Colleges and universities who have strong relationships with local communities can attract prospective students, prepare current ones for the future of work, and spur innovation for the local economy.
But bridging the town-gown divide can seem daunting. The first step may be to gather campus leaders and community members for a collaborative conversation.
That’s one lesson from Cohear, an organization in Cincinnati that brings together community members and policymakers to discuss local issues, writes Timmy Broderick for Christian Science Monitor.
Cohear creates a space for residents and decision-makers to exchange ideas and collaborate. The organization has hosted dozens of conversations—between refugees and a city council member, students and principals, and African-American children and the assistant police chief, writes Broderick.
The discussions are part of a larger trend of engaging community members in brainstorming and creative problem-solving, writes Broderick. Cohear’s collaborative approach to conversation aims to minimize the divisiveness that often occurs in political discussions, he adds.
“I think a face-to-face interaction injects the humanity into the conversation,” says Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who is one of Cohear’s advisers. “[Cohear] puts people into a place that can be more honest, more open, and more vulnerable, and that makes for a richer interaction.”
Another lesson higher ed leaders can learn from Cohear is the importance of a diverse community network. More than 60% of Cohear’s conversation participants—most of whom are women—had never been to a meeting before, and nearly 75% of them are people of color, reports Broderick.
“These conversations are getting different people in the room with people in positions of power,” says Dani Isaacsohn, who founded the organization. “By changing who’s in the room, you’re changing what decision-makers are exposed to and are hearing, and you’re actually getting better insights.”
Colleges who foster a dialogue with diverse community stakeholders can better understand their needs and collaborate with them more effectively.
These partnerships can also help schools uncover opportunities for students to gets hands-on experience solving real-world problems. Students in James Madison University‘s JMU X-Labs program, for example, work with local organizations to tackle topics such as solving homelessness and community innovations.
A community network can also help colleges extend their reach by connecting students to extra support. Connecticut colleges partner with Our Piece of Pie, a nonprofit that helps low-income students with their job search from start to finish. “We will not let a young person leave our confines until we’re comfortable that they’re going to be OK in the world of work,” says Hector Rivera, the chief operating officer of Our Piece of Pie. The organization offers assistance on everything from looking for job openings and scheduling interviews to training students on the soft skills that can help them succeed in the workplace (Broderick, Christian Science Monitor, 3/21; Carlson, Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/28/17).