Community-engagement research focus of Senate plenary session
Community-engagement research projects between local communities and the University were the focus at the Nov. 10 University Senate plenary session.
One speaker after another, including Pitt senior administrators and faculty, as well as foundation and community organization leaders, highlighted the pivotal role Pitt’s service mission can and does play in working for community betterment in a two-hour forum titled “Community and Campus Partnerships for Health and Wellness.”
In addition to the presenters, the session included an anteroom full of posters describing current and planned projects, all designed to facilitate networking among the forum audience members and Pitt social science researchers.
Keynote speaker Kevin Jenkins, director of community initiatives and senior program officer at The Pittsburgh Foundation, laid out what he termed the overarching rules of engagement in forming community/foundation/university partnerships, followed by a real-world example of those principles brought to bear recently on a significant community dilemma.
Jenkins credited his training at Pitt’s School of Social Work with laying the foundation for his career path. “I am proud to call myself a social worker and I will always call myself a social worker. During my professional career, I spent over 25 years on the other side of the fence, working at a provider organization,” he said. “Now I work in what some may consider the most challenging, yet I believe the most rewarding, aspect of the social work profession and that is community initiatives and engagement.”
As senior program officer, the majority of the grant-funded projects he oversees are dictated by two specific areas of The Pittsburgh Foundation’s strategic plan, he explained.
“One is supporting self-sufficient individuals and families, and that’s designed to promote an individual’s ability to be productive and self-reliant; two, promoting a healthy community, which focuses on those aspects of the community that support, sustain and encourage self-sufficiency,” Jenkins said.
While that description appears relatively straightforward, Jenkins said the devil’s in the details.
“I’ve been involved in several initiatives designed to address a specific issue for the betterment of the community. And while I’d like to think that many of those projects, or most of them, were largely successful, as I continued to be involved in this work there certainly were some lessons I learned. However, there remain many more questions for me yet to be answered, including the questions of how we define community and what exactly is a community initiative?” he said.
“As a social worker, I try to practice and subscribe to the edict: Do no harm.” As a practical matter, Jenkins said, that means when entering into a partnership, whether with an individual, a family or a community, he attempts to leave those he engaged with in a better place than when he entered the relationship.
He offered a blueprint of four rules of engagement, that is, principles in approaching community work that guide those relationships:
• Identifying priority issues.
Jenkins said this process means answering a number of key questions, including: How does the decision get made to pinpoint an issue or a concern? “Within that, we have to ask ourselves, What is the concern? What are we hearing? Why is the issue significant? Who’s affected by the issue? What research is available to support the issue? I call upon the University frequently when I want to know what data, what reports, support what I’m thinking about. And most importantly, is there consensus among all interested parties in addressing the issue?” Without consensus, the project will stall, Jenkins said.
• Defining the community of interest.
He said that can be done by asking the following questions: “Is it our neighborhoods? Who represents the community? Who has influence in the community? What are the shared values of the community? Does the community comprise individuals or groups or both? What level of leadership exists within the community and who are the leaders?”
Jenkins said, “You may be surprised as you look into those types of questions who emerges as the community leaders, who has actual influence. Quite often we think of the obvious: the clergy, business leaders, officials. But sometimes, when you dig deeper, it just might be that individual who has been in that community for 40 or 50 years who has the culture of the community down pat, who knows where the proverbial bodies are buried, how the community used to be, what hopes and aspirations and dreams they have for the future. Oftentimes, the true community leaders emerge from places that you never would have dreamed of.”
The point of that process is to get all the appropriate stakeholders together and give them an equal voice, Jenkins said. “When you approach this work, you want the right people at the table, you want the best resources at the table, so you have to ask yourself, who’s missing from our group who can help us?”
• Developing a vision.
“The vision should represent the big picture and provide the framework for establishing strategic goals,” he said.
• Establishing goals and objectives.
“That is critical to establish up front, because that’s going to be your roadmap as you continue to engage in this work,” Jenkins said.
He discussed how The Pittsburgh Foundation applied these guidelines to aid those nonprofit agencies struggling to meet escalating demands from families and individuals as a result of the severe economic downturn.
Established in 2008, the Neighbor-Aid Fund provides flexible emergency financial resources, distributed on a case-by-case basis and designed to help those area nonprofits that are filled to overcapacity and no longer are able to serve their respective populations, Jenkins explained.
Grants to nonprofit organizations from the Neighbor-Aid Fund to date have passed the $1 million mark, he said.
“Toward the end of ’08, things were going on out in the street due to the economy tanking and needs sharply increasing. I noticed there was an uptick in calls to my phone from my nonprofit friends” who were saying that their resources no longer could keep up with the needs of the people they serve, he said. “I began to believe because I was gathering anecdotal information that something was going on that the foundation really needed to pay attention to.”
So he applied the four guidelines to develop the Neighbor-Aid Fund. “What I did was first look at issue identification,” he said.
To do so, he consulted the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership, a group of more than 350 nonprofit leaders, to better understand the scope of the problem. “Concurrently, we also began to gather supporting information, data and literature review, again relying on the University for what they were seeing through their connections and through their work,” Jenkins said.
“Where we landed was that the social safety net, or the provision of basic needs, was in jeopardy of becoming unraveled under the weight of this increased need.”
With the help of the nonprofit leaders, Jenkins then determined which community partners needed to become involved. “They were the conduit to do smaller focus groups with the folks in the community. They asked folks, ‘What are your day-to-day challenges? What are you struggling with every day?’”
The areas of greatest need were determined to stem from housing foreclosures, an inability to pay for utilities, an inability to buy sufficient food and the lack of adequate transportation.
“Once we understood the magnitude of these issues, we turned to the foundation community and I looked for who among my foundation colleagues had interest in these priority areas and would offer grants for social and human services that addressed these needs,” Jenkins said. He also approached individual donors who might offer support, as well as corporate, business and civic leaders with a finger on the pulse of their community.
“Once we felt that the right parties were on board, a vision was established and agreed upon and that was to develop a comprehensive, coordinated response to provide basic needs support for individuals and families,” Jenkins said.
The stakeholders then developed a set of objectives, he said.
First, a strong fundraising effort was needed. “Once we had a fund established, initially what bubbled to the top by way of the research and feedback and surveys and conversations and focus groups were those four primary issues: housing, utilities, food and transportation,” Jenkins said. “There’s that critical loop: constantly checking in with the community, checking in with the folks doing the work on the ground, looking into are we on the right track? Is this the course that we need to set?”
That led to the objective of carefully monitoring the changing needs of the community to help shape the Neighbor-Aid Fund’s response.
Finally, the group established the macro-objective of recommending sound public policies that could be enacted by the government, he said. That effort led to a data-based white paper on the extent of social service needs in western Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and two cities in Ohio. Foundation officials submitted that white paper to the federal government, he noted.
“This is just one example of how this framework can work. Obviously, there was much more detail behind the scenes,” Jenkins said.
But the work is far from done, and the need for the Neighbor-Aid Fund continues, he said. “Looking ahead, unfortunately, things have not improved significantly in our region.”
Unemployment remains high, at 8 percent in the county; education achievement gaps still exist; violence continues in low-income neighborhoods; there are disparities in chronic disease between poor and well-off children and adults alike. The next wave of housing foreclosures appears to be imminent, Jenkins said.
“Lastly, the looming budget cuts at the federal, state and local levels threaten our most vulnerable citizens by cuts to prevention programs in drugs and alcohol, mental health services, early childhood programs, senior citizen programs. Indeed, it is a daunting list of issues that may prove to be insurmountable for any one individual or group to tackle,” which is why the partnership framework he laid out is essential, Jenkins said.
On the bright side, he said, Pittsburgh is well-positioned to respond to large-scale issues given its manageable size as a metropolitan area and the interconnection of its human and organizational capital.
“Also, I believe the University of Pittsburgh can and should be viewed as a valuable partner. The University has a distinct position of not only being an internationally acclaimed academic institution, but it’s literally surrounded by the many communities in which the challenges I mentioned are an everyday occurrence. Talk about a natural partnership,” Jenkins said.
“As such I believe it is incumbent upon the University to exercise its standing and bring to bear all of its resources in partnership with these communities and to identify, implement and evaluate potential solutions,” he said.
He cautioned, however, that first the University must establish trust within the community. “When large institutions — and the foundation is not exempt from this — enter into these relationships, there is not an equal playing field. The power structure is not equal,” Jenkins said. “But once you get past that and believe it’s not ‘we are doing something to you, but doing something with you,’ once that trust is established, everything else falls into place. It fosters co-learning and capacity-building among all partners. It integrates and achieves a balance between knowledge-generation and intervention for the mutual benefit of all partners. It focuses on the local relevance of the problem. It involves systems development using a cyclical process that has checks and balances,” he said.
“Many times these projects are pilots and we don’t know if we’ve hit the nail on the head, but staying at the table, engaging the people you’re working with, having that conversation, being nimble, able and flexible enough to tweak projects if we’re headed down the wrong path is critically important, and [promotes] a long-term process of commitment and sustainability that can lead to lasting impact and change.”
Jenkins concluded with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail.”
“So,” Jenkins said, “on behalf of The Pittsburgh Foundation, I look forward to our continuing partnership with the University as we continue to blaze a trail with the community on behalf of all those we care so deeply about.”