Advancing the Urban Agenda

Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center director Heidi Barajas and Center for Urban and Regional Affairs director Ed Goetz

When tragedy strikes, people naturally want to help. The trouble is, they don't always know how. That wasn't the case in May of 2011 when a tornado swept through north Minneapolis, destroying hundreds of homes and damaging more than 1,600 more so badly that families had no choice but to flee.

Because their offices are located in the same neighborhood where the tornado hit, staff members at the University of Minnesota's Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center (UROC) quickly recruited University volunteers to go door-to-door asking residents if they needed help with basic needs such as water, food and debris removal. It was a good plan, but there was one issue to be overcome, recalls Heidi Barajas, UROC's executive director.

"People who worked at our partner center, the University's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), had worked with Hmong families in the area and they knew they would not answer the door to strangers." CURA staff solved the problem by contacting local Hmong families whose homes were not damaged to knock on doors of neighbors, friends and family. "It was a remarkable outcome and we couldn't have done it if we weren't in a partnership in a building in the neighborhood," Barajas continues.

A longstanding public partnership built on trust

The University's engagement with Minneapolis' Northside community is not new. It began 45 years ago when CURA was established in 1968 during a time of widespread urban unrest in the Twin Cities and around the country. With a mission to manage the University's response to local "urban crisis," CURA initially focused on increasing educational opportunities for Northside residents.

Over the years, that focus has evolved and CURA now offers a variety of research-based programs that serve organizations in the community. In 2006, following an escalation in poverty rates, gun violence, out-of-home-placement of children and widespread disinvestment on the Northside, the University strengthened its commitment to the area by establishing the University Northside Partnership. After extended discussions at the University and within the community, UROC was born and its doors opened in 2009 announcing an initial emphasis on health, education and economic development.

The University's UROC/CURA partnership with Minneapolis' Northside is a standout example of the University's many public engagement initiatives focused on deepening the connection between important community issues and the research, teaching and outreach work.

"We are a fairly new and developing partnership, so we are exploring how to talk to people about what both organizations do and how they're different," Barajas says. "The advantage to having both organization here is that we can help communities inside and outside of the University better utilize the scholarly process for discovery and outreach."

Understanding needs

It's not always easy to see the connection between research and action. But the UROC and CURA partnership is producing visible, tangible results. After the 2011 tornado, for example, CURA used its geographic information systems technology (GIS) to map the homes the volunteers had visited, ensuring efficient and timely delivery of aid from the Salvation Army and other relief organizations.

Through the Broadband Access Project, UROC is helping to make high-speed Internet access available to underserved communities. Through the $3.6-million initiative, computer labs have been opened at 11 community-based sites (three on the Northside) and computer training is provided free of charge to the public.

Programs to reduce the impacts of prostitution and prevent violence have also been established. And UROC is currently talking with the University's Law School about the possibility of establishing a free legal clinic for Northside residents at the UROC site. With faculty and students from across the University working with CURA and UROC staff, as well as the community, additional plans and programs are sure to evolve as the Northside partnership moves forward, Barajas says. "Public service is an important part of engagement, but we can always be working to understand how best to help a community."

Helping to Build an Engaged University for the 21st Century

Through the Office for Public Engagement, the University promotes interdisciplinary collaborations like the UROC/CURA Northside Partnership that advance robust community engagement partnerships. Rooted in a comprehensive ten-point plan for public engagement, the University supports the deepening of community engagement strategies through the development of community-partnered research that addresses critical societal issues while optimizing educational experiences for students participating in community-focused learning. Learn more about the University's public engagement agenda.