Spring 2020 Portico: Students Explore Multidisciplinary Approaches to Community Engagement

By Lori Atherton

One of the things that Detroit planning and evaluation consultant Jane Fran Morgan enjoys most about her work is the variety. “You’re working with different organizations in different contexts and with different challenges,” says Morgan. “And you’re always thinking about new approaches, which requires a certain amount of creativity.”

As the 2019–2020 Sojourner Truth Fellow at Taubman College, Morgan wanted to bring creativity to the community engagement workshop she taught during the winter semester. Eric Dueweke, lecturer in urban and regional planning, was the co-facilitator. The Sojourner Truth Fellowship engages scholars and practitioners who can bring rigorous attention to issues of race and ethnicity as they relate to the theory and practice of urban and regional planning. Beyond that, Morgan’s objective was “to create something that was fun, engaging, and useful for students” — urban planning and architecture students alike.

The four-part weekend workshop series — Engaging Detroit: Maximizing Solutions for Impact — connected students with organizations in Detroit that are experiencing community engagement challenges and gave them an opportunity to work in teams to develop solutions to those problems. Morgan and Dueweke deliberately paired students from different programs in teams to foster an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving.

Morgan, a Detroit native, says it was important that she bring students into the community and provide them with valuable real-world experience: “A number of them hadn’t been to Detroit, and they certainly hadn’t been working directly with a community-based organization. I wanted to give them that experience, so that they had a better understanding of what it means to do community engagement work and to put their toe in the water.” 

That’s exactly what drew Serena Brewer, M.Arch ’21, to the workshop in the first place. She wanted to step beyond her traditional architecture curriculum to explore her interest in community engagement. “Many architecture schools don’t offer this kind of experience,” says Brewer, who is considering pursuing a graduate certificate in community action and research through U-M. “So I thought this was a good opportunity to get engaged and learn firsthand the kind of work I would be doing.”

During the four-part Sojourner Truth Workshop in winter 2020, interdisciplinary teams of students presented ideas to representatives from three partnering agencies in Detroit.

During the first session, students visited the three participating organizations: HOPE Village Revitalization, Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation, and the Center for Community-Based Enterprise (C2BE). They met with executive directors to learn about each organization’s mission, its impact on Detroit neighborhoods, and its particular community engagement issue. In the second session, students heard from a panel of Detroit-area community engagement leaders who introduced them to community engagement approaches, and later they participated in a small-group community engagement planning exercise. The 18 students then were divided into interdisciplinary teams of two and assigned a participating organization to represent.

At the third session, Morgan shared insights about her own community engagement efforts as a planner and facilitator, which includes working with nonprofits, foundations, and the public sector in the areas of planning, evaluation, strategy, development, and applied research. She also provided one-on-one coaching for each team that included best practices for presentations — gleaned from her years as principal of JFM Consulting Group. The final workshop culminated in a competition where the students presented their community engagement strategies to the participating organizations.

“We worked with a real stakeholder on a real project. The workshop was something I could really invest myself in, and it fostered collaborative and interdisciplinary problem solving.”
— Megan Rigney, M.U.R.P./ M.P.H. ’20

Morgan says she and the executive directors were impressed with the quality of the students’ work: “There was a lot of great information, and the students really stepped up to the plate. The executive directors were excited by the presentations and wanted access to all of them. They were genuinely appreciative of the experience.”

Also appreciative was Megan Rigney, M.U.R.P./ M.P.H. ’20, who enjoyed the workshop’s real-world engagement and interdisciplinary nature. “We worked with a real stakeholder on a real project,” says Rigney, who presented to Grandmont Rosedale. “The workshop was something I could really invest myself in, and it fostered collaborative and interdisciplinary problem solving.”

Brewer, who presented to HOPE Village and is continuing to work with the organization on two other projects, echoed that sentiment: “There was a fair amount of architecture and urban planning students in the workshop, and the thing that made it more interdisciplinary was that a lot of urban planning students are pursuing dual degrees, including public health, public policy, social work, and law. It brought different perspectives to the table, and you could tell people were taking inspiration from their other degrees.”

Morgan says she is pleased with how the workshop came together, which proved to be a learning opportunity for her as well. “It was a terrific experience, and I hope the students got as much out of it as I did.”