanced institutional support, we will more effectively connect and sustain the projects and initiatives that happen throughout the neighborhood, not just those that take place in the Centers. This strategy enables us to create real benefits for the neighborhood while enhancing our students’ education and creating opportunities for research that has local impact.”
Becoming Better Partners
As part of their work at Pitt, many faculty and staff members engage student coursework and cutting-edge research with community initiatives as well as offer capacity-building and enrichment programs such as small business development, cultural events and volunteer services. These engagements happen throughout the city and region, Dostilio noted.
“Our community engagements are vast. This is a point of pride, but also presents a challenge in that many of our efforts are disconnected from one another. A key part of the community engagement strategy is to allow these efforts to maintain their independence while connecting and focusing efforts to have larger impact, and when appropriate, apply them to a neighborhood setting,” said Dostilio. “Having stronger connections between community-based projects helps faculty and staff members to make deeper, more involved engagements across disciplines, projects and initiatives. In turn, we can be a better partner to communities that seek our involvement.”
Dostilio pointed to Pitt’s Office of Child Development (OCD) as one of many Pitt initiatives that can be leveraged to strengthen the interdisciplinary and cross-sector work done as part of the place-based engagement strategy. Part of the School of Education, the award-winning organization’s work has been focused on improving conditions for children, youth and families throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania for more than 30 years. Quality of life for children and their families is intimately linked with many other community concerns; by connecting the work of the OCD with other disciplines and collaborating with community experts on neighborhood change efforts, Pitt can be a highly relevant and impactful partner.
Christina J. Groark has served as the OCD’s co-director for more than three decades and has been an advisor to the Community Engagement Centers since its inception. She envisioned the place-based strategy and the CECs making outreach efforts much simpler: “The Community Engagement Centers are a tremendous idea for bringing like-minded professionals, both inside and outside the University, to the same table. Having them as a resource will allow OCD staff members more time and energy to think critically about our own central missions.”
Additionally, every school across the University has plans to house neighborhood-based efforts within the Community Engagement Centers, such as the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences’ Wellness Pavilion to be located within the Homewood facility and the “Off Campus” arm of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics to be located within the Hill District CEC.
“With more coordinated and focused efforts between the University of Pittsburgh and our communities, the possibilities are endless,” said Dostilio. “In aligning our strengths with neighborhood efforts, we can have significant community impact while enhancing our students’ learning opportunities and working with community collaborators to apply and advance research.”
Community Input and Coordination
For much of the last two years, University officials have been engaging residents and community leaders in Homewood and the Hill District. Led by Dr. Humphrey, Dostilio, neighborhood-based staff and others from the Office of Community and Governmental Relations, Pitt has hosted open forums and dialogue sessions and participated in more than 250 community-based conversations. Robust neighborhood advisory councils also meet regularly to guide Pitt’s neighborhood work.
As the interim president and CEO for the Homewood Children’s Village, Walter Lewis has been working closely with various Pitt entities since 2012. His organization—which was founded by School of Social Work professor John M. Wallace Jr. in 2008—seeks to implement cradle-to-career supports for neighborhood children through a variety of partnerships and collaborations. Lewis said he has always had positive interactions with the University and is looking forward to more coordinated approaches to community engagement from Pitt.
“Pitt has made a lot of positive contributions within the Homewood community. However, sometimes those efforts have felt somewhat disjointed,” said Lewis. “I’m looking forward to continuing our strong partnerships with Pitt with all the involved voices being heard. I believe the Community Engagement Centers go a long way in accomplishing that goal.”
“This work starts with being invited into a community — not inserting ourselves — and requires that we be humble and learn from the community all of which depends on us building relationships and having honest dialogue,” said Dostilio.
“We’ve heard the criticisms and concerns of our community partners and listened to what they say makes for good engagement. We are ready to move forward with them in creating better communities,” she said. “Pitt’s future and the community’s future are deeply entwined. Fundamentally, Pitt’s decision to pursue a place-based community engagement approach is about forging our futures together.”