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Q & A with Vice Provost for University and Community Partnerships Lucy Kerman

January 6, 2012

Lucy Kerman
Photo by Tommy Leonardi

This article appeared in the inaugural issue of Drexel Quarterly, a publiation for Drexel faculty and professional staff, in December 2011.

Lucy Kerman, Vice Provost for University and Community Partnerships, wants faculty and staff to know that her job isn’t about what Drexel can do for the community. It’s about how the school can work in partnership with local leaders and nonprofits to get more done together.

Kerman believes in partnerships. As special projects coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, she helped establish the Penn Alexander School, a kindergarten through eighth grade school governed by an agreement between Penn, the School District of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Most recently, she served as vice president of policy and planning for the Urban Affairs Coalition, working with nonprofits throughout the region.

One year after joining Drexel, Kerman sat down with the Drexel Quarterly to talk about how the University’s engagement with the community is changing, and what faculty and staff can do to help the cause.

What is Drexel doing now that is different from what we’ve done before?

Drexel has a long tradition of civic engagement in all sorts of ways, and President John Fry’s vision is to bring it all together so the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That means in some cases creating better information and a clearer structure for engagement so we can have a stronger impact in our immediate neighborhood, in other Philadelphia communities, nationally, and around the world.

My work is really focused, at least initially, on our local community. The role of University and Community Partnerships is to help align our academic resources and our institutional investments to support a coordinated and comprehensive strategy in our West Philadelphia neighborhood, working closely with community partners and other stakeholders in the city.

What is your sense of Drexel’s relationship with the community?

First of all, there is no single community. Neighborhoods are made up of many different individuals, with different experiences and different goals—and often very different perspectives. The nonprofit groups that serve these neighborhoods have different priorities and capacities.

In West Philadelphia—where our students are living and the University has a big presence—and in Center City and East Falls, where our other campuses are, we have a very direct relationship with the community, and we affect everything from parking and housing to retail. It’s a “quality of life” relationship.

Our greatest impact has clearly been on Powelton Village and Mantua. We have a particular responsibility to work with these communities because our campus and our students are so much a part of their lives. Drexel has also been involved in other neighborhoods in Philadelphia for years, with projects like the 11th Street Family Health Services and the Chinatown Clinic. In those neighborhoods we are providing much needed services, and have become an integral part of the lives of area residents.

How does civic engagement fit into Drexel’s core mission?

I think civic engagement is fundamental to Drexel, and it is really expressed in three different ways. We have strong traditions of volunteerism and service among our students and our employees, everything from the service requirement for freshmen to student groups that routinely volunteer abroad. Through every college and school, faculty offer courses and conduct research that directly benefit communities, whether at home or abroad. We’re problem solvers, and when we do that on the ground, that is civic engagement. And finally, we see the potential to use our business practices—how we hire, the goods and services we purchase, who benefits when we build buildings—to support local economic development.

Everywhere I look at Drexel, I see creative, committed engagement.

It is also important to realize that universities have limited resources. As we work in our immediate neighborhoods, our contribution isn’t only about offering financial support for activities in the community. It is about building partnerships—using our expertise, time and energy to partner with other nonprofits and agencies so we can share investments of time and funds to make an impact. Our role is often to participate in planning and facilitate partnerships to raise attention to the needs of these neighborhoods.

One of Drexel’s skills is that we can bring people together to solve problems. We are partners, at the table with the community and other stakeholders. We have special expertise, but so do many others. We are not in this alone.

Can you tell us more about the strategy you’re developing?

I am focused right now at helping to improve conditions for our two neighborhoods, Powelton Village and Mantua.

We’ve identified six key goals that we believe reflect our capacity and can help improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods. With this as our framework, we are connecting with the community, both individuals and nonprofits, to match our strengths and interests with the community’s needs and goals.

It’s a comprehensive vision, because we understand that the challenges facing these communities are complicated. The broad goals are stabilizing housing, increasing safety and services in the neighborhood, improving education, creating lively retail with enhanced arts offerings, contributing to local economic development, and using our resources to improve the health and welfare of the community.

These represent the kinds of expertise and skills that we can bring to a partnership with different community groups. Powelton Village Civic Association has completed a neighborhood plan, and we are working closely with that plan to create new opportunities. In Mantua, we work with several nonprofits and are also participating in a neighborhood planning effort, supported by a HUD (US Department of Housing and Urban Development) Choice Neighborhoods planning grant and led by that community.

What are some projects that have come out of this structure in the past year?

One example is the LOOK! on Lancaster Avenue project, which ended in late November. The Powelton Village Civic Association had identified retail on Lancaster Avenue as a high priority, with the goal of bringing more businesses to move into vacant properties. We worked with the city and a large group of local artists to bring art to vacant windows and galleries along Lancaster Avenue. It raised the visibility of that very attractive and underutilized retail corridor. Our interest in supporting local artists and the community’s interest in having more attention on Lancaster Avenue came together in that project.

We have also begun working closely with our two neighborhood schools, the Powel School and McMichael School. We have a wonderful grant from PECO to help us develop a strong framework for community education. We can harness our expertise in professional development for teachers, providing tutors for children, providing afterschool opportunities—all defined by what the school principals, teachers and families want for their school, and then organizing on our side what we can bring to that relationship.

We’re just launching a job training program with the University City District and its West Philadelphia Skills Initiative and Drexel’s College of Medicine to train residents as medical assistants, with an opportunity to work there after the training. We are trying to create pathways to jobs for Mantua residents so we can help create more economic opportunity.

How do you plan to use faculty expertise and student learning for the benefit of the community?

The potential at Drexel is enormous. There are already great courses being offered and important research projects being undertaken in every college at Drexel, focused on applying knowledge to real world problems. Every week I learn about another new opportunity, a faculty interest or a student project. Part of the challenge is getting the word out, and we are working with the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement to set up a database where people can exchange information and learn about opportunities to collaborate.

There is great interest in directing some of this work to support the comprehensive strategy for Powelton Village and Mantua. It’s a learning opportunity, as well as an opportunity to contribute to change. For example, Franco Montalto in the College of Engineering helped put together a course over the summer with the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation as part of its Green 2015 program that examined storm water management possibilities for local playgrounds. How can we help design playgrounds that have better storm water solutions, provide kids with better and greener spaces to play, and become better resources for the whole neighborhood? Our faculty and students have the knowledge and the commitment.

Debra Ruben in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design is now planning a course on the redesign of the playground at the McMichael School. Her students will be involved in both planning with the children at the school and actual design to rethink the outdoor space at that school and come up with some improvements. The school will be deeply involved, and we’ll work to find the funds to make it happen.

The idea is to use the expertise and creativity that our faculty and students bring to problem solving to work in partnership with the community.

How can faculty and staff get more involved?

There are lots of volunteer groups at Drexel, and I’ve been meeting with them to help connect their interests to the needs of the community. Human Resources is taking the lead in creating a more centralized volunteer structure and information base for faculty and employees so we can make this connection more easily.

Every college has outreach and service activities, whether in this neighborhood, or elsewhere in the city—like the 11th Street Family Health Services—and globally, and we want to organize the information so more people can participate and coordinate their efforts.

We also released a call for proposals to the faculty to solicit ideas for new courses and research that focus on working with the local community. The hope is we’ll be able to use small grants to fund courses, research and service projects in the community.

--Kelly Andrews