By Ivan Phifer
MINNEAPOLIS (May 21, 2010) – The University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center officially opened May 12, with an Open House Information Fair and Ribbon Cutting ceremony to proclaim and welcome a future of service and change for North Minneapolis. The building opening caps a five-year process to develop a community driven organization that will be responsible for expanding U of M engagement in community initiatives, outreach, programs and research. It will also be a resource for community development and small business.
The gathering to honor the achievement included University of Minnesota President Dr. Robert Bruininks; Dr. Robert Jones, vice president, and UROC founding Director, Dr. Irma McClaurin.
U of M Board of Regents Chair Clyde Allen was present to say the UROC opening “celebrates a very tangible milestone in advancing the urban vision laid out by President Bruininks and Senior Vice President Jones.”
McClaurin, an anthropologist, poet, writer, scholar and now a university administrator, said it is rare to have the opportunity to translate a vision into reality – and also to have had a role in shaping its development.
“I feel privileged to have been a part of this process,” said McClaurin. “In my travels to other Universities who are doing this type of partnership, I have found that it is leadership from the top that makes the difference.”
McClaurin acknowledged UROC staff, consultant Erline Belton, Alicia Belton, Chuck Levin, Stahl Construction and MN Best. However, her strongest praise went to local residents that shaped the project with input through workshops.
“None of what we see here today, and the possibilities for UROC in the future, would have been possible without the community of North Minneapolis” she said.
“I thank you for your criticisms, and for holding us accountable; I thank you for the hopes and dreams you have held forth for this community, and which have inspired us all,” McClaurin added.
Allen called UROC a new model for urban land-grant universities, and that it is exciting to see renewed emphasis on engaging community to help universities better understand needs while also being enriched with knowledge and perspectives.
“Through UROC we will have a hub for collaborative activities that makes it easier to both establish and maintain mutually beneficial relationships; a place the community can come to address problems, explore solutions, and celebrate victories,” said Allen.
This ongoing forum for discussion between university faculty and staff and community partners is a way to better identify and use assets to support North Minneapolis and other urban communities, said Allen. The partnership maintains a sense of community while promoting education, wellness, and community and economic development.
Jones said the UROC vision began five-year ago and was a long time coming – but that the opening is a “momentous occasion” and worth the wait.
What sets UROC apart from past institutional efforts to assist North Minneapolis, is that leaders recognized that it is insufficient for a world class university to focus only on bioscience and cutting edge disciplines.
“We also needed to be more strategic and intentional about our role as a premier urban research university by expanding our historic and land-grant mission to create authentic partners that would more effectively leverage our academic resources with those of urban communities to solve complex issues facing urban society,” said Jones.
The focus on the Northside brought together community leaders from business, faith, nonprofit, government and all walks of life for dialogue and workshops to identify critical areas and how to more effectively address them from the community perspective.
Jones said UROC hosted more than 350 group meetings with over 9,000 visitors or meeting participants – leveraging more that $10 million in external support.
To work everyone had to have a voice for the partnership to be authentic, and for the plan to reflect a shared vision based on beliefs and principles, Jones said.
“We listened to both supporters and detractors – and we adjusted our plans accordingly,” Jones said.
The working partnership helped with the renovation of building used for the UROC Center at 2001 Plymouth Avenue, N., Minneapolis, MN 55411. Jones said that the architects, contractors, and community agencies, including Urban League, Summit Academy Opportunities Industrialization Center and others resulted in an on-time and within-budget project that was accomplished with a 34 percent women and minority business enterprise participation level.
“The highest in the history of the University,” Jones said, noting the significance of the critical university-community partnership. “It is clearly not business as usual.”
Prof. Mahmoud El-Kati was initially critical of the UROC proposal as an “imposition of any institution’s will on the aims and aspirations of the community.” He said this time would be different, but that people should be cautious of the tendency for institutional power over minority communities.
“To the degree the will of the community is first and foremost in deliberations and decisions, this could be a true turning point, he said.
Educator and businessman William English, along with and Black community leadership held ongoing negotiations with university administrators regarding acknowledgement, defining and serving the interests of Black Minnesotans and urban neighborhoods.
“I think for the first time in many years we have a unique opportunity to begin the critical work of redevelopment of Plymouth and Penn Avenues with a vital and necessary foundation by inviting the University to come in and be a positive neighbor and contributor to the rich heritage of the Northside,” said English.
Contact UROC at 612-626-UROC (8762) or visit www.uroc.umn.edu.
Ivan Phifer is the technology reporter for MMMC and Minnesota ethnic community media.