Political Battles Over Funding CUNY

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

I’ve recently discussed the changing pattern of funding for public higher education and the pressures that those shifts have imposed upon tuition-paying students. Despite arguments about tight state budgets and financial crises, that shift is mainly underpinned by a real change in the way public officials view higher education and about who should be responsible for its cost. As I sat to write the next chapter in this series, that dynamic became all the more clear in my mind as we—administrators and higher education professionals—consider Governor Cuomo’s recently announced budget proposal.

In the past decade, crippling financial crises have moved states across the country away from past robust support for public higher education. But these periodic crises merely punctuate the steady decline in state funding for public education over the last 25 years. New York State’s current cuts to CUNY and SUNY are taking place despite a billion-dollar surplus in the past year, contributing to an undesignated reserve fund estimated to reach 2.1 billion dollars by March 2016. Suddenly, most of the funding cuts seem to result from a choice rather than a tough decision driven by financial hardship.

The policy details underpinning that choice recently became more clear: In his recent budget declarations, Governor Cuomo is calling for 30 percent of current state funding to be passed on to New York City, reflecting the 30 percent of the CUNY board members appointed by the city. There’s a kind of logic to that explanation, but it’s not robust: It suggests that the state should allocate funds in proportion to its power to control (even indirectly) the disposition of those funds. The proposal contains a number of truly welcome provisions, such as monies to cover the cost of a new contract and to cover increased expenses due to inflation (both absent from last year’s budget). Both provisions, however, are contingent on the City assuming 30 percent of the public-funding burden.

The contours of the friction between Mayor De Blasio and Governor Cuomo are fairly well known, dating back to their tussles over early childhood education. But the standoff is not, in fact, unique. In the past weeks, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported Illinois State’s defunding the University of Illinois systembecause of a similar dispute among state level officials.

The fact is that, in this season of rising populism, it has become much easier for politicians to regard public higher education as a luxury enjoyed by a relatively small share of the voting public at the expense of the broader society. Across the country, the idea that education is an individual benefit that people should pay for individually (either at private schools or via increasingly expensive public universities) has displaced the idea of an educated, prosperous society and a capable workforce as a public good that we all share. Even where elected officials do not openly deride higher education as a luxury, they increasingly approach it in ways that allow the health of our great universities to take a back seat to political considerations—and that leads us back to the tug of war between New York State and the City of New York.

It’s worth considering what the Governor must be thinking as he makes these recommendations. Presiding over a New York that is sharply divided between the conservative and often economically depressed upstate districts and a politically different, more prosperous downstate New York Metropolitan area, the governor is asked to support two university systems, one largely serving the former and the other totally located in the latter. Why should he ask upstate voters to support CUNY when they have their own SUNY campuses, championed by local politicians, in their own areas? Moreover, a democratic governor has fewer incentives to bring a New York City system under his wing—the largely democratic constituents of the city can be counted to support his candidacy far more than the more mixed upstate constituencies. Why not stand with those upstate, and demand that New York City take care of its own?

Over the long term, the idea merits consideration. The financial formula that has sustained CUNY since the late 1970s was occasioned by the crisis of the city at that time, and while state-level funding kept CUNY in business ever since, the university also remained in more or less constant crisis, repeatedly called upon to justify its very existence to a statewide legislature that often verged on indifference. At minimum, moving CUNY to a more New York City-based funding structure would ensure that politicians who are directly responsible to our communities would be allocating the resources necessary to educate them. And if the funding battles are becoming more political than matters of financial necessity, closing the geographic and political space between those who attend our colleges and those who fund them makes sense.

However, acting to implement this change in funding will require discussion and planning, and should not be a matter to be introduced in the brief period between a budget’s proposal and its adoption. Any concern for the health of our public education system demands careful consideration and the time to approach the change without impacting the quality of education on CUNY campuses, or its accessibility to our students. In the current political moment, any consideration of a graceful or measured transition in CUNY’s funding structure has taken a backseat to politics. But the best politics in this case would eschew the brinksmanship of a man-made budget crisis that casts the university in the role of Solomon’s baby. We have three months to make that case before the current proposals—or revised versions of them—find their way into the new budget.

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Have you seen A New Light in Harlem?

Our original upload to YouTube got over 600 views in just a matter of days! We had to do a *tiny* bit of clean-up, so we uploaded a new version (click below).

The film features interviews with General Colin Powell, Dean Vince Boudreau, and faculty, students, alumni, and board members, spotlighting the amazing community we have up here on the City College campus.

Do you know a young person who wants to be a leader in public service? Get access to world-class preparatory coursework and field experience without amassing piles of debt?

Are you a scholar, educator, or community organizer looking to break down walls between the Academy and the surrounding community? Who knows that in order to find better answers to pressing questions of the 21st century, we need to hear more voices?

Watch and learn more about the mission of the Colin Powell School—”A New Light in Harlem.”

 

The Crippling Weight of the ‘Last Straw’

Vince Boudreau, Dean

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

The Office of Student Success was our earliest and most ambitious innovation at the Colin Powell School. It represents our commitment to a goal that we cherish, and must still pursue: to ensure, insofar as possible, that no student falls through the cracks.

In our early imaginings, that office would primarily take on higher-order advisement—guiding students to the right classes, to be sure, but also helping them seek out internship opportunities, manage scholarship and leadership programs, and forge connections between their classroom work and professional and service trajectories. We’re proud of our programs in that direction, and we’ve worked every year to make them stronger and more effective.

But early in this work, we confronted an unsettling realization. The people working in that office were devoting far more time than any of us imagined to helping students solve their administrative problems. As one member of the office recently said: 80 percent of our  time is devoted to serving 20 percent of our students, and those issues are almost all bureaucratic. It’s a telling assessment. As we seek for ways to enhance student success, huge elements of the answer cannot be found in esoteric educational theory, but in working to clear mundane bureaucratic and administrative barriers to student progress and success.

Underlying Barriers

These bureaucratic barriers, however, often lie hidden beneath the surface of a student’s experience of the college, cumulatively eroding their resolve and capacity to cope with other difficulties. In consequence, all of us—students and observers—might be tempted to explain away a student’s breaking point as entirely due to some unforeseen personal crisis, or the grinding pressures of some chronic hardship.

It’s often surprising how thin the last straw may be. A student loan refund that is delayed, a single course taken in error, or the inaccurate evaluation of a transcript: in the end, any of these may knock a precariously situated student off course. In the past several months, I’ve met students at the edge of leaving school because they could not afford books, or could not scrape together the money to see a dentist. We’ve placed newly homeless students in our dormitory, thereby allowing them to continue their studies when they thought they would not. One young man even stopped attending class because he’d lost his laptop’s charging adapter, was not able to replace it, and so couldn’t use the only computer he had access to at home.

Given the stakes (a student entering college in 2010 can expect to earn $450,000 more than a high school graduate over the course of her life) these final crises seem ridiculously small. So small, in fact, that they only make sense as a proximate cause—that final, last straw—piled on top of an underlying systemic problem.

An individual’s hardship may suggest that we seek out individual remedies in each case—that we in fact adopt a case worker’s approach to student hardship. But we can’t address countless numbers of these cases—because students in crisis often just fade away, rather than laying out their hardship. More importantly, embedded in each seemingly idiosyncratic story were places where a systematic regime of stronger student support could have made that crisis not much more than an annoyance.

Outlining Remedies

We need, in fact, three interrelated remedies.

Inarguably, we still need support for students who encounter emergencies. At the Colin Powell School, a generous donation from The Viola Fund allowed us to create the Viola Emergency Fund for Students facing a financial crisis. Students wishing to apply for support through the Viola Fund should secure a letter recommending that support from a faculty member or staff person with knowledge of the situation and then email the director of the Office of Institutional Advancement, Dee Dee Mozeleski, who will arrange a time to meet and discuss options.

Moreover, ample room still exists for our supporters to offer supplemental resources along these same lines. In the past, donors have supplied metro cards to help students travel to campus, funding for student housing, and emergency book funds. The more able we are to steer students through the crisis of the moment, the more easily we will be able to direct their attention to the big picture.

Additionally, students need more information about how to navigate complicated bureaucratic systems. Student advocates in our Office of Student Success are meant to do much of this work, but they find themselves spending most of their time solving problems for students who’ve already been tripped up in some way. A more proactive system equips students with information and strategies that would help them navigate bureaucratic systems. We’ve already made progress along these lines in our online advising resources. But similar progress in other areas of student/college interaction is crucial. We can begin by looking at existing models that have shown success. The Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, for instance, made progress in helping students untangle one of the most convoluted but important sets of rules they will face, those surrounding financial aid:Something along these lines might be a very good model for CCNY students, and it’s an area we’re beginning to explore.

Finally, we need to make the search for more manageable and responsive bureaucratic systems a top priority at CCNY. We are an institution that has been in unremitting financial difficulty for decades—in truth, since New York’s fiscal crisis in the late 1970s. Over that span, the easy response to economic hardship has often been to reduce the number of people in key service offices: financial aid, admissions, registrar and bursar. Such reductions often escape the attention of most people. They do not, after all, result in fewer classes, or higher tuition, or program cutbacks. Steadily, however, they have undercut the capacity of students to manage the crucial and often bewildering side of achieving college success: the management of everything that takes place outside of the classroom. We’re only now learning how critical—and critically difficult—those management challenges can be. A genuine commitment to student success requires that we invest in the capacity of these offices as a way to invest in our students.

The Powell School: Building Mission and Meaning

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by Vince Boudreau, Director, Colin Powell Center

In the weeks leading up to the inauguration of the Powell School this past May 2nd, I spent time asking certain questions of myself and virtually anyone else who would listen: What does it mean to become a school? What should it mean to teach and study at the Colin L. Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, and to reside near it in the adjacent neighborhoods of Harlem and Washington Heights? How should campus life change in response to this new institution in our midst?

Even before moving into the details of merging the Colin Powell Center and Division of Social Sciences, I had some ideas about what it meant to become a school. A school would have a presence and identity more powerful and unified than separate departments and programs. A school would be an institution with specific and publicly discernible commitments and capacities. A school would have a mission—both on campus, and in the life of our city and nation. Children in the neighborhoods around City College and across the globe will be able to point to our campus and say, “The Powell School is there. That’s where I’m going to go.”

Those ideas were a good start, and we’ve spent the months since putting some flesh on those aspirational bones. Moreover, a few of our intentions have crystalized into courses of action.

 

The first is that the school will represent five core disciplines. We will graduate students with majors in Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology, Economics, and Political Science—but we will use our full range of intellectual resources to focus on problems that matter to our students and community. These include integrating immigrant communities into our society; making resources like education, housing and healthcare more equitable; and identifying the ways of contributing to the construction of a more just society.

To help us down this road, we established an entirely new set of institutions designed to integrate the work of many individuals and departments across the Powell School in ways we’ve never done before. In our curriculum planning, public events roster, and engaged scholarship and service-learning programs, we have begun to plan school-wide strategies and programs, and a close observer can already see some results.

Two new public events series represent the school’s initial efforts to develop thematically coherent events planning — a series of breakfast talks by scholars and public policy leaders, and an annual colloquium. The breakfast series began with a well-received discussion about the implications of the military coup in Egypt for the civil political arena, and subsequent breakfasts will cycle through topics that highlight the work of all the Powell School departments.  Our colloquium series this year is organized around the theme of forgiveness, with each department in turn examining a subject—debt forgiveness in economics, for instance, or the psychology of forgiveness—in advance of a closing program in the spring characterizing the interconnected elements of our thematic approach.

Another major area of cross-school collaboration is student success and advisement. Across the country, issues of how we can broaden access to higher education has given rise to a new concern: How do we ensure that as many students as possible prosper in college, and make the transition from the classroom to rewarding and productive careers?  In some ways, the student leadership and scholarship programming developed over the last decade at the Colin Powell Center centered on this very puzzle. We’re now in the process of taking the scholarship, leadership training, professional skills development, and service programs that we pioneered when we were a Center, and mainstreaming them across the Powell School. We hope to not just provide effective and exceptional support to our students, but to also become a major center for the development of best practices in higher education—and in particular, examining ways to overcome the social, economic, political and cognitive barriers to success in higher education.

And, this, in a nutshell, is what we’re doing across the length and breadth of the Powell School, We are taking the excellent resources and programs of the departments and programs of the social sciences and augmenting them with school-wide versions of some of the most successful activities we developed at the Powell Center.

We are in the midst of a transition—and it’s a time of great optimism and tremendous excitement. Being part of a school and building a school, after all, is the opportunity of a lifetime. I served as director of the Colin Powell Center for the past 12 years, and soon, when we’ve completed the process of integrating our activities into the Powell School, the last traces of the Center as a free-standing entity will disappear. And so I’ll admit to periodically thinking over that trajectory with some nostalgia. But not with regret.  We are—all of us—ready for this new challenge, and for the great project of becoming the Colin Powell School.

Join Us: on Dec. 6 for “Stop and Frisk and Marijuana Arrests: Policing Communities of Color in Harlem and Beyond”

Harlem is our Home, from Flicker by Jarito by Creative Commons permission.In 2011, More than 684,000 individuals, primarily young African-American and Latino men and women, were stopped under New York City’s controversial “Stop and Frisk” policy. Now the Center and key partners will spotlight the devastating consequences of these and related policing tactics in a community justice forum on Thursday, December 6.

  • DATE: Thursday, December 6, 2012
  • TIME: 6:30 p.m.
  • PLACE: Faculty Dining Hall, NAC Building, CCNY campus
  • WHO: Free and Open to the Public; reception following.
  • RSVP here now, or by email: cpowellctr [at] ccny.cuny.edu

Join us on Thursday, December 6 to focus attention on the New York City’s controversial Stop and Frisk policy and its disproportionate impact on communities of colors. The forum includes a panel discussion featuring:

Harry_Levine_100Harry Levine of Queens College on the consequences of Stop and Frisk, including the problem of marijuana arrests, the legality of Stop and Frisk, and police tactics.  Levine has been at the forefront of scholarship on drugs and alcohol since the late 1970s and has received six distinguished scholarship awards for his work. His research in partnership with the NAACP, ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, and Latino civil rights groups has documented the major financial costs, damaging consequences, and racial disparities of lowest-level marijuana possession arrests.

jones-brown_100Delores Jones-Brown of John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the current state of Stop and Frisk, legal challenges to the policy, and police reform activities under way in New York City. Jones-Brown is a leading researcher on NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policy and and the founding director of the Center on Race, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, where she is also a professor in the Department of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration.

Rakim JenkinsRakim Jenkins, a CCNY senior and member of the Black Student Union on current student social-justice work and plans on campus and off. A native of Brooklyn and a Mellon Mays Fellow at City College, Jenkins is pursuing a double major in sociology and Black studies. His goal is to obtain a Ph.D. in sociology with a specialization in urban sociology and the Afro-American predicament.

Lazarre-white_100Khary Lazarre-White, director of The Brotherhood Sister Sol, a Harlem-based youth development and education organization, on innovative practices to address Stop and Frisk, especially through legal education and peer rights training. Lazarre-White has received numerous awards for his work with the Brotherhood Sister/Sol, and was appointed by New York City Mayor Bloomberg to the advisory board of NYC’s Young Men’s Initiative.

Sponsors of the forum are the Office of the President, the Colin Powell Center, the CCNY Division of Social Sciences, and the student organization Leaders Against Systemic Injustice (LASI).

(Locate City College on Google Maps here.)

Service-Learning Faculty Fellow Links Community Voices to Neighborhood Needs

Professor Mary Lutz presents the results of the West Harlem community needs assessment project.

Professor Mary Lutz presents the results of the West Harlem community needs assessment project to members of Community Board 9. Photo: Genéa Stewart

By Mary Lutz and Jonathan Bennett

How do you find out what New York City communities need? You stop people on the street and ask them.

This simple and ingenious technique for assessing community needs has been tested successfully in two of New York City’s 59 Community Districts and is the subject of a 43-page report released this month by CCNY’s Center for Worker Education Professor Mary Lutz, a service-learning faculty fellow and public scholar with the Colin Powell Center.

“It’s easy to imagine that this method, in combination with local political action, could be an important step to bring creative small-town democratic decision making into big city life,” says Professor Lutz. “It is a promising alternative to the top-down decision making that is currently favored by the Bloomberg administration.”


Randomly Chosen Pedestrians

Lutz’s report, “Community Needs Assessment: A Pedestrian Survey of West Harlem,” is based on interviews with 1,117 randomly chosen pedestrians in the West Harlem district represented by Community Board 9. A dozen adult college students, working in pairs, were trained to approach adult pedestrians and ask them if they had ten minutes for an interview about the needs of their community. Cooperation rates were very high, ranging from 50 to 90 percent.

The interviews, which were conducted in either English or Spanish, included both multiple-choice questions and open-ended questions such as, “If you could improve one thing in this community right now, what would it be?” The pedestrians’ response to that question showed a striking uniformity in all 21 of Community Board 9’s census tracts. In every census tract, unemployment and lack of adequate, affordable, housing were the top two concerns.

Restoring Integrity
“The simplicity of this approach could easily be replicated in all of the city’s 59 Community Districts, says Lutz. “Next year’s election of a new mayor will create an opportunity for the City Council and the Community Boards to restore their integrity and reclaim their original charter responsibilities, especially to initiate their own plans for the growth and well being of their communities.”

Currently, decisions about the allocation of local resources are almost entirely based on a top-down process. Voters choose representatives who run on a particular platform and that platform is perceived as being what the community desires. Or an organization chooses to lobby for or against a particular issue. But neither method provides an understanding of what community members themselves feel are its most pressing needs.
Pedestrian polling provides a detailed understanding of exactly what is perceived as the most pressing needs by residents and workers in a given community. When mapped against the existing community resources, pedestrian polling can pinpoint which census tracts are best targets for new or improved social, educational, health, anti-crime and other programs.

The first pedestrian survey was conducted by Lutz in north Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 2009. The experience gained from the first survey was used to make the second survey more efficient and informative. In the first two tests of pedestrian polling, the data was collected the old-fashioned way, with interviewers recording answers on paper, but Lutz hopes that it will be possible in subsequent studies to use hand-held devices to generate an electronic record of the interview responses, making it possible to summarize and analyze the data almost immediately.

Geo-located Data
The street locations of the interviews were chosen to obtain the views of pedestrians in each of the 21 US Census tracts within Community District 9. The responses were entered into a database from which an analysis and profile of perceived community needs can be built. Because the information is geo-located by census tract, it is possible to provide various opinion profiles, from the US Census tracts, which cover a few city blocks, to neighborhoods within a Community District, to the District as a whole. The detailed geographic breakdown promotes a more accurate and nuanced understanding of perceived needs.

Each of the people interviewed was asked for the reason they were in the neighborhood that day. Nearly two-thirds lived nearby. One in eight worked in the area. One in ten was there to attend school or to accompany a child.

A Mechanism to Voice Opinions
“We are living through a period of major social changes, which force people to reassess their priorities,” says Lutz. “But even though many people may have very similar hopes, fears and desires, they lack a mechanism to give voice to their opinions. This survey technique gives neighbors, in a very local way, a method to communicate to city officials their concerns that might otherwise go unheard.”

“Using this polling technique it is possible, for perhaps the first time, to scientifically understand how a community views its own needs,” Lutz adds. “The expression of these needs, as articulated by the people who live, shop, and work in a particular community, when presented in a concentrated and easily understandable form, can become a key element in insuring our elected representatives’ accountability.”

Read more about Mary Lutz and our other contributors here.

Save NYC’s Abandoned Buildings, Save the Planet

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By Alex Davies, Communications Coordinator

In a January 2012 report, grassroots advocacy group Picture the Homelesssurveyed vacant buildings and properties in New York City, finding enough space to house nearly 200,000 people — four times the homeless population of the city.

As the Center expands its work on environmental issues, I’ve been thinking about how the expression, “the greenest brick is the one already in the wall” applies to the report. It’s the unofficial mantra of the design section of TreeHugger, an environmental blog I contribute to. Here’s a simpler way to put it: It’s a waste (of time, money, energy, and resources) to build an entirely new structure when there’s one already there. 

The Picture the Homeless report focuses on the social and economic costs of vacant properties, charging: “NYC’s laissez-faire free-market strategy for dealing with empty buildings and lots harms communities and helps big real estate.” In its view, owners of vacant properties refuse to undertake renovation until the neighborhood gentrifies, at which point they sell to developers, who demolish the old buildings and construct new ones.

READ MORE: Students and the Homeless Share a Classroom to Advocate for Change

Build Resilient

Sidestepping the political and economic issues here, I want to address the environmental question Picture the Homeless didn’t bring up. For those who don’t spend their time reading and writing for environmental blogs, “resilience” has replaced “sustainability” as the new buzzword.

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Resilient buildings don’t need LEED certification; they don’t rely on fancy technology to reduce energy use. Rather, they are simple, durable, and stand the test of time. Ever been to the Louvre or the Coliseum? They were built centuries ago and are still in use, serving 21st century functions. The palace becomes a museum, the gladiatorial arena becomes a tourist attraction. That’s resilience.

Winning the Battle for Earth, in NYC

21st century environmentalism is not about national parks, it’s about cities. In urban centers, people share resources: buildings, transportation, space, and energy. Resilient buildings play a vital role in that. A study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation found reuse of buildings almost always has less of an impact on the environment than new construction.

READ MORE: As the Rivers Rise, 3 Ways Harlem Needs to Prepare for a Wet Future

The vacant buildings cataloged by Picture the Homeless may be abandoned, but they’re still standing. That’s not to say they’re all fit for habitation; many may be beyond the reach of rehabilitation, and should be demolished. But I doubt that’s the case of more than a small minority.

New York is one of the world’s biggest cities, and among its most imitated. So the title of this post is not as hyperbolic as it might seem: If we can save these buildings, use them to house the homeless and hold off devastating climate change, other cities will take notice and follow suit. — Alex Davies

Alex is the communications coordinator at the Colin Powell Center. Find out more about him and other contributing writers.

CCNY Students Bring a New Community Garden to Harlem

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The City Agriculture Network (CAN) formed in the winter of 2010, funded by aCommunity Engagement Fellowship awarded to Kaizhong (Johnny) Huang by the Colin Powell Center. The goal of CAN, which received continued funding from the Center for 2010-2011, was to create a community garden from scratch in Hamilton Heights, and promote understanding and knowledge of the processes by which food can be created, distributed and consumed in a sustainable and equitable manner.

Two and a half years into the project, CAN is producing food, promoting healthy eating, and reducing the local carbon footprint. The below update on the group’s activity is by Elizabeth Kelman, a CCNY student who is now managing the network.

Food for the Community, by the Community

We focus on local, organic and affordable produce in the urban environment. Members of CAN and the Hamilton Heights community run a community vegetable garden on 141st Street at Hamilton Terrace. CAN strives to incorporate the Hamilton Heights community, including City College students and staff, into the Real Food movement.

As a project funded by the Colin Powell Center, we received money with which we were able to purchase all that we needed to build a garden—wood, soil, seeds, tools and the occasional snack for volunteers. Our vision was—and remains— a community garden that produces organic vegetables and herbs at no cost to the gardeners. The garden is not divided into individual plots, nor is there ever a fee to garden or participate in events. By planning, growing, composting, weeding, harvesting, and celebrating together, we simultaneously build community and ensure that neither space nor supplies are wasted.

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Growing for the Future

In August 2010, we held a Harvest Celebration in the garden, which was attended by more than 100 community members, as well as elected officials Charles Rangel and Robert Jackson. Hundreds of students and community members have visited the garden—to learn, plant, water, weed, harvest, eat, relax, and play. The garden connects participants to the food cycle. Children, college students and adults alike have the opportunity to discover how food is grown, and what it looks like at every stage of the cycle, from seed to plant to compost. The garden is, above all, fertile ground for discovering Real Food and the issues of food justice and community in Hamilton Heights.

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Through a bit of club funding from City College (starting in Spring 2011) and a couple of lemonade stands, we have been able to maintain our garden and cover the basics for small events. We rely on the time of volunteers of all ages (toddlers through grandmothers!), potluck-style events and donations. This summer, CAN was a recipient of a generous New Yorkers for Better Neighborhoods grant fromCitizens Committee for New York City. With this funding, we will be able to better publicize the garden, keep events free, and invest in much-needed supplies and structures. — Elizabeth Kelman

For more information and/or to get involved, email cityagrinetwork@gmail.com.

At a minimum, the garden is open this summer on Tuesday evenings and on Saturdays from 10am -2pm.

Center Fellows Reflect on the Meaning and Challenges of Service (Part II)

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This is the second post in a two part series on a Wiki created by the Colin Powell Center’s Partners for Change fellows to explore themes around the idea of “service”.

During our discussions of “service” in the Partners for Change seminar another emergent theme was “permanence.” Questions and assertions of service projects’ longevity and sustainability were tossed around while trying to define what makes a project effective. In other words, how do we know if service is making an impact? There were several conflicting views on permanence as it relates to service, but all the fellows’ voices were heard. At the end of the unit, and perhaps after some important time for reflection, the fellows produced a collaborative voice in their “Service Wiki.” The following is an excerpt on “permanence.”

An excerpt from “Permanence” (Partners for Change Fellows, 4/5/2012)

Permanence is a common target for critics of service work. Skeptics of volunteer work criticize the fact that most people involved in service do not stay long term in one organization or area of work, which is then characterized as lacking true good intention. Permanence is a fair object of skepticism, however, only when directed towards institutions or programs. If a particular service cannot be continuously provided, then the recipients of the service should be given basic resources to supply and assimilate the service into their everyday life, which allows the service to become less of a service and more of an everyday activity.

For example, instead of bringing canteens of water to those in deserts, build wells. In Joseph Kahne and Joel Westheimer’s “In the Service of What? The Politics of Service Learning,” two types of service modules are described. One included service work that was only temporary and the second involved a deep understanding of the multiple contributors of the targeted issue in conjunction to the service work. The first example of service was identified as “charity” and the latter as “change.” The “change” module involved social reconstruction and a transformative experience, potentially being able to create more permanence within the service work even after the removal of volunteers. Service work is about bringing change to one’s misfortunes and that is not possible simply through personal contributions, but instead through the implementation of sturdy resources.

READ PART I: Center Fellows Reflect on the Meaning and Challenges of Service

I believe the fellows initially felt so compelled to argue one way or the other on this issue of permanence because they were personally invested in their own service, while also knowing that it would soon end. Other fellows had additionally participated in short service trips in which they felt, though short-lived, their efforts were well received and made an impact. So, we were left with the tough question of whether or not service has to be permanent in order to be effective.

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I really liked the closure the fellows brought to the “permanence” section of the Wiki by referring to Kahne and Westheimer’s discussion of the goals of service viewed through the conceptual lens of “change.” When I think about service as contributing to social reconstruction, it allows individuals to be change agents in a complex social issue whether or not their presence is permanent.

For both the fellows and myself, it seemed to make the issue of permanence a bit less intimidating and a bit more optimistic. In many ways, we should be hoping these projects actually are impermanent, which would indicate that the “social reconstruction” is progressing even after the “removal of volunteers.” Instead of attempting to settle on an answer to the issue of permanence in service projects, the fellows found a conceptual angle through which to look at and think about their service work.

I’m interested to hear if this is a theme that others have grappled with in either thinking about service or their own personal experiences with service? Do you believe there is a certain amount of time a service project must be in place in order to be effective? If so, what is that time frame and why? – Sophie Gray

Sophie Gray is coordinator of the Center’s Partners for Change program. Read about her and our other contributors.