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Embracing a safe space for building a vibrant Rochester community

Embracing a safe space for building a vibrant Rochester community

“Remember the past to inform our future”—that’s the core theme behind a new community-university initiative, called Sankofa Communiversity, that aims to improve the health, well-being, and overall living conditions of the larger Rochester community through collaborative research efforts. And activism is a major driving force behind this partnership between North East Area Development and the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education.

Established in 2018, Sankofa strengthens and extends the University’s collaboration with the larger community on critical participatory action research that aims to ensure the vitality and vibrancy of a shared Rochester community.
Joyce Duckles“Sankofa was created with the idea of it becoming an interdependent hub where rigorous, high-quality research is conducted in the community, by the community, and for the community—it’s not just University researchers doing the work and then leaving,” says Joyce Duckles, associate professor of human development at the Warner School and co-principal investigator of Sankofa Communiversity.

To that end, Sankofa engages youth, community members, elders, and university students in authentic rigorous research that supports sustainable change. And, it builds on the Warner School’s collaborative community partnership that began nearly a decade ago to understand and document the transformation of an urban corner store space, called the Freedom Market, for building relationships and supporting learning, health, economics, and activism within the Beechwood neighborhood. The work has continued and evolved over the years through other projects that have taken shape in the community, including: Project ENGOAL: Engaging Older Adult Learners as Health Researchers and Growing a Healthy Community: Families Building Sustainable Gardens and Community Spaces.  

Expanding on this work, Sankofa Communiversity aims to provide new insights into processes and policies for supporting new hubs and pathways of equity and learning within communities. Members of the intergenerational collaborative research team also hope to be able to share some of the information with policymakers and key stakeholders in an effort to help drive systemic change around issues that are most important to the local community.

Today, Sankofa provides a safe space for meaningful, timely conversations around important topics, such as segregation and poverty. According to the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, the economic divide between residents who are white and those of color ranks Monroe County as the fifth worst in the nation, with a 102 percent gap.

“I, like so many others, care deeply about all communities here in Rochester, but it’s so segregated, and it’s impacting everyone in the Greater Rochester area, particularly our city residents, children, and people of color,” Duckles explains. “Now we have grandparents and great-grandparents at the table who are eager for change. They don’t want to see the same things repeated.” 

The core values of Sankofa include: remembering histories, building community, practicing faith, grounding practice in research and theory, and embracing freedom.  The Sankofa team addresses issues and interests of the community straight on—all the time—around these shared values. And they work off the interests of and issues relevant to the community and their research team. The community-university partnership addresses the needs and supports the growth of the community as the team intentionally develops pathways of equity and learning by working together as co-researchers, co-implementers, co-authors, and co-activists.

And, the way to inform the future, they say, is to reflect back to and reclaim the past.

The team’s most used quote is: “He who holds the pen writes the history.” Duckles explains, “We need to understand each other’s history better.  Children need to know their histories, so making it available to everyone will be important so that we can learn from the past and move forward.”

Sankofa’s enhanced vitality, in turn, offers opportunities to students from the Warner School and other departments and schools across the University to connect learning with real-world challenges and opportunities in Rochester. They also take part in the research and attend weekly meetings that are held every Tuesday at the Freedom School.

And, with just less than one year into Sankofa, several projects have emerged from conversations about the African-American community in Rochester, dealing with health, food and housing, to access to economics opportunities, and elders living on fixed incomes. All the initiatives under Sankofa are designed to bring people together to share rich stories in a safe space for listening, talking, and responding.

One successful endeavor was the collective effort that brought together several people of different faiths to share a meal, engage in conversation, and read Hebrew at a Passover Seder that was hosted at the Freedom School in late spring. The idea was not for this to be a one-time-only event, but rather a way for members of the African American and Jewish communities in Rochester to comfortably come together on future engagements and research.

“The discussions around Seder were precious because normal, everyday conversations between the African American and Jewish communities just don’t take place in Rochester,” says Larry Fine, former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester, who points to a history of tensions between the two communities that date back to the 1964 Rochester race riot. “I hope it creates a nexus for more dialogue of what we’ve started.”

In July, the Sankofa team of community researchers attended the 9th Annual Philander Street Reunion to capture the stories of families from the old Philander Street and those who worked there, to learn about the sense of community on this vanished street, and to find out where families moved. Philander Street was a vibrant, family-oriented street in the City of Rochester from the 1950s through the 1970s. The richness of the street masked the poverty that many families experienced at the time. In the 1980s, Philander Street was demolished as part of urban renewal and demolition policies. The Sankofa team is working to recapture the memories of Philander Street, to remember what is no longer there, and to reclaim, reprocess, and rekindle its history. The team hopes that this research will inform policies on the forced displacement of minority communities and preventive practices to rebuild community networks.
co-researchers of SankofaFor the Philander Street Project, co-researchers of Sankofa Communiversity developed the study protocol and the research and interview questions. With their IRB Certifications for minimal risk research, all are included as community researchers through the research review board on this project. On the day of the reunion, this research team consented to participants and conducted over 20 interviews. They are currently doing follow-up interviews and analysis and plan to present their initial findings to the Philander Street community in November.

Miss Addie, a Sankofa Community researcher, captured the experience of fully engaging in research and the potential transferability of this project.
“We did an interview follow-up, and it was the most wonderful experience I ever had,” she says. “And, there’s no need for us to stop with this one project; we can go further. We’re going to do this over on other streets and in other communities—you can see the excitement that is here."

Ms. Pam, who chairs the Annual Philander Street Reunion and currently serves as a community researcher for Sankofa, emphasizes the importance of having more conversations like this. “We usually stay with what’s familiar to us,” she says. “Every interaction between people who do not know each other has benefits.”

And the entire Sankofa team of community researchers emphasizes the importance of creating spaces and opportunities to have those conversations take place across the university and the communities of Rochester, across faiths and histories, and across neighborhoods.