When you envision an institution of higher education what do you see? A quad lush with green grass scattered with students tossing a Frisbee? A researcher in a lab precisely injecting test tubes with a neon blue solution? What about a clad iron fence?
Depending on who you are those views may be entirely different. Too often communities of color face barriers to entering into higher education and then receive limited access to what those institutions produce and offer.
“We do a great job of working from our hearts. We want to help and provide a more just and humane world. But in the end—in the absence of frame and strategy—we trip over each other,” said Alfredo Medina Jr., Executive Director of the Office for Public Engagement at University of Albany.
Medina came to Buffalo in December to lead a learning lab, Working with Communities of Color, as part of the Buffalo Commons Workshop series in collaboration with Cornell High Road Fellowships. Through historic examples of the Tuskegee Research experiment and depiction of the fenced in metropolis of Fordham University in the Bronx, Medina highlighted the distrust that has accumulated between communities and universities.
“Alfredo was authentic and really named the barriers to many collaborative relationships,” said India Walton, Community Organizer at Open Buffalo and learning lab participant. “As a community member and also working for a non-profit the dynamics can be a bit wonky, but I think he did a good job framing and speaking to the experiences of both sides.”
Pivotal to success of university-community relationships is reciprocity, meaning simply that both parties need to be respected and valued in relationships and interactions. Medina and learning lab participants shared experiences showing the importance of taking a whole person into account while recognizing intersectionality and complexities of identities within those interactions. In his work with the Office for Public Engagement, Medina has encouraged reciprocity between the university and community in myriad of ways including locating the office in an accessible and welcoming location while simultaneously supporting faculty and students who seek to do community-engaged work.
Facilitating dialogues on best practices for engagement with communities of various identities across SUNY institutions is critical in creating a system wide frame and strategy for change. The Cornell High Road Fellowships has spent the past year as part of the SUNY Community of Practice for Applied Learning aiming to highlight and reinforce the necessity of authentic engagement that universities must have in the fight for more equitable and accessible society.
“Universities are doing a great work, but we could be doing much more if we could find ways to empower communities by giving them the tools they need. Medina goes on to say, “Imagine if these communities had the resources and expertise that we had? They can probably do this work by themselves.”
High Road Fellowships are one initiative of the ILR Buffalo Co-Lab, which hosts a variety of programs focused on university-community collaborations across multiple sectors and grassroots stakeholders. In conjunction with Partnership for the Public Good, a local civic think and do tank, the Co-Lab launched Buffalo Commons which connects researchers to community members, provides accessible and applicable research and tools that are available to everyone, and offers a platform for community members to submit research requests.