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Higher Education Thought Leadership

Emory students spearhead community building and social change projects

Emory’s Community Building and Social Change Fellows Program introduces a talented, dedicated and diverse group of Emory undergraduates to the challenges of, and opportunities for, building community in contemporary urban America.

For Mikail Albritton, it comes down to three words: “visible, tangible and lasting.”

He is describing the impact that he wants to have serving Atlanta’s Edgewood community this summer as an Emory Community Building and Social Change (CBSC) fellow. Albritton, a junior in Emory College of Arts and Sciences, hopes to pursue a career in research-based epidemiology. 

In the Edgewood community, Emory joined a coalition consisting of the Zeist Foundation, Moving in the Spirit, the Wylde Center Edgewood Learning Garden and the Mayson Avenue Cooperative.

With a seed gift from the Kenneth Cole Foundation in 2002, Emory launched the CBSC program, which soon became a national model for integrating research and classroom learning with community engagement. 

In this 10-week summer program for upper-level undergraduates, students commit 30 hours per week to a project and are paid for their time The program gives students a leg up on careers in the nonprofit sector, education, politics, public interest law, medicine, public health and socially minded business. Emory also offers a Community Building and Social Change minor. 

Since the program launch, approximately 200 fellows have helped spearhead more than 35 collaborative projects, most of them arising from four areas of concentration: housing/neighborhoods, social policy and schools, health and environment/sustainability. 

Founder Michael Rich, professor of political and environmental science, designed the program based on the reality that, for the difficult issues communities face, government, business and the nonprofit sector must come together. 

The other key? Careful listening. 

“We have to follow the lead of community residents as well as organizations and businesses within the community. And that requires a new style of education — one that focuses on how we craft partnerships across sectors with the community,” says Rich.

Kate Grace, the CBSC program director, notes: “Emory is most effective when it helps to maximize existing infrastructure in the various neighborhoods.”

The CBSC and DeKalb County launched the DeKalb Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative, which in turn enabled partnerships with neighborhood groups such as the Towers Action Group (TAG). 

Says Victoria Anglin, a TAG leader, Given the fellows’ ideas and technical experience, they helped us push for sidewalks along Glenwood Road. That area has seen the loss of life due to the lack of sidewalks. We owe our start in this important endeavor to the Emory CBSC fellows.”

Helena Zeleke is a fellow whose primary focus is on the Clarkston community. She grew up in this part of Atlanta, her church is there, and many Ethiopian businesses that she and her family support are in the city.

When asked what she was hoping to get out of the program, Zeleke, a rising junior in Emory College, politely but emphatically signaled that it was not about her. “I’m pursuing this to give back,” she noted.

“Usually volunteering or service is seen as an opportunity to get experience or a fun day somewhere new, but the fellowship really focuses on organizing for a community and making sure that you’re doing service for the right reasons,” she added. 

“Life-changing” is a word many students, partners and community members reach for to describe the impact of the program’s projects. Rich appreciates the acknowledgment of the program’s value but is perhaps more thankful for the realism the program imparts.

“There is sometimes disappointment that change doesn’t come more rapidly or that it doesn’t become transformative. But, in a sense, that helps us better understand that this work takes time, patience and persistence. In the end, we’re in it for the long haul,” he says. 

 

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