The Center for Community Engagement represents a tradition of collaboration between the College of Creative Arts at Miami University and community groups within the Cincinnati inner-city neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine. Through trust built up over years with community organizations and leaders, students and faculty of the Department of Architecture and Interior Design have engaged a series of Design/Build projects in close collaboration with the Over-the-Rhine Housing Network, a low income housing development organization founded to alleviate shelter poverty and to advance the neighborhood’s social and physical rejuvenation. The opportunity for Miami students to work in community outreach and service learning has been beneficial for students and community alike. The establishment of the Center for Community Engagement deepens the scope of Miami’s activity by both solidifying the design/build practicum and engaging in multi-disciplinary research and practice to support broader social transformation.
Over-the-Rhine is a predominantly low-income neighborhood, adjacent to the city’s central business district and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has always been a home for poor migrants from Appalachia and the rural south looking for a better way of life, and has all the consequences of a poverty-stricken community. It suffers the classic problems of poor inner city neighborhoods, including population decline, homelessness, increased segregation, building abandonment by absentee owners, high rates of unemployment and underemployment, and lack of access to political power. In 1950 approximately 30,000 people resided there, with whites constituting 99% of that population. Recent data show about 7,600, 80% black. Of the current residents, an overwhelming majority live below the official poverty level of $17,800 annually for a family of four. Of Over-the-Rhine’s 5,200 apartment units, too many are below housing code standards and nearly 500 buildings stand vacant.
Dominant media perspectives of Over-the-Rhine characterize the neighborhood as an absence or as a lack. That is, outside of the new businesses, art galleries, and night entertainment spots that have converged mostly on Main Street, there is little else, only a territory marked by drugs, crime, prostitution, and chaos. Such perspectives never see that the community is organized. Prominent here is the Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement, a coalition of progressive groups based in organizations of social service, community education, the arts, landlord-tenant relations, welfare rights, and affordable housing development that marks a 30-plus year history. These organizations have provided needed services for residents in OTR for the past 30 years. Despite this record of traditional “community development” work, these organizations clash with the desire to “revitalize” OTR into a chic, gentrified neighborhood as an extension of the central business district. Very different visions of development meet and conflict in OTR.
The Purpose of the Center
The uniqueness of the Center for Community Engagement is its relationship with the Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement. In other words, it is a site for learning and knowledge production that intersects with the needs and demands of a social movement. The Center privileges human and ecological needs as leading priorities in urban development, and challenges the profit motive as the dominant arbiter in urban social policy.
The Center provides a setting for faculty and students from a variety of disciplines to work collaboratively with neighborhood organizations and residents on common projects for the community’s cultural and economic advancement. By providing such a setting, the Center creates opportunities for students, faculty, and community members—through the dialectic of research and social action—to share experiences about how the political system works, especially as it impacts the terrains of culture, education, architectural and artistic production, economic opportunity, and everyday life. Following the maxim that social being forms social consciousness, the Center takes as its primary mission the selection of educational venues that can shape the social experience and therefore the social consciousness of learners. This core principle illustrates the spatial or locational dimension of this pedagogy and why the Center must be where it is in the city in order to organize educational experiences that can teach political relationships. Such experiences and relationships are not reproducible on Miami’s Oxford campus.
In addition to the general pedagogical benefit of bringing academic and social knowledge together, the Center brings academic disciplines themselves together to construct systemic ways of thinking and modes of analysis as a means to articulating democratic, equitable development policies and strategies around issues that affect low income people, workers, people of color, and families. Integrating students and faculty from a mix of disciplines into Over-the-Rhine facilitates collaborative forms of learning where urban issues related to economics, sociology, the creative and performing arts, education, and architecture can be understood in their multi-faceted and interconnected ways. Learning about Over-the-Rhine from the intersection of many intellectual fields in this collaborative form is desperately needed. And most importantly, not only will this facilitate a person’s learning about any social problem in a deeper way because of the interplay of disciplinary frameworks, it will change understanding of one’s own discipline.
“Courses” taught at the Center differ from normal classroom experiences. The intention is to bridge the gap between academic research and the community organizing taking place in Over-the-Rhine. Faculty who teach at the Center for Community Engagement will work with local organizations to develop research questions, engage in joint research where possible, and insure that results are shared with the community. This intention is to add focused, as well as broader, academic research to the work already ongoing in Over-the-Rhine and Cincinnati in order to provide the raw material for formulating policies and strategies that are consistent with developing OTR without displacement. In this way, courses at the center are to be research-driven, with faculty becoming the head of their project teams, thereby embodying a pedagogical model that not only enhances student learning, and just as importantly the learning of both faculty and the community.
The Center broadly defines the role of research as it pertains to community. Building upon the People’s Movement motto that “expression is the first step out of oppression,” the Center views artistic expression and cultural development as indispensable vehicles for community building and social transformation. The People’s Movement is already active in these areas, having established successful programs such as the Over-the-Rhine Steel Drum Band, the Center for Community Photography, the homeless poetry project, as well as initiatives in painting murals, music lessons, after school reading groups, and community gardens.
The Center compares local issues and dynamics with those in other urban areas, and insures that work done in Over-the-Rhine draws on the best practices and experiences of other community groups and scholars and artists from around the country. Such research spans from narrowly focused, empirical studies of conditions and changes in OTR, to broader analyses of the pressures on inner cities, policies at play, and the theory and practices of community development and advocacy.
Key principles guide the work at the Center for Community Engagement and constitute the criteria for project selection.
Understanding Contexts for Student, Faculty, and Community Development:
The Center for Community Engagement understands Over-the-Rhine to be a dynamic place of ongoing struggle over cultural and political direction, appropriate social policy, and even historical beginnings and relevance. The Center works to confront these multi-layered social-cultural and political-economic conditions of OTR that can lead Center participants to examine the ideological and practical assumptions (their own and others) about why OTR is the way that it is, and the need for interdisciplinary strategies for change. While highlighting OTR as a neighborhood unit in its own right, the Center understands OTR as part of a larger, structural continuum through which American society reproduces itself.
Self and Social Consciousness:
Human consciousness is always organized and produced out of such circumstances. The task of the Center is to set the conditions through which students can unravel and critique their experiences based upon the fact that they find themselves in social relations typically very different from what they know. Through this exposure to environments and issues that are beyond their familiarity, the intention is to transform personal learning and to break down social and racial stereotypes. Through a deeper engagement with other community learners who are often without economic opportunity, or access to adequate schooling, or political power, students can rethink their view of the world and how their future professions ought to be more forthright in addressing social issues.
Social Practices and Social Justice:
The effort to address the complexities of Over-the-Rhine also offers the opportunity to rethink and reconstruct professional practices. The need for professions to take an active role in confronting issues of social justice and equity is as great as it ever was. In our current era of “prosperity” (for some), many professions and disciplines overlook the fact that under-served segments of society are suffering rather than prospering. The Center, by linking specifically with The People’s Movement and other groups working to improve the conditions of low-income OTR residents, provides professional services for those who rarely if ever have access to them. The Center challenges disciplines to fashion their respective tools and methods to construct a social practice, one that, through a hands-on approach to community engagement, furthers a progressive social transformation.
Service Learning and the Engagement with all Learners-Students, Faculty, and Community:
The Center for Community Engagement engages public service to revitalize Over-the-Rhine and other urban neighborhoods, and gives a true understanding of the successes and frustrations of such work through direct experience. The Center offers opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration and for student, faculty, and community learning. Much of what passes for service learning privileges student and faculty learning over community learning, or serves as altruism and charity with little learning. Projects of the Center for Community Engagement include community residents and leaders as partners in learning as opposed to being objects of study.