Working with the Multicultural Development Center of Iowa (MDCI) and Astig Planning as a Humanities for the Public Good Summer Intern has enabled me to see, first-hand, some of the challenges that grassroots and community-based organizations in Iowa City face. These include inadequate support from policy makers, inadequate access to financial resources to execute projects and programs, and the lack of will from influential and hegemonic institutions, like big public universities, to collaborate and support the programs of these organizations. It is noteworthy that these organizations have several programs that are aimed at improving the conditions of the people in the community, especially the underserved and underrepresented community members.
MDCI is a non-profit organization that is committed to providing access to economic support and resources, education, and improving diversity in STEM for underestimated and underserved BIPOC communities in Iowa. In addition, the organization serves these communities by researching the barriers to local businesses and by assisting BIPOC communities to remove barriers to education and economic support. On the other hand, Astig planning is an organization whose programs and projects center around planning projects focused on climate, racial and social justice. They also work to develop economic development plans that reflects diversity, equity and inclusion.
While many of the challenges that these organizations face mirror the ones that small nonprofit organizations in my home country, Nigeria, face, I was amazed to learn about the huge divide between these organizations and the University of Iowa (UI). Specifically, while I had always assumed that effective collaborations existed between the UI and community-based nonprofits in Iowa, my summer internship has thrown a big question mark on my assumptions. Although I have seen and heard glimpses of this divide in my interactions with my internship site staffs and mentors, my assumptions were completely proved wrong on Tuesday, June 2, during the 2022 HPG cohort’s site visits to MDCI and Astig offices on Keokuk Street. When one of the interns asked the leaders of my sites if they had collaborations with the University, their answers showed that no effective collaboration existed between the University and several community-based nonprofit organizations. One of my site leaders specifically mentioned that although they have enjoyed successful and highly productive partnerships with individual staff members in the University, they have never had any meaningful collaboration with the University as an institution. He added that in instances where they tried to reach out to the university for collaboration, what he called the ‘extractive nature’ of the university made those efforts unsuccessful. He uses different scenarios where the university solely prioritizes its own interests with no consideration for the interests of the partners when these partners reached out for collaboration to explain what he meant by the University being extractive.
The lack of participation between the UI and community-based organizations further became evident during our conversations with officials of the Iowa City Area Development and the Iowa City Area Business Partnership during the cohort’s visit to Merge on Thursday June 30. When another intern posed the question about collaboration with the university, answers from one of the officials indicated that there were no collaborations with the university. Essentially, what became clear in this these conversations are what Fitzpatrick (2019) calls “us and them divide”, a phase that, among other things, describes the lack of collaboration between “the town and the gown”.
Although it would be interesting to have conversations with top university officials to hear University representatives’ side of the story in other to have a more informed and objective position, the current lack (or inadequate) of collaboration between these important stakeholders needs to be a matter of urgent concern for all stakeholders both in the ‘town’ and the ‘gown’. This should even be more concerning to university officials given that the University enjoys more influence, access to more resources, and broader scope than these organizations and this dynamic raises the question of whether the University is truly striving to promote a robust partnership with community partners to achieve its aim of building an inclusive campus that will impact the community positively.
Essentially, to achieve one of its goals of “fostering an open and welcoming environment where all can collaborate and support each other” (as stated on the University website) and become a more inclusive institution, the UI needs to make more conscious efforts to establish collaborations involving community-based organizations and benefit all parties involved. Furthermore, the university should strive to encourage more collaboration between its members, staff, and community partners. This will not only allow the works of scholars in the University to reach a broader range of audience in line with Rodgers (2020) admonition for university scholars to make their work accessible to and open to feedback from a broad range of audience. It will also allow enriching conversations between community partners. This will allow university scholars and administrators to get useful perspectives and learn from these community partners, an approach that Fitzpatrick (2019) calls “generous thinking”
Since one of the main goals of both the university and local organizations is to have lasting impacts in the community, a collaboration between these entities will be of immense benefit to community members. Community-based organizations serve local community members, are fully on ground, and have an incredible understanding of the needs and struggles of community members, especially the underserved communities. Consequently, if the University, as an integral member of the community, wants to be truly committed to building an institution that is truly inclusive and make meaningful impacts on the local community, it needs to take partnership with grassroots community-based organizations more seriously.
University of Iowa Website: https://uiowa.edu/about-iowa
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. 2021. Generous thinking: A radical approach to saving the university. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Rogers, Katina L. Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving in and beyond the Classroom. Duke University Press, 2020.