Building Partnerships Between Colleges and Underserved Communities

By Michael Burns

During my 30-plus years with the federal government, I have held many great positions, such as Deputy Director of the Army Reserve Base Operations Division, and Executive Director of the Navy’s Southeast Region. I have enjoyed each and every position, but I never felt that I was giving back to communities as much as I would have liked.

Students from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College explore downtown development opportunities with the City of Ashburn master planner.

Students from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College explore downtown development opportunities with the City of Ashburn master planner.

Five years ago, I worked for the National Park Service, and attended a meeting with various federal agencies to work together on American Recovery and Reinvestment Act projects where we met with the Mayor of Hayneville, a small town in southern Alabama. The Mayor described how she had many infrastructure issues to address, but expressed concern about her city’s capacity to pass federal audit requirements that come with the funding needed to address the issues. She said a Certified Public Accountant told her it would cost about $20,000 to ensure she passed the audit. For a small, poor town of 1,080, such a fee was beyond their means. I thought about it, and remembered that a university only thirty minutes away could possibly help them. Unfortunately, due to work commitments, I was unable to follow through with the idea.

Many small, underserved communities, like Hayneville, are in need of resources to improve their environment and quality of life. However, they often lack the technical expertise in engineering, transportation, and infrastructure planning to pursue initiatives in a progressive and sustainable manner.

Eighteen months later, I was talking to folks from EPA Region 4 about this idea of connecting underserved communities with the talents of college students and faculty. They asked if I would be willing to collaborate with EPA. I agreed, and began to reach out to colleges and universities.

With no budget or funding to provide to the schools, it was tough going! Our first breakthrough came when the U.S. Department of Energy agreed to provide stipends to students through its Massie Chair of Excellence Program at Tennessee State University. The students worked with the City of Cooperstown, Tennessee, helping it upgrade its financial recordkeeping and develop an economic development plan. With this effort, we were able to prove that the college-community partnership concept was not only valid, but we could help make a difference in small, underserved communities. But the lack of funding continued to plague our efforts.

Our biggest advance came when Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, a small college in Tifton, Georgia, agreed to provide economic development plans for two small cities in Georgia with no financial support from the federal government. The College understood the value of giving its students such a rich experiential learning opportunity in which they could take what they learned in the classroom, apply it to real world problems, and come up with real-world solutions. The school also understood that such opportunities were more important than simply extending financial support to these cities. Just as critical was that the program gave their students a leg up when looking for employment after graduation – they not only could talk in interviews about what they learned, but about what they had DONE. In addition, the school is now an important pillar of the community. It is looked upon as an organization that can and has made a visible difference in these communities.

The briefing the school gave the communities about concepts and plans for economic development was fantastic! It has offered to help these communities develop grant proposals to move forward, and get the resources they need for improvements.

As a result of the growing success of the program, I was hired at EPA Region 4 to expand EPA’s College/Underserved-Communities Partnership Program (CUPP), which develops long-term partnerships between local colleges and universities and underserved cities and communities. Through the program, schools provide technical support to communities at no cost to them. Small rural communities are able to use this assistance to address important issues – like energy savings projects, land reuse, and economic development – that will support the long-term viability of their communities.

We continue to add colleges and universities to this effort, and in future blog posts we will talk about plans and projects that are moving these underserved communities forward. We are also looking for schools that wish to voluntarily be a part of this program. Do you know a school, or does your school want to make a difference in the lives of those who need the help the most? Let us know!

About the Author: Michael Burns is Senior Advisor to the Regional Administrator for EPA Region 4 in Atlanta, Georgia. Previously he worked for the U.S. National Park Service, where he served as the Acting Superintendent of the Tuskegee Institute Park and worked with communities in Alabama.

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