Charting a course for 'Collective Impact'

Byron White
Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Most growth cities do not pay serious attention to equity. They don’t have to.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg is different. And UNC Charlotte is critical to the region’s aspiration to ensure that every child and family benefit from the region’s economic growth, regardless of their race or ethnicity, city neighborhood or rural community.

That is the primary reason I was pleased to accept the invitation to join Provost Joan Lorden’s team as the University’s first associate provost for Urban Research and Community Engagement.

After dozens of mostly virtual interactions with stakeholders on and off campus since arriving, I am emboldened by the community’s and University’s mutual determination, which was fueled by an alarming study published nearly four year ago that ranked CharlotteMecklenburg last among 50 cities in an analysis of economic mobility.

Charting the course

Since that report, two novel documents were written that have inspired me and that chart a course for our work ahead.

One is the University’s Civic Action Plan, developed by staff from across the institution as well as civic leaders. The other is the community’s Leading on Opportunity report, facilitated by the Foundation for the Carolinas with input from hundreds of community participants.

As an observer and leader of urban strategy for more than 30 years — as a journalist and researcher, as a community organizer

and inner-city resident, and as a facilitator of partnerships between institutions and communities — I have seen my share of statements calling for community transformation. These two documents are distinctive in their focus, transparency and collective voice. The fact that they were issued in the same city around the same time makes them all the more remarkable.

UNC Charlotte’s Civic Action Plan calls for “organizing University resources, communitybased research efforts, and community collaborations to effectively address regional needs through collective impact.” It foreshadowed the creation of the new Office for Urban Research and Community Engagement, which I now oversee, by calling for “a centralized structure, with dedicated staff, to coordinate and support the University’s community engagement efforts and assess collective impact.”

Particularly noteworthy is the plan’s willingness to highlight the unique array of challenges facing the region, particularly disparities related to race and geography, and to acknowledge the institution’s own struggles to address them adequately despite its many contributions to the community. As a university administrator, I have seen few institutions so boldly express such shared accountability and responsibility.

Social and economic mobility

Likewise, as executive director of StrivePartnership in Cincinnati, I actively participated in a network of about 70 collective impact organizations in cities and rural communities across the country through StriveTogether. Not many were able to mobilize as unified a vision for their regions as the Leading on Opportunity’s focus on social and economic mobility.

These two powerful expressions reinforce a symbiotic relationship that is more critical now than ever as the nation’s urban areas grapple with a seemingly endless list of complex issues and as higher education navigates its own shifting landscape: Large cities and their surrounding areas need an anchor university to thrive. Urban universities must be relevant to solving the social and economic demands of their regions to survive.

Not too long ago, colleges and universities tethered to urban areas were considered to be at a disadvantage, burdened by the hardships of urban life and too dependent on enrollees perceived to be less prepared for college, especially students of color and those from families of modest economic means. Today, association with the successes and plight of the cities where they are planted is central to their value proposition and sustainability.

The benefits go well beyond the direct impact on local issues. Positioning UNC Charlotte as a visible and indispensable part of the region’s focus on equity and economic mobility — which is being highlighted nationally — will continue to raise its stature as one of the nation’s premier urban universities. Sharply aligning research and curricula to community-defined outcomes will attract a diverse group of young learners who increasingly are seeking relevant, applied graduate and undergraduate study that directly confronts complex social problems. Supporting and expanding faculty who are engaged in the community and deepening their partnerships will appeal to emerging higher education professionals who will want to be here and stay here.

Pragmatic plans

The Office of Urban Research and Community Engagement is charged with creating an infrastructure that allows these opportunities to flourish. Our work is focused in four overarching objectives that we are pursuing in collaboration with faculty, students, staff and administrators as well as with corporate, nonprofit, government and grassroots partners:

1) Align research, curriculum and engagement around the community’s framework to promote social and economic mobility. By identifying “areas of impact” that are adopted by the community as a whole we can create a shared language for applying University scholarship and resources to community innovation. It also will provide a foundation for establishing metrics and assessment tools that build evidence for our common work.

2) Establish a “community of engaged scholars” among faculty and researchers. It has not taken me long to discover the breadth of programs between UNC Charlotte and community partners. Our goal is to help all those university participants — whether they lead onetime volunteer efforts or long-term research projects — to see themselves as an interdependent force bringing measurable impact to the community.

3) Leverage student leadership, skills and lived experiences as essential to our engagement success. Enlisting students who come from throughout our region, especially those from marginalized urban and rural places, and learning alongside them to address the problems in their communities is critical for success and creates a dynamic learning environment that better prepares all students for the future.

4) Deepen the community’s access to and influence in guiding the University’s research and outreach. Residents and civic leaders are becoming less enthralled by what universities do in the community and more interested in whether what we do produces systemic solutions. Creating channels where the community is confident that our efforts are driven by their priorities and aligned to their assets is critical to that assurance.

UNC Charlotte was well on its way to achieving these goals before I arrived. The groundwork laid by the Urban Institute, the UCity Family Zone and numerous centers, institutes and initiatives in every academic college as well as non-academic functions across campus make it possible to aspire for the “deeper commitment to public purpose” that the Civic Action Plan demands. I am excited to join my new colleagues — on campus and in the community — to pursue this charge with urgency.

Byron P. White, Ed.D., is associate provost for Urban Research and Community Engagement.