Roadmap Academics

Educating the next generation of civic leaders

The Office of Civic and Community Engagement, the University of Miami’s nexus for community-based learning, celebrates its 10-year anniversary with a renewed commitment to advance public scholarship that enriches the student learning experience.
Robin Bachin, director of the Office of Civic and Community Engagement
Robin Bachin is the founding director of the University's Office of Civic and Community Engagement.

Robin Bachin, the founding director of the Office of Civic and Community Engagement (CCE), remembers back to 2010 and a milestone moment for universities: Leading foundations and colleges themselves around the country were questioning whether higher education had abandoned its sense of civic purpose and social mission. 

At about the same time, the Corporation for National and Community Service released its survey assessing civic health in the top 50 metropolitan areas in the country—and Miami crawled in at 50th in the rankings. 

“It was a prime moment for us at the University to think about both this issue of higher education’s civic mission and likewise the way we could work locally in our Miami community to revitalize civic health and well-being,” explained Bachin in a recent conversation with Laura Kohn-Wood, dean of the School of Education and Human Development. 

Their conversation highlighted the creation of the office in 2011 that has evolved to become the nexus for the University’s community-based pedagogy, public scholarship, and civic engagement initiatives. CCE has been celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. 

A physical center on campus radiates the University’s commitment to leverage its academic resources to work collaboratively with community groups around community-identified needs and inspires trust, according to Bachin. 

“A centralized office tells our community partners this is part of our mission and that we are deeply committed to making community engagement a centerpiece of University of Miami education,” the director said.

The Butler Center for Service and Leadership, established in 1989, has a long history of offering students the opportunity to volunteer for service-oriented organizations throughout Miami-Dade County. And by 2011, a host of programs involving students and faculty members existed that linked the University’s academic work with the community. Yet those efforts were sporadic and mostly untethered to curriculum. 

Bachin and others surveyed faculty members and students to gauge their interest in community-based learning, public scholarship, and campus-community partnerships. Faculty members recognized obstacles, but energetically expressed support. Students, too, were overwhelming in favor of linking their learning to a larger purpose. The task force analyzed the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania, Edward Ginsberg Center for Community Service at the University of Michigan, and a range of other similar partnerships that embedded community engagement as a vehicle for enhancing the educational experience at an institution of higher learning. 

“Ours was a grassroots initiative, different from that of most other universities in that it wasn’t a leadership-driven directive,” Bachin noted. The endeavor earned the support of the president and provost—and CCE was created. 

Today’s leadership views CCE’s focus as strategically linked to the University’s mission and vision and its Roadmap to Our New Century

“Community engaged learning emphasizes the critical aspect of what we embrace as our mission to transform lives through education, research, innovation, and service, and our aspirations to thrive as an exemplary, excellent, hemispheric, and relevant university,” said Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. 

“Students, faculty, and our community partners all win when we bring student learning into real opportunities that exist within the community. It allows us to work collaboratively to create new knowledge, enrich the educational experience at the University of Miami, and foster an engagement model that has deep and lasting impact in our community,” Duerk added.

In conjunction with the Butler Center, the CCE also offers the Civic Scholars Program, where students take courses with a “civic” tag in co-curricular service activities through more than 40 service-based student organizations and volunteer service projects. 

“Not only do they realize deeper understanding of the topics by applying real-life knowledge, but they also are forging connections and in many instances exploring new career opportunities,” Bachin said. 

The courses help students think “upstream”—more about the communities they are living and working in, the histories of those communities, and the issues they have faced and face—using critical perspectives, according to Bachin, an urban and environmental historian whose research and authorship has mined the impacts of systemic racism in community development and urban planning. 

Leonidas Bachas, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, emphasized the CCE’s role in enriching students’ educational experience. 

“Through our collaborative efforts we are able to help students build their academic experiences and provide community-engaged courses that highlight social issues and community building—all of which is essential to educating the change agents of tomorrow,” Bachas said. 

Almost as if it had consulted a crystal ball, the office focused its initial efforts a decade ago on affordable housing and climate change—the two issues that remain today as its primary concerns. 

When CCE launched, Florida was just emerging from the “Great Recession” and the state was ground zero for foreclosures, Bachin explained. Eviction of renters was a major concern. Surveys at the time identified housing repeatedly as the key issue locally, and the center collaborated with faculty across a range of University units to explore how data could be used to forge solutions. 

That effort led to the formation of a project with the Institute for Data Science and Computing that eventually led to the creation of the office’s signature initiative: the Miami Housing Solutions Lab and its featured platform, the Miami Affordability Project (MAP). 

A free and publicly accessible interactive online mapping tool, MAP employs more than 300 data filters to explore the vast complexities of housing, among them resilience to climate change impact. The resource has emerged to become a national model for how to use big data and civic tech along with grassroots engagement to create policy solutions. 

Michael Liu, director of the county’s Department of Public Housing and Community Development, described CCE as an instrumental partner with tools that have been used to improve measuring, management, and housing development. 

“Over the past decade, the intersections between the crisis of affordable housing and the threats of climate change from flooding, storm surge, and extreme heat have grown more pronounced, and CCE has strengthened its ties with city and county administrations and with community partners such as Catalyst Miami Overtown Community Champions to work collaboratively to seek solutions,” Liu said. 

A University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge (U-LINK) grant focused on climate gentrification provided the funding for Bachin’s students to hold biweekly meetings with the Overtown partners to better understand their perspectives on climate change and its impact on their community. The trust-building and connection were essential to advance the process in an equitable way and heighten impact. 

Camilo Mejia, director of policy and advocacy for Catalyst Miami, valued CCE for bridging the University with the larger Miami-Dade County community. 

“The University and the county share a common history—which is in turn a great asset to both—and thanks to CCE, UM students are able to learn about and be transformed by this rich cultural history,” said Mejia. 

Bachin admitted some frustration that the field of higher education continues to undervalue engaged pedagogy and public scholarship. 

“There’s still the challenge in higher education in recognizing the value of this work,” she said. “The last 50 years or so has focused on narrower and narrower definitions of what scholars study. Research is highly specialized and often published in journals that only reach readers within one’s discipline,” Bachin continued. 

“We’re trying to overcome some of those discipline-based definitions of what counts as scholarly research and thereby help departments, schools, and colleges understand that public scholarship is just as rigorous as more traditional academic scholarship,” she added. 

While she recognized that issues of climate change and affordable housing persist as urgent existential problems, the founding director of CCE expressed satisfaction in how the office has evolved, the partnerships it has formed, and the progress it has generated. 

“We have tremendous resources and expertise through the University and are using them to address some of the most pressing problems facing our local community,” Bachin noted. “It’s important that we continue to do this work in a way that is mindful, engaged, collaborative, reciprocal, and that truly educates our students to be civic leaders who can reinvigorate our democracy.”