Community members, VCU reflect on tradition of community-university partnerships

Division of Community Engagement celebrates 10 years, awards grants to projects

Representatives of the Carver Area Civic Improvement League honor Catherine Howard, Ph.D., vice p...
Representatives of the Carver Area Civic Improvement League honor Catherine Howard, Ph.D., vice provost for community engagement at VCU, (center) for her work on the Carver-VCU Partnership. Tito Luna, neighborhood outreach director at VCU, is at far left. Barbara Abernathy, a key figure in the founding of the partnership, is third from right.
Photos by Steven Casanova.

In 1996, Barbara Abernathy, president of the Carver Area Civic Improvement League, felt a creeping concern about Virginia Commonwealth University’s potential expansion into the Carver neighborhood on the north side of Broad Street, particularly in light of the pending construction of the Siegel Center. She arranged an appointment with then-VCU President Eugene Trani, Ph.D., to discuss those nagging worries and invited along her City Council representative, Tim Kaine, the future governor and U.S. senator.

The meeting proved highly productive with an open and candid exchange and marked the beginning of something new and vital between the neighborhood and university. From that appointment forward, a close collaboration developed between Carver and VCU that still thrives today. For more than two decades, the Carver-VCU Partnership has worked to create a shared urban community with a commitment to improving the neighborhood’s quality of life, while providing learning opportunities for students.

At the 10th anniversary celebration of VCU’s Division of Community Engagement on Wednesday, held at Cabell Library, Kaine reflected via a recorded video message on that partnership and VCU’s other community-minded contributions to the Richmond area. He called the university “a wonderful academic institution” that was also a “vibrant heart” of the city.

“Community engagement has become a real hallmark of VCU’s work during my time in public service,” Kaine said. “Richmond wouldn’t be where it is today without the strong contributions of VCU and the partnerships they creatively engage in every day.”

Kaine was one of several speakers Wednesday who lauded the impact that the Division of Community Engagement has made in its first decade and celebrated a host of community-university collaborations that have blossomed through the concerted efforts of students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members. The Division of Community Engagement was formed to help foster those partnerships — both existing ones, such as the Carver partnership, and new ones — and to provide resources and expertise that allow them to flourish.

“What’s been accomplished in just a decade is absolutely incredible,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., through a recorded video message. “We’re very fortunate to be located in the heart of Richmond and we treasure our neighbors. From arts programming to community wellness, these university-community partnerships have created such incredible goodwill.”

Levar Stoney, mayor of the City of Richmond, told attendees that he was not just pleased with what had been accomplished already but excited at what the future held. Stoney said VCU plays a critical role in the success of Richmond, and he hopes to seek fresh opportunities for collaboration. “I can think of no better partner than VCU,” he said. In particular, Stoney said he appreciated the work that VCU does to tackle the city’s biggest, most pressing challenges, such as public education and access to health care.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said he "can think of no better partner than VCU."
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said he "can think of no better partner than VCU."

“I’m thankful and grateful as the mayor of this city to benefit from your hard work,” Stoney said.

Catherine Howard, Ph.D., vice provost for community engagement, pointed to the Carver-VCU Partnership as the model for all community engagement efforts at the university. In particular, Howard said, the partnership had demonstrated the importance of meeting people in times and spaces that are convenient and comfortable for them, listening and responding to their priorities, and being transparent and forthcoming about the university’s plans and priorities.

By following those basic tenets, Howard said, “real relationships develop over time. These are the kinds of partnerships we try to do.”

Illustrating Howard’s point, several representatives of the Carver Area Civic Improvement League, including Abernathy, attended the anniversary celebration. The group surprised Howard by honoring her with a plaque in recognition of the work that she has done to ensure that the Carver-VCU Partnership remains strong.

Today, VCU has a full-time neighborhood outreach director, Tito Luna, who works closely with the community; Greg Felton, the VCU Police external relations officer; and the VCU Neighborhood Team. In addition, VCU established a neighborhood liaison group in 2013. With representatives from Carver, the Fan, Jackson Ward, Oregon Hill and Randolph, the group strives to share information and resources, pursue common goals and develop activities that enhance the community.

A key element of VCU’s community engagement efforts is the Council for Community Engagement, a network of representatives from all academic and major support units that facilitate VCU’s commitment to community engagement. The CCE helps spur university-community partnerships through grants, which are awarded annually in the spring. These grants are funded by the Office of the Vice President for Health Sciences, the Division of Community Engagement, the Center for Urban Communities and the Carver Fund.

Over the course of a decade, the CCE has awarded more than $1 million in grants to more than 70 projects with a direct impact on the community. Grants have provided a real-world context for research, teaching and service. For every dollar of seed funding invested, these community engagement grants have generated three dollars from external funding sources.

The 10th anniversary celebration served as the occasion to award a new set of projects with grants. In addition, four ongoing projects were recognized with Currents of Change Awards, which recognize outstanding university-community partnerships in research, outreach, teaching and student-initiated projects.

(From left to right) Yaoying Xu, Ph.D., professor of counseling and special education; Christina Bartholomew, Ph.D., assistant professor of counseling and special education; and Michelle Duffy, Ph.D., assistant professor of teaching and learning, with the VCU School of Education, and Katharine Hunt, director of operations, Youth Life Foundation of Richmond, who were honored with the Exemplary Partnership in Teaching award.
(From left to right) Yaoying Xu, Ph.D., professor of counseling and special education; Christina Bartholomew, Ph.D., assistant professor of counseling and special education; and Michelle Duffy, Ph.D., assistant professor of teaching and learning, with the VCU School of Education, and Katharine Hunt, director of operations, Youth Life Foundation of Richmond, who were honored with the Exemplary Partnership in Teaching award.


Community Engagement Grants

  • “VCU Sculpture Outreach Program.” Community partner: Art 180. VCU partner: Department of Sculpture and Extended Media in the School of the Arts and the Institute for Contemporary Art. A program to provide local high school students with free Saturday art classes focused on three-dimensional making.
  • “Building Interactive Environments for Older Adults with Autism that Promote Stress Management and Engagement.” Community partner: A Grace Place Adult Day Care Center. VCU partners: Department of Gerontology in the School of Allied Health Professions, the Department of Interior Design in the School of the Arts and the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center. A transdisciplinary team will design supports for stress reduction and active engagement in learning and leisure through creation of individualized adult sensory profiles, an interactive wall and interactive sensory boxes.
  • “An Interprofessional Intervention with Behavioral Health and Pharmacy Trainees to Reduce Smoking Rates in the Latino Population of a Free Health Clinic in Richmond.” Community partner: CrossOver Healthcare Ministry. VCU partners: Department of Pharmacotherapy & Outcome Sciences in the School of Pharmacy and the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. A project that aims to improve the smoking cessation rates in the Latino populations at CrossOver, providing a foundation for collaborative research and establishing an intervention model for underserved communities.
  • “Touching the Past: Enhancing Accessibility for Richmond’s Visually Impaired Community and Others to Virginia’s Heritage through 3D Printing.” Community partners: Department for the Blind & Vision Impaired and the Virginia Historical Society. VCU partners: Learning Excellence Academics Program and the Schools of Education and World Studies. A project to scan, create and develop 3D printed replicas of Virginia’s heritage using unique items from the Virginia Historical Society.


Community-Engaged Research Partnership Development Grants

  • “Asset-Based Community Development: A Model for Community Strengthening.” Community partners: City of Richmond Office of Sustainability, Embrace Richmond and Engaging Richmond. VCU partners: Center on Society and Health and the Department of Urban and Regional Planning in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. This grant will empower partnering organizations to develop an ABCD theoretical model, adapt it to be appropriate for Richmond communities and create a more holistic strategy to serve as a pilot for expanding civic engagement across the region.
  • “Building on Sacred Ground: The Art of Remembrance.” Community partner: Shockoe Bottom Center for Historic Reclamation. VCU partner: Departments of African American Studies and History in the College of Humanities and Sciences and the Department of Art Education in the School of the Arts. This partnership will foster discourse around the history of black people in the city and shaping university-community relations that are respectful and collaborative.
  • “Community Forestry Project.” Community partners: Carver Area Civic Improvement League, Capital Trees and Richmond Tree Stewards. VCU partners: Center for Environmental Studies and the Office of Sustainability. This partnership will investigate spatial distribution of urban tree cover in relation to socioeconomic and environmental factors, as well as policies to address inequities in urban tree cover ecosystem services.


Currents of Change Award Recipients

  • Exemplary Partnership, Student Initiated (Overall Currents of Change Award winner) – “CARES Clinic at VCU.” Community partners: Center for Healthy Hearts, CrossOver Healthcare Ministry and Health Brigade. VCU partners: Department of Physical Therapy in the School of Allied Health Professions. The CARES Clinic provides services to uninsured patients in the Richmond metro area and provides students an opportunity to enhance clinical skill development through guided practice.
  • Exemplary Partnership in Research – “Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention.” Community partners: Health Brigade and Nia Inc. of Greater Richmond. VCU partners: Departments of Kinesiology and Health Sciences and Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and the Wellness Resource Center. The Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention educates and trains African-American young adults to serve as peer resources for accurate information on HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
  • Exemplary Partnership in Outreach – “Hands Up Ministries with VCU ASPiRE.” Community partner: Hands Up Ministries. VCU partner: VCU ASPiRE. With the help of volunteers from VCU ASPiRE, Hands Up Ministries fixes up houses in disrepair in Richmond Highland Park neighborhood.
  • Exemplary Partnership in Teaching – “Preparing Urban Educators.” Community partner: Youth Life Foundation of Richmond. VCU partner: Department of Teaching and Learning in the School of Education. This project provides VCU graduate students enrolled in the special education Richmond Teacher Residency program unique opportunities to engage in service-learning courses, providing mentorship, teaching and reading interventions to students at the Young Life Foundation.

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