|Born again: Anthropologist Dr. Irma McClaurin infuses pursuit of global truths about inequality with personal experience|
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I came here leaving the very illustrious Ford Foundation where I managed a $10 million budget. Most of that went to the Ford Diversity Fellowship Program. If you know of any students who desire to obtain a doctorate degree in a liberal arts field, the Diversity fellowship is open to anyone who is a US citizen. Historically it was called the Ford Fellowship for Minorities, but after the challenges to race-based fellowships, the Ford Foundation felt that it needed to broaden the categories of those who could apply. I can tell you, however, that there has not been an erosion of people of color, particularly African Americans, who receive these fellowships. The program has funded almost 2,500 people, and in fact, generally I tell people if you scratch an administrator of color somewhere in this country who is either Native American, African American, Puerto Rican, Chicano, Alaskan native, you will probably find a Ford Fellow. Dr. Nancy “Rusty” Barcelo, who is the new University of Minnesota Vice President and Vice Provost in the Office for Equity and Diversity, is a Ford Fellow.
At Ford, my portfolio funded Women and Gender studies and Black studies. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the great names in these fields like Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, and Lynn Bolles-- people who have been doing amazing research and scholarship. I was able to fund the National Women’s Studies Association, the National Council for Black Studies, the Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spellman College, and a few organizations that historically had not received funding from Ford. I am very proud of that record.
I also am interested in what I call “advancing public knowledge.” That is, I am very concerned with how to get the knowledge that is produced in colleges and universities into the public arenas, into communities, so that people can use it, so that it’s not locked away in journals and things of that nature, so that it’s made accessible.
I consider academic scholarly writing to be very important; but I believe writing, as Zora Neale Hurston would say, for “the folk” is also significant work. Zora is my model. She was a playwright and novelist. She was an anthropologist and journalist. She was constantly trying to find different ways to take research and communicate it to many different kinds of people.
I came to this position as Associate Vice President for System Academic Administration and Executive Director of the first Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center because it offered me many opportunities. As a program officer at Ford, I was very distant from the work itself. I could fund it. I could talk about it. But I couldn’t do it. And pretty much, I’m a doer. I like to see things work. I like to work on that edge between the academy and the community in which it’s situated.
The University of Minnesota is not a unique place – Spellman College in Atlanta, GA, had the same problem of connecting with the community. Spellman had a wall surrounding it. Spellman was a little enclave before Dr. Johnnetta Cole became the college’s first Black woman president.
She inspired the college with her vision of service to the community to break down the mental walls, the physical walls, and began to require that service learning be a requirement for every person who walked through Spellman’s gates.
So this divide between the university and the community is not unique to the University of Minnesota. It is not unique to white institutions. Fisk University experienced the same thing. There is a small wall around it. People who are outside it--and it is located right in the heart of the Black community -- don’t know what goes on there. Part of the work that I did at Fisk in Nashville, TN as the Deputy Provost was in faculty development; my job was to initiate and support community outreach in order to break down those walls.
My alma mater, Grinnell College, in Grinnell, IA, is a very elite institution in the middle of “nowhere” in farm country. Once you stepped outside the gates of that institution, you realized you were looking at a rural farming community in Iowa where people had never seen Black folks before.
So this issue of disconnection or isolation from the community is not unique to the University of Minnesota; it is something that the academy is now coming to terms with. We cannot talk about ourselves as educational institutions that produce leaders without recognizing that the students we train today go back into the community and become the community we must reach out to tomorrow. Some of our students continue to live in their communities even as they are attending school. If they do not have a connection, if we are not able to show them ways in which what they’re learning inside the classroom can be of value to their communities, to their families, to themselves when they go back out there in the workforce, then colleges and universities will not be able to thrive. So they’ve had to change. I admire the University of Minnesota, because it’s taken a major step. It has determined that its platform for success and excellence in the 21st century will be built upon an urban agenda and public engagement.
The Urban Research and Outreach /Engagement Center (UROC) is based on the Rural Outreach Center (ROC) concept. There are six of them across the state of Minnesota. They use research to help agricultural and rural communities solve local problems and inspire community-based innovations. So the University has these ROCs, and it is now saying, “We’ve been able to do some good in rural and agricultural communities. We need to be able to do the same in the city as well.” This urban Center is a first for the University of Minnesota, and we hope nationally that universities across the country will find positive ways to interact with their neighbors, to provide resources, both intellectual and others, to communities and to work with , not for or on, communities to build their own vision of being vital, healthy and caring places.
My job as the Executive Director of UROC is to coordinate and bring a framework to the foundational work that has been completed over the last three years. We are pulling together a timeline to document the successes of our efforts thus far.
We also know that not every effort has been successful. There are going to be mistakes made, but I hope that we can recover from any mistake and move forward. I am an “action” oriented person. While I like to talk, I am not a talking head. I am also a “doer.” And so my question will always be, “So okay, what can we do?
The community has said very loud and clear they are not the University’s laboratory. Thus, whatever we do in this community, if we have ideas, if we want to do research, the question we must ask ourselves is quite simple: “What’s in it for them?” How will the community benefit from this effort? So I am very clear about that, and I can tell you I try to keep this question in the front of my mind every day when people come to me and say, “There’s this grant out there.” My first set of questions is: “who are your community partners? And when are you going to bring them in?” We must understand that traditional models of doing basic research cannot apply here. We cannot bring community partners in at the end of the process. We must bring them in at the conceptualization of the research—at the very beginning. We must realize that this may mean that we can’t do this grant, because it may have a quick turnaround time. So, guess what? Maybe we need to wait until next year.
My role here is to develop some guiding principles for those within the University who have an interest in getting involved in this process of community-driven research, and to develop a structure to bring the ideas to fruition. The University sees University Northside Partnership (UNP) as the mechanism buy which it was able to convene community people, organizations, and city and state government representatives. Now the question is how do we move beyond this convening? Once you’ve got folks together and talking, now what? How do we keep the momentum going? I think UROC, and I love that acronym, should consider an advisory council as a part of its organizational structure to serve as the ongoing link to the UNP and the community. It’s very difficult to have large meetings and expect people to attend every time you want to do something. But you can have a council that represents the different community’s and other partners’ perspectives.
So a UROC-UNP Advisory Council is one idea; it represents one possible model of how to make sure that the work, the interests, the concerns, the questions that the North Minneapolis community has may continue to have a structured way to get discussed. In effect, what I am saying is that there has to be an institutionalized mechanism for the community to have input into UROC, on an ongoing and formal basis.