To Charles Dillon, a long-time resident of N. Minneapolis, Community Engagement Coordinator of UROC, and part-time DJ for radio station KMOJ, “North Minneapolis is growing, nurturing, compassion, connected, community, and culture.” This vibrant urban community located between Penn/Broadway and Glenwood/Broadway is home to a predominantly African American population and a diverse population of Latinos, whites, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Jews, and Muslims. It’s also home to UROC, which is short for Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center, a partnership between the University of Minnesota and North Minneapolis community organizations. One of its vital missions is to create public partnerships to “advance learning, improve quality of life, and discover breakthrough solutions to critical problems.”
While Dillon emphasizes the positive, the North Minneapolis community also has some critical problems:
- Education: According to the Northside Achievement Zone website, “The gap opens at a young age, since in tests of kindergarten readiness in 2009, 67 percent of African American students met the literacy benchmark compared to 94 percent of white children, while only 54 percent of children in the 55411 zip code met the benchmark (Minneapolis Public Schools, 2010).” In 2010, while Minneapolis’s four-year high school graduation rate for white students was 89.62 percent, it was just 63.76 percent for African American students.
- Foreclosures: Residents of North Minneapolis have suffered disproportionately from the recent economic downturn and housing crisis. From 2007 to 2010, an average of 6.78 percent of properties within North Minneapolis were foreclosed every year, compared to just 2.49 percent for all of Minneapolis, according to a 2011 report on racial disparities in home ownership by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
- Unemployment: In a report by the Economic Policy Institute, the African American unemployment rate in Minneapolis in 2009 was at 20.4 percent while the white unemployment rate was 6.4 percent, giving the state the largest gap in the country.
UROC opened five years ago and is located in the heart of North Minneapolis at Plymouth and Penn. “There are a lot of university based research projects out there, but they’re not site based in an urban area like this one,” said Heidi Barajas, Executive Director of UROC. The building is home to several University of Minnesota extension programs, U of M professor’s offices, research projects, a computer lab, a business technology center, and small and large group spaces for UROC partners and community organizations to meet, learn, have dialogue, and cultural events. More than 13 partnerships encompassing numerous community organizations address complex urban problems mainly in the areas of education, health, and economic development.
The Broadband Access Project (BAP) works to alleviate the digital divide within impoverished urban areas. UROC obtained federal funding to operate BAP. In partnership with twelve community organizations, the University of Minnesota set up computer labs with internet access, faxes, and printers in ten sites around Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“Anyone in the community can use these computers free of charge,” said Bob Lay, Program Manager of the Horizons Youth Project at Sabathani Community Center. “Some people just want to use the computers to access their email. Others come in and receive instruction on multiple programs from word processing and resume writing to desktop publishing. Some people just want to learn how to email and surf the web. We just try to meet them wherever they’re at. Individualized instruction is provided by knowledgeable U of M staff.”
Attempting to solve the difficult and persistent problem the educational achievement gap, the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) aims to create a culture of achievement and impact educational outcomes for all children in North Minneapolis. Their intention is for all North Minneapolis students to graduate from high school and be “college ready.” NAZ is working in collaboration with UROC and fifty other organizations including the University of Minnesota, the Minneapolis Public Schools, and a myriad of other organizations such as early childhood, child mentoring, family, housing, career and finance, and behavioral health service organizations. “We are creating a cradle to college kind of continuum of overlapping and seamless services and opportunities for families most in need in the geographic area of North Minneapolis,” says Northside Achievement Zone CEO Sondra Samuels. Currently, according to Samuels, 150 families are receiving services and will be tracked for the duration of their children’s education. Already, they are seeing positive changes.
“We’ve seen a lot of culture shift outcomes,” Samuels said. “We have a lot of low income African American families who would never go to early childhood education classes who are coming to our Family Academy classes and learning about brain development and positive discipline, and they’re talking about it. A team of University professors and researchers at UROC are helping NAZ with the funding, the curriculum, and the teaching of the curriculum.”
UROC has not been without its critics. Many in the North side community have felt a sense of distrust of the University of Minnesota’s intentions and commitment to being there for the long term. Some see the University as a “gated” community, disconnected, or exploitative, questioning why it would want to share its assets and resources to help improve the lives of community residents.
U of M Professor of Educational Psychology Scott McConnell has worked for the U for 25 years, and two years ago moved his office off campus to UROC. His primary area of research is pre-school children and specifically the experiences that help children acquire language and early literacy skills, assessment of those skills, and the design of programs that will promote those skills in their homes and in their classrooms. He thinks maintaining a physical presence in the community, as well as the fact that program activities in the building continue to grow, has helped with UROC’s reputation.
According to McConnell, “It has been one of our greatest challenges and successes to build community trust here. If people don’t like what we’re doing, they know where to find us. UROC both as a physical place and as a front door to the University’s mission of research, teaching, and service has opened the door wider, and more people are coming through. They’re coming through and asking hard questions sometimes, and sometimes they’re coming through in an excited and celebratory way. But more people are coming through that wider open door.”