By Gretchen Minekime August 8, 2022
Twelve CU Boulder colleagues boarded a small bus bound for Pueblo, La Junta, Trinidad and Walsenburg. It was one of this summer’s first sweltering days. There had been a last-minute driver change, and everyone started joking about the trip’s auspicious beginning when the bus door wouldn’t close properly. Despite the hiccups, excitement was in the air as everyone settled in. The inaugural Community Perspectives Tour had begun. The mission: Meet local leaders and learn about community-led efforts to address opportunities and challenges in Colorado communities beyond the Front Range and, in turn, share what expertise and tools CU Boulder might bring to the table.
The faculty members in the Community Perspectives Cohort and the Office for Outreach and Engagement staff were aware that listen-and-learn tours are sometimes, and understandably, met with skepticism. Those being “listened to” often report disbelief that “the listeners” will take any demonstrable action. Everyone knew the message needed to be precise: Planned meetings were to be initial conversations, with the hope that introductions could develop into long-standing partnerships in Pueblo, La Junta, Trinidad and Walsenburg.
Community-engaged scholarship (research, teaching or creative work) is usually about the long game. It takes time and intention to build relationships, identify common goals and build working partnerships rooted in trust. Community members were hopefully going to lean into this relationship-oriented approach.
Between June 8-10, the group met with 51 community leaders and visited local organizations and landmarks, including Watertower Place, the Steelworks Center of the West, and the Pueblo Levee Mural Project in Pueblo; Otero State College in La Junta; a local acequia (a shared irrigation ditch or canal) and Art Cartopia in Trinidad; and the Museum of Friends in Walsenburg. The group encountered skepticism but also found many community representatives were eager to explore potential partnerships with cohort members and others from CU Boulder. Staff and faculty members from other colleges and universities were among the most receptive.
After three incredibly full days, the group boarded the bus for home. Contemplation was in the air this time. Across all the sessions, residents had discussed significant housing and healthcare challenges and struggles to compete with Front Range communities for needed funding and resources. Residents had also voiced pride about their communities’ strength, resilience and resolve. During the drive home, cohort members’ questions were clear, if not easily answered: How could they translate what they’d heard about incredibly complex and systemic issues into meaningful action? What should the next steps be for fostering partnerships and leveraging university expertise?
For some of the cohort members, the questions themselves have since contributed to new perspectives about their scholarly work and the role of CU Boulder in Colorado.
“I was really taken by how our trip helped me to understand better how, as a faculty member at Colorado’s flagship institution, I might better understand and utilize opportunities to serve residents of our state more effectively,” said Steve Lamos, associate professor in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric and the Department of English.
Some members have gone back to their departments to explore how their and other colleagues’ expertise might support solutions to the challenges raised. Others have continued dialoguing with community members to learn more and develop plans. The Office for Outreach and Engagement team will continue to support the faculty as they concretize projects, as well as look more broadly across campus to academic departments and programs that might also help address the identified needs.
Each faculty member is now eligible for a seed grant to develop an outreach or engagement project with one or more of the communities visited. Excitement still surrounds conversations among cohort and staff members, but so does the awareness that embarking on community-engaged scholarship takes a significant investment of time and trust-building.The success of the work boils down to the success of the relationships involved, but the payoffs change lives.