Robin Bachin, assistant provost for Civic and Community Engagement

Bridging the classroom and the community

Robin Bachin, assistant provost for Civic and Community Engagement. Photo: Evan F. Garcia/University of Miami
By Michael R. Malone

Robin Bachin, assistant provost for Civic and Community Engagement. Photo: Evan F. Garcia/University of Miami

Bridging the classroom and the community

By Michael R. Malone
The Office of Civic and Community Engagement serves as a nexus to connect faculty, students, and the community together to translate academic knowledge into civic responsibility and positive social change.

In 2011, the economy was struggling to its feet after years of the worst recession since the Great Depression and funds were ratcheted tight. Despite the risky environment, then Provost Thomas LeBlanc saw tremendous potential in one particular initiative’s promise to address a question that challenged universities across the nation: How could higher education better prepare students with the skills and knowledge to resolve real-world problems?

Robin Bachin, then an associate professor of history, proposed the creation of a University hub to coordinate and promote community-based, hands-on experiential learning campus wide. Bridge the classroom and the community, Bachin asserted, and students will gain invaluable skills, experience, and confidence; test their classroom learning against Metropolitan Miami’s most pressing problems; and become better citizens in the making. She backed her proposal with data and surveys that showed faculty and students overwhelmingly in favor.  

The creation of the Office of Civic and Community Engagement (CCE) has helped the University reimagine itself as an engaged urban university and reinvigorated its role as “the University of Miami.”

“We want our students to understand that they are citizens in a democracy and that they have a role to play, and for the office to be a galvanizing force in bringing students and faculty together to address major issues facing the community,” said Bachin, who today serves as assistant provost for Civic and Community Engagement and heads the small CCE staff. “We’ve had unbelievable success [in developing CCE]—in large part owing to the support of faculty and students.

“Individual faculty had developed relationships and links to the community over many years, yet community engagement as part of the curriculum wasn’t a visible or identifiable feature of the undergraduate experience at UM [prior to the CCE],” added Bachin, whose academic career has centered on fostering collaboration between the university and the community.

Her first book, “Building the South Side: Urban Space and Civic Culture in Chicago, 1890-1919,” explored the University of Chicago’s role in bridging connections between the university and its surrounding city, a model for understanding the “city” as the place where education happens.

Moving the needle on engagement
Miami is among the least engaged cities in the nation according to a range of indicators, and moving the needle on engagement requires a multi-pronged approach. The CCE has developed working relationships with more than 200 community organizations and collaborates with multiple University partners—the Butler Center for Service and Leadership, Toppel Career Center, UM Libraries, Koenigsberg and Nadal Media Center at the School of Communication, College of Arts and Science’s Center for the Humanities, Center for Urban and Community Design at the School of Architecture, and the Center for Computational Science, among others.

The Butler Center in particular partners with the CCE to foster student engagement through service learning and to promote a sense of civic responsibility. Andrew Wiemer, director of programs at the Butler Center, met with Bachin in 2011, and the two conceived a program based on a model from other institutions for students to earn academic recognition for their community-based learning.  

Their idea became a reality the following year with the launch of the Civic Scholars Program, a partnership which uses course identifiers to designate service-learning courses that provide opportunities to work with community organizations. Students in the program also participate in service and leadership activities through more than 40 service-based student organizations. Students earn a transcript notation, a certificate of achievement, and recognition at the annual Celebration of Involvement in April.

Through its Engaged Faculty Fellows Program, launching its seventh cohort this spring, CCE trains five to seven faculty members each year how to launch a new or revise an existing curriculum with a service learning component. Through a series of six workshops, faculty learn to build in clear service-learning outcomes and effective reflective assessments, and how to build trust with community partners. Faculty from nearly every University school and college have participated, according to Bachin.

Last year, for example, students in Professor Shouraseni Sen Roy’s GEG 414 class collaborated with Coral Gables police captains and lieutenants, and city planners to map crime data, as part of the community component. Julian Carter, B.A. ’18, participated in the class.

“As a student you often wonder where is the applied learning? My course was fantastic, and the community engagement component is really what made it so meaningful,” Carter said. “It was very fulfilling to work with community partners and to know their feedback—and I didn’t know how much I would love making maps.”

The course changed his professional trajectory, and Carter was offered an internship at the end of the course.

A focus on housing
A few years ago, the CEE looked to tackle a single community need to focus its efforts and to make an impact in the community, and settled on affordable housing. “South Florida is ground zero for the crisis in affordable housing,” Bachin said.

With support from JPMorgan Chase and the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund, the CCE developed a range of online tools and resources though its Miami Housing Solution Lab—the Miami Affordability Project (MAP) tool; the Housing Policy Timeline, which provides original documents from the 1920s to the present; the Policy Toolkit, which provides interactive best practices—that have become invaluable to the community.

On campus, CCE identified courses across the U related to housing, community development, and urban equity, and helped to stimulate a conversation about how to use big data together with innovative tech tools to make the housing data more accessible and understandable for the community.

“We realized early on is that once you develop expertise in a particular area you come to be relied on by various community organizations. At first we had the idea that we might rotate between major issues facing the community, but we developed a significant amount of expertise in affordable housing and developing mapping tools to visualize the data,” Bachin said.

Requests for those resources kept coming. “It made us take a step back to see that, as a center, we have become a community-wide resource in this area.”

What’s next?
Another grant from JPMorgan Chase has supported CCE’s efforts to study the impact of climate change sea level rise and flooding in South Florida, and Bachin recently conducted a ’Cane Talk focused on a new age of youth activism.

The CCE today serves as a campus nexus for engagement, and its efforts are critical to the University’s Roadmap to Our New Century aspirations, in particular shaping the educational revolution and promoting interdisciplinary inquiry, and innovation and entrepreneurial ventures in Miami and beyond. What makes Bachin most proud?

“The deep sustained connections that we’ve made with such a wide number of organizations across the county. This is really the model we hoped to infuse within the U, promoting a culture of collaboration and reciprocity—working around needs identified by the community.

“And for students, helping them understand that what they’re learning in the classroom can be applied as knowledge in the real world and to see themselves as public citizens with a larger public purpose.”