University group wants to be official community contact

The Board of Community Engagement wants to be the official liaison between student groups and neighborhoods.

Kia Farhang

While several organizations already exist to connect the University of Minnesota to its surrounding community, one is trying to become the official link.

The Board of Community Engagement presented a resolution to University, Minneapolis and business officials on July 10 in the hopes of becoming the endorsed liaison between student groups and neighborhood organizations. The board is unique in the way it connects students to volunteer opportunities.

Recent graduate Chet Bodin founded the board last year as a committee of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly. He said he wanted to stop community connections from deteriorating after students graduate.

“It’ll give a continuity to the relationship,” Bodin said.

If the University District Alliance approves the proposal, the board will have more resources and connections when it starts meeting again in the fall.

But it’s unclear whether the board would have any power to enforce agreements between neighborhoods and students.

District members asked the board to refine its proposal before bringing it back next month.

Minneapolis Ward 2 City Councilman Cam Gordon referenced the other University units already handling community relations — the offices of Student and Community Relations and Government and Community Relations. As proposed, the board would be advised by the former.

“I’m trying to figure out if there are any toes that we might step on,” Gordon said.

But Jan Morlock, the University’s director of community relations, said it wouldn’t be a problem.

“This doesn’t sidestep anything else going on with students,” she said.

Making the board the official go-between will yield actual results, Bodin said, giving both student groups and the surrounding community more accountability. Both sides would have to answer to the alliance if their partnerships don’t work out.

Bodin said he doesn’t want the board to replace any other community relations offices.

“We’re not asking anybody to say this is the only way,” he said.

But the board would serve as a central hub. Student groups could tell the board what kind of work they’re interested in doing and get matched up with neighborhood organizations in need of help.

Filling in the gaps

Doug Carlson, former Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association president, said the board is a good idea.

“I think most student groups try to do some kind of philanthropy or community engagement,” he said. “We need more volunteers of all types.”

Carlson said students could help with neighborhood projects like cleaning up the Mississippi River or helping with restorative justice programs.

Public policy graduate student Julia Eagles worked with the Student and Community Relations office last year. Part of this included helping students look for energy-efficient housing at the University’s annual off-campus housing fair.

“We had a good experience,” she said. “I was impressed about the amount of information they had for students.”

Eagles said having a contact point like the board could be useful because many neighborhood organizations have limited funding and staff members. A board would help fill in communication gaps.

“It seems like [the University] should be — and is — a great resource for getting student volunteers,” she said. “But it’s hard to know unless you have an in.”

Carlson said the board could cut down on missed connections between neighborhood groups and students, which he said have been trying to link up for a long time.

“It’s been two ships passing in the night.”