Students research Cedar-Riverside

Graduate students have partnered with the neighborhood for five years.

by Anissa Stocks

Two years ago, Angela Determan didnâÄôt know much about the community across the street from her school.

The then-graduate student started volunteering with the Cedar-Humphrey Action for Neighborhood Collaborative Engagement âÄî a class offered in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs âÄî to get her feet wet in the neighborhood.

After volunteering for a year, Determan enrolled in the course last year and has since graduated. But she said the hands-on approach to neighborhood development continues to impact students, residents and community members.

As part of the course, 11 students will present their research to residents next week. Residents and community members will then vote on which proposals theyâÄôd like brought out into the neighborhood.

Since 2007, the year-long capstone community-based research course offered through the Humphrey School lends students opportunities in neighborhood planning each year. Before that, the University of Minnesota had virtually no ties to Cedar-Riverside, said Osman Ahmed, president of the West Bank Community CoalitionâÄôs board of directors.

But CHANCE and similar programs are helping those ties grow. The gap between the neighborhood and the students who live and study there is  shrinking, he said.

Students start work on their projects outside the classroom after the votes are tallied, working with organizations including the WBCC, the West Bank Business Association and the Cedar-Riverside Neighborhood Revitalization Program throughout the year.

Ahmed, who moved to Minnesota in 1996 and lives in Riverside Plaza, said the class is one of the few offered through the University thatâÄôs connected to the neighborhood.

âÄúThe University of Minnesota is now trying to reach the community âÄî thatâÄôs something weâÄôve hoped for,âÄù he said. âÄúBut itâÄôs been a difficult journey for [the WBCC].âÄù

The student-led program addresses barriers between the two groups, said CHANCE community partnership coordinator Merrie Benasutti.

CHANCE student Nahila Ahsan said the area is âÄúthe perfect urban planning lab.âÄù

Ahsan is part of a team working on a strategic planning proposal to help restore the neighborhoodâÄôs Bluff Street Park âÄî located between Northern Pacific Bridge No. 9 and the 10th Avenue Bridge. Although the proposal might not be picked up by the community, she hopes to continue her involvement with the neighborhoodâÄôs project taskforce.

Small  numbers, big projects

While the course has seen success through its projects, enrollment remains limited. About 12-15 students typically register each fall.

But small numbers donâÄôt mean small projects.

As a result of four former CHANCE studentsâÄô work, the Somali Justice Advocacy Center launched a database in May, which collects statistics and information about the communityâÄôs population and places  it in one location.

The neighborhood has historically been one of the hardest areas to count in Minnesota, Benasutti said.

Cedar-Riverside has been undercounted over the past two decades as immigrant populations moved in. Some ethnic and racial groups âÄî like Somali âÄî arenâÄôt listed in compiled U.S. census data.

More than 15 projects have stretched into the community over the years.

Another spring project looked at the potential for a neighborhood Youth Development Center âÄî where young people can build leadership skills to apply within the community.

Ahmed said there is a need for more projects that consider the areaâÄôs newly immigrant populations, and he hopes some of the proposals  reflect that.

Determan teamed up with two other students on the âÄúIntern LinkâÄù project âÄî connecting graduate students with local businesses. The project, which uses students as resources for business marketing and consulting, was picked up by the West Bank Business Association.

The organization hired a graduate intern this month after considering research conducted by the students.

The University has pushed for more communication with neighborhoods in the past few years, said Jeff Corn, community programs assistant at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. But many  of the efforts are the result of graduate research.

While CURA typically has  60 to 80 research projects per year, only about 12 are conducted by undergraduates.

Determan said the research-based efforts help students reach real people with real problems.

âÄúThereâÄôs not an invisible fence between the neighborhoods and the University âĦ We need to engage in a respectful manner,âÄù Determan said.