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Partners in transforming an urban community

Partners in transforming an urban community
Community-based partnership is invested in Rochester’s future

Today’s colleges and universities are playing active roles in constructing positive change in their local communities. But a unique, long-term commitment to community engagement and outreach makes one particular community-university partnership stand out from the rest.
To address and combat issues of low educational achievement and high poverty and crime rates, members from the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, North East Area Development (NEAD), Freedom Market, Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom School, East High School, John James Audubon School 33, and Rochester community have joined forces to help transform and rebuild one of Rochester’s most distressed communities—the Beechwood neighborhood.
“The poverty level is heartbreaking,” says Warner School Professor Joanne Larson, who has had deep ties to this Rochester neighborhood for years. “You have to see it in action in order to understand what it has done to the community. The stakes are really high here.”
The Beechwood community is not an object here, but rather an agent in mission. The goal is to produce community-defined evidence through participatory action research. Community activist George Moses, director of the community group NEAD, says “We’ve got to have valid research and data that will inform our intervention strategies in order for this process of community transformation to work.” He also stresses the importance of modeling the best way to solve large problems in the community.
“People in the community need to take ownership and be a part of everything,” he says. “The residents have the capacity to be researchers. It’s a process, and we’ll get there eventually because everyone has to play a role.”
Each partner, indeed, plays a very active, equal role here. As co-researchers, co-implementers, and co-authors, all partners share and strive for a common mission: To transform an urban community—its neighborhood—that’s been struggling for years.
Freedom Market plansTurning a Corner Store into a Community Cornerstone
The genuine university-community partnership is what many say makes this approach unique. And, that is particularly evident in the Freedom Market transformation project.
The project exemplifies the cooperation and collaboration of several community partners. NEAD received funding and/or resources for the Freedom Market from the City of Rochester; Greater Rochester Health Foundation; Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation; Rochester Area Community Foundation; and Foodlink, a supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables to the market. In addition, Wegmans Food Markets Inc. recently built a new kitchen at NEAD’s Freedom School café, where some of the food sold in the store will be prepared.
Freedom Market cornerstoreFormerly a rundown ubiquitous urban corner store, the building was purchased by NEAD in 2011 with the goal of converting it from an unhealthy place to a community hub for healthy food and safe neighborhood gathering. Today, that transformed building, known as the Freedom Market, serves as a community gem and resource that the Beechwood residents never had access to in the past.
Larson and Warner School colleague Joyce Duckles, with support from graduate students Tomás Boatwright, Courtney Hanney, Huang Pham and Archer (Xiaoxue) Wu, Dwayne Campbell, Joel Gallegos Greewich, Eric Meyer, and Christie Weidenhamer, play an active role in researching and documenting the transformation process. Working together as a team of community-university researchers, the partners aim to capture everyday life through ethnographic research. Even though the community recently celebrated the grand opening of the newly renovated Freedom Market, researchers continue to collect qualitative data in the store and community, track the changes, interview residents, customers, and store employees, and analyze the data.
With more than two years of field notes, observations and surveys, and impromptu and planned interviews, customers are reminded that the store has become a research site, and Beechwood residents are beginning to see the impact this effort is having on the community.
Once a place where only transactions were made, the community now looks to the Freedom Market as a transformational space—a place where people stay and talk about larger issues around social change, social economics, and cultural literacy and exchange ideas on ways to improve conditions. According to Robert Moses, who serves as the commercial development director of NEAD, part of the team’s success lies in its efforts to continuously report the data back to the community so that it becomes a point for meaningful discussion within the community.
“The store has become an everyday community hub,” he says. “It’s a social space where meaningful conversations take place every day and have become a meditation and problem-solving asset to the community.”
The Beechwood community feels like they are a part of this change—it’s not just the store, it’s the entire community. Professor Duckles adds, “We are all qualitative researchers here, so it works really well. It’s what we all bring to the table that makes this so rich. No one person could do this alone, and we get that too, so that’s why it works.”
Freedom SchoolA Focus on Urban Education
The community and University are committed to solving problems together. Their work extends beyond providing healthier choices to also focusing on ways to improve the educational outcomes of students in this urban community.
In addition to the Freedom Market transformation project, the team also leads other initiatives in Rochester’s northeast area that focus on transforming the community through education. NEAD currently runs the CDF Freedom School Program, a literacy school offering summer and afterschool programs to children in the neighborhood. Warner’s science education program, known as Get Real! Science, continues to collaborate with the Freedom School to produce highly effective science experiences for youth.
Over the past year, NEAD also partnered with East High School to work with a group of youth who were not succeeding academically and who were attending classes sporadically. The team of community-university researchers conducted home visits and family meetings with 29 families over a six-month period.  
Adopting its emerging model of interdependency and transformation, the team’s goal was to build relationships with families outside of the school context and uncover the processes and strategies that families were adopting that build on local ecologies and family practices and local ways of “becoming.”  The team’s insights from this project will inform current initiatives working with families in the Beechwood community to build more systematic, integrated, and sustained family engagement programs.
“When one kids fails, the whole community fails,” says Professor Duckles. “It affects everybody if a kid drops out of school and is on the street. If they are not able to give back to the community, it affects the entire community.”
Most recently, NEAD, in partnership with John James Audubon School 33 and the Warner School, was awarded New York State Department of Education funding to create and manage a new 21st Century Community Learning Center in Rochester that will help to keep the most at-risk children—African-American and Latino male students in the city’s Beechwood neighborhood—engaged, motivated, and enrolled in school. Project activities include a new afterschool program that meets twice a week; an individualized literacy instruction program for kindergarten through third-grade students who need it most; monthly STEM Family Saturdays that engage family members in math, science, and technology learning activities; mentoring and outreach activities for youth and family members; and two existing summer programs, led by the Freedom School and Warner School, currently serving students in School 33.
Communities in Practice
The community-university research team meets weekly, every Tuesday afternoon, to discuss and share findings from the Freedom Market project, among other projects taking shape in the community. Additionally, the entire team has presented findings from their work and shared their successes at several key academic events, including the most recent American Educational Research Association (AERA) Conference in San Francisco, Calif.
 “We [the University] are not just doing the research—collecting and publishing data and then wiping our hands clean and walking away—we’re in this for the long haul.” says Larson, the Michael W. Scandling Professor of Education, whose initial work with NEAD started years ago with the former Rochester Children’s Zone initiative. “Colleagues have asked us, ‘When is the study over?’ I simply tell them, ‘It’s never over because we [the University] is one of the nodes.’”
These nodes—or community hubs—include the University of Rochester, NEAD, Freedom Market, East High, Freedom School, and the community itself. They all make up a rhizomatic model, where everything is interconnected, and it’s because of this interconnectivity everything works. Among the team’s goals is to understand how a community gets strengthened and builds strength through this interconnectivity, and then to consider how this model can then be replicated in other urban communities, both locally and nationally.
Researchers have uncovered various themes leading to healthier living—like belonging, community, being family, building community and building relationships, and communicating—emerging from their analysis and taking shape within these different nodes.
“These are the things that are needed to help strengthen and transform a community, and the community has to be involved in the process,” explains Duckles whose own research focuses on the many ways that poverty affects families. “It could happen at a store, it could happen at a community center, or it could happen at a barbershop—any of these places could be hubs. But there’s characteristics of those hubs that we’re beginning to uncover through all of our data.”
The community-university team continues to build and foster relationships of trust among Beechwood neighbors in an effort to forge a community of shared value—a community where everyone learns, grows, and flourishes together.
“We are creating a model that is critical to understanding what is happening in neighborhoods and can be replicated in other cities,” adds NEAD’s Executive Director Moses, “because that’s how you create change.”