SEAS course offers real-world community engagement experience
Real projects, real partners, and real issues. For students at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), opportunities for community engagement and real-world experiences are woven into some of their classes. One of those classes, Engagement for Impact (EAS 677), is taking impactful public engagement to the next level by integrating an action component.
Taught by Lisa DuRussel, SEAS assistant professor of practice of landscape architecture, the course is focused on building skills and context for equitable engagement by covering theories on how to engage, the tools needed to engage, and then taking all that’s been learned to create a plan for engagement with community partners. With extensive experience in the landscape architecture industry, DuRussel designed the course in a way that would allow students to explore real-world scenarios to strategize and execute an engagement strategy and/or event. “My goal was to give students boots-on-the-ground experience and an actionable toolkit that they’d leave with to help them strengthen engagement and organizational practices outside of the classroom,” said DuRussel.
To find a community partner, DuRussel connected with Amanda Healy at the U-M Ginsberg Center and conveyed an interest in framing her course around the engagement lens. Healy, who is the Ginsberg Center’s Matchmaking lead, provided the guidance and support needed to find a community partner that would fulfill the course’s goals. The partner was the Bailey Park Neighborhood Development Corporation (BPNDC), and it took only one discussion with BPNDC’s director of programs, Amanda Paige, to decide that the partnership was synergistic and begin to move forward with planning a collaboration. Together, they agreed on four separate topics that the students would use as the basis for exploring engagement: purposeful neighborhood planning, building agency for legacy soils, expanding ecological literacy, and understanding green infrastructure.
EAS 677, offered in winter 2022 as a research policy and behavior seminar, had 20 students from a mix of master’s specializations within SEAS in addition to students from the U-M Ross School of Business, A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and School of Social Work. “The variety of specializations made for a truly interdisciplinary experience—and I was certain that each of these students would leave U-M with fundamental skills in engagement that they can apply towards any discipline, future job, or experience,” said DuRussel.
Throughout the course, Paige provided guidance to the class on various aspects of engagement. As part of the “theory” portion of the course, students focused on topics of building community, developing and maintaining partnerships, and equity in engagement. This included learning best practices for entering/exiting a community, and recognizing that meaningful engagement doesn’t happen overnight. It also meant taking time to reflect on identity and stereotypes by working with Roger Fisher from U-M’s Intergroup Relations to learn about equitable engagement and power dynamics. In addition, students explored the principles of community leadership and advocacy to help them understand that community members bring unique perspectives and expertise to all projects, and that community members are advocates and experts of their own space and lives.
The course culminated in an in-person Earth Day event hosted at BPNDC’s Community Hub building, where five student teams led engaged activities for community members. About the experience, SEAS student Dallas Ford, who is pursuing a master’s degree in landscape architecture, said, “Working with BPNDC was a valuable experience because it helped me to understand what it takes to truly design for a community. What it takes is being present and in the same space as the people wanting to use your skill sets, and understanding that they are the captain of the ship and you are the wind behind their sails.”
Another student, Tara Grebe, a master’s student at the U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, said that she took DuRussel’s course because she’s interested in focusing on respectful community collaboration and engagement. “In my studies, I am focused on the intersection of sustainable design, affordable housing, and community development. The overlap between those pieces is community engagement. For a long time, in my field, decisions were being made for communities without their input and without the voice of the people who are being impacted by those decisions,” said Grebe. She continued, “I want to flip that narrative because having representation in the design process is important. That’s why this course, and the opportunity to engage hands-on with BPNDC to facilitate an activity where community members got to design what they wanted to see on vacant lots in the neighborhood, has been such an amazing learning experience. I got a glimpse into what respectful community partnerships can look like between universities, local organizations, and residents, and I hope to continue to foster a relationship with BPNDC.”
Thanks to a successful engagement with BPNDC, DuRussel and Paige were awarded a 2022 Engage Detroit Workshop grant to examine ecological literacy through the lens of legacy soils using exploratory, learning, and action workshops. Several EAS 677 students have expressed interest in continuing the project on a volunteer basis.
Interested in following how the legacy soils ecological literacy project progresses throughout the summer? Follow DuRussel (@lisadurussel) on Twitter and Instagram to stay updated.