Pitzer’s Community Engagement Center builds on 20 years of bringing people together to make an impact

Community Engagement Center: 20 Years

This article first appeared in Pitzer College’s alumni magazine, The Participant. Read the full fall/winter edition online.

Jenessa Flores Parker ’10 knows that not every child’s early exposure to education is positive. She also realizes how much this matters. As an urban fellow for Pitzer College’s Community Engagement Center (CEC), she spoke with young men at Camp Afflerbaugh-Paige, a Los Angeles County juvenile detention center and CEC partner organization. Many had disliked their school experience from the start.

Now Flores Parker is the Pitzer College site director for Jumpstart, a national nonprofit organization and CEC community partner that prepares young children from low-income neighborhoods for academic success. She and Pitzer students team with Jumpstart sites at local Easter Seals Child Development Centers to create a positive learning environment for preschoolers. The experience has made a bigger impact on Flores Parker than any other, and she is certain the Pitzer students feel the same.

“Working with the children makes Pitzer students realize the world is unfair but that there are things they can change. Some end up becoming teachers or working on policy change. A lot have become Fulbright scholars. They grow into leaders,” explains Flores Parker. “It all comes back to their experience at Jumpstart and seeing the big picture. They realize the difference between equality and equity. And at the end of the year, there are always tears— not from the children, but from the college students. The children are in their hearts and stay there forever.”

Producing positive change through community collaborations has always been the motivating force behind the CEC, from its founding 20 years ago by faculty members Alan Jones and Lourdes Arguelles to today under the leadership of Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Assistant Vice President of Community Engagement Tessa Hicks Peterson.

The CEC originated with a desire to improve how Pitzer students engaged the community. Jones recalls: “The College had volunteer opportunities to work with the community, but the way these related to the curriculum wasn’t clear. We had the idea that students would take courses in nearby Ontario and do an internship with a municipal agency or nonprofit organization to learn how cities work. Then we would talk about how various factions in a city might function better together.”

That idea became the Pitzer in Ontario program, with Jones as director. But he and Arguelles saw a need for something more.

“One of the limitations was that students would be there for a semester and leave,” explains Jones. “We wanted to come up with a model where you didn’t have jarring arrivals and departures in the middle of ongoing projects.”

The result, in 1998, was the Center for California Cultural and Social Issues (CCCSI), which later became the CEC. Designed in consultation with community partners, the CCCSI incorporated five-year plans and provided a framework for the program’s evolution.

“The student faces might change, but what was expected of us was laid out. It was good for our partners because nonprofits operating on a shoestring rarely get to do strategic planning,” says Jones, who became the CCCSI director.

Most important, the relationship between the College and its community partners was based on mutual respect and input. Jones explains: “In the charity model, the community is a pocket of need, and you are the salvation. That’s problematic. Our jumping off point was that we were members of a community, and we embedded community engagement in the academic program. I didn’t know of anyone else doing that at the time.”

20 Years in Ontario

The Pitzer in Ontario (PIO) program, like CEC, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Two decades ago, PIO created a program that immersed students in local social change movements through a set of core courses, critical community studies and research methodology, including a 150-hour practicum with local organizations. Recently renamed CASA Pitzer, the program is now housed in a historic building in the heart of downtown Ontario. At CASA Pitzer, local nonprofit agencies share space with students to create a hub for academic programs, community action and social advocacy.

Pitzer was ideally suited to this approach to community engagement: Social responsibility, student engagement and intercultural understanding are among its core values. With this mindset, viewing community organizations as collaborators and co-educators came naturally.

Since then, courses in the theory and practice of social responsibility and social justice have become a student graduation requirement. The College also made community engagement recognized in faculty promotion and tenure decisions.

Community engagement staffing increased when urban fellow positions were created to enable Pitzer students to work full-time at partner sites after graduation. It also changed, with Jones transitioning from CCCSI director to dean of faculty.

“I became a champion of our interdisciplinary, community approach to engagement, the idea that you could do meaningful pedagogy,” says Jones, who served as dean until 2012. “I think we had a number of faculty come to Pitzer because this was precisely what they wanted to do.”

Today’s CEC is still part of Pitzer’s academic enterprise. This helps in fulfilling the CEC’s mission to support faculty, students, staff and partner organizations advancing social responsibility and community engagement through research, service, advocacy and action.

“With our office situated in academic affairs, we’re better able to leverage resources and our impact,” says Tricia Morgan ’08, who joined CEC in 2008 is now managing director. “We’re here to connect people and bring theory to practice.”

Professor of Psychology Mita Banerjee connected theory to practice when she created opportunities for students in her Child Development course to work with at-risk children through Prototypes Women’s Center, local schools and other community organizations.

“From the very beginning, it was clear to me that this interaction was the magic in the course,” says Banerjee, who is now the interim chair of Pitzer’s Institute for Global/Local Action & Study and faculty co-director of CEC. “That face-to-face connection to children, particularly to at-risk children, really brought the kinds of things we were talking about, reading about and writing about full circle.”

Morgan adds that Pitzer’s interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approach to education allows the CEC “to facilitate community-based research that supports the needs of communities.”

Tvonga elders Julie Bogany and Deborah Drake

Native Initiatives

During her first year as an elder-in-residence with Pitzer’s Community Engagement Center, Tongva elder Julia Bogany invited three students to her house to weave reed baskets, share life stories and learn about Tongva culture. This small circle formed around a question central to Bogany’s concept of community: “How do people take care of each other unless they know each other?”

Bogany has now worked with CEC’s Native Initiatives program for a dozen years, creating engagement opportunities for Pitzer students, faculty, staff and local Native American communities. She says these interactions foster mutual learning as well as collective action.

“I tell students all the time, ‘I’m not just the teacher, I’m learning from you, too,’” Bogany says. “It’s about learning. It’s also about how we can go hand in hand and show the world that we can change it. Can we work together? That’s what’s important.”

The CEC has worked for many years with core partners Camp Afflerbaugh-Paige, Prototypes Women’s Center, the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center for day laborers, Jumpstart and a variety of Native American programs. The Center also provides funding to support student participation in community-based projects and for faculty to incorporate community-based speakers and course materials in their classes. This year CEC also sponsored the Pitzer–Girls Fly! Global Intergenerational Women’s Leadership Conference, awarded fellowships and summer internships, and recognized students for their academic and community engagement.

Hicks Peterson emphasizes that the Center is far from the only force on campus pushing for social change and service learning. She cites the many faculty-led community engagement efforts that fall outside CEC’s direct purview, such as Professor Paul Faulstich’s work with the Leadership in Environmental Education Partnership, Professor Ethel Jorge’s creation of the Community-Based Spanish Practicum and Professor Kathleen Yep’s collaboration with Literacy for All of Monterey Park.

Collectively, all these programs create opportunities for students to learn about critical issues in “rigorous, intellectually challenging ways,” Hicks Peterson says.

“The work broadens their understanding of their own identity. It impacts the careers they choose, their political activism, what they study in graduate school. The impact is immeasurable. We have countless stories of how it changes lives.”

The CEC is changing as well. Reflecting on how to build on the first 20 years, Hicks Peterson and Morgan realized the CEC provided more direct service than originally envisioned. Meanwhile, assessments revealed faculty and students could be better equipped for community engagement.

“Our core partnerships created a reliance on our ability to provide service. But our work aims to go beyond service to collective changemaking. We’re bridges, allies and engaged participants,” says Hicks Peterson.

Now CEC is focusing on developing communities of practice, training students and faculty, and providing online resources. It is shifting from a model centered on a few core partners to one that incorporates more academic disciplines and five broad themes: immigration and labor; health and environment; arts and culture; education and mentoring; and incarceration, re-entry and recovery.

“It’s a sustainable model that allows us to support more faculty and more ideas,” explains Hicks Peterson. “The thematic clusters get to the heart of topics that are important in our communities. Under each cluster, there will be courses, clubs and organizations that work within that area. Collectively, we can move the needle on the social issues of our times.”