By Ranada Robinson, Senior Research Associate.
Two weeks ago, I was afforded the opportunity to attend the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Community Economic Development Conference hosted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (US HUD) and the HBCU Community Development Action Coalition here in Atlanta. The conference focused on educating attendees on what HBCUs are currently doing to move forward community development, what opportunities are available, and other strategic tips on how to maximize HBCU influence in communities that are often blighted, low-income, and even crime-ridden. I was especially interested and enthused to attend this conference because it fuses some of the major passions of my life—economic development, black communities, and my beloved HBCUs.
I am a graduate of an HBCU—Tougaloo College in Mississippi, and I have family members, including my mom, who graduated from Jackson State University and Alcorn State University, also in Mississippi. HBCUs have always held a special place in my heart. I grew up attending JSU football games, where I was mesmerized by the Sonic Boom of the South (Jackson State’s award-winning band). I attended summer camp multiple summers at both Jackson State and Alcorn, where I spent time receiving standardized test preparation, enrichment in math and science, and connecting with other black scholars from around the state. I came into my own as a student at Tougaloo, and I have never regretted my choice.
HBCUs have been the places where African American students could receive a well-rounded post-secondary education when other opportunities were not available. HBCUs provide not only a cultural experience but a fundamental opportunity to obtain the necessary educational foundations required in a world that relies on skills and knowledge. As “anchor institutions,” HBCUs are not just student centers—they have traditionally provided much needed services to their surrounding communities, including recreational opportunities, training opportunities for non-traditional students, and even senior care and early education services. During the Civil Rights Movement, many HBCUs served as safe havens and provided meeting places for leaders,Freedom Riders, and the like.
When I hear people ask what value HBCUs have in today’s world, several statistics come to mind: according to Thurgood Marshall College Fund, although HBCUs represent only three percent of the nation’s institutions of higher learning, they graduate nearly 20 percent of African Americans who earn undergraduate degrees. Additionally, HBCUs graduate more than half of African American professionals, including 80 percent of African American judges, 70 percent of African American dentists and physicians, 50 percent of African American engineers, and 50 percent of African American public school teachers. HBCU are indeed still necessary because workforce development is still imperative, and HBCUs are getting the job done – on meager budgets. According to Dr. Julianne Malveaux, former president of Bennett College, the combined endowments of all HBCUs equal less than ten percent of Harvard University’s endowment. The impact that HBCUs have, along with the established influence they have in black communities, make them viable partners for cities and regions around the nation. Making sure HBCU leaders are at the table when strategizing community-wide plans is imperative because they have established relationships and rapport with constituencies that may be otherwise untapped or underutilized.
At the conference, I heard from college presidents as well as community development corporation directors about their current community and economic development strategies. Here are a few of the efforts HBCUs are employing to better the communities near their campuses around the country.
Morgan State University, Baltimore, MD – Morgan Community Mile – The university reached out to more than 50 Northeast Baltimore neighborhood associations around its campus and developed a plan to improve the quality of life within a 12-square-mile area that is home to more than100,000 residents. Priorities addressed in the strategic effort include increasing health and safety on and off campus, providing additional educational and youth development opportunities within the neighborhoods, increasing economic and business opportunities, and continuing to create better relationships between the university and citizens. The school has also acquired land in a blighted area near campus and are developing three academic buildings, including a center for its Earl G. Graves School of Business and Management, slated to be completed in summer 2014. The other two buildings will be a behavioral and social sciences building and a school of community health. The development has been instrumental in improving the area, which includes a troubled shopping mall, Northwood Plaza.
Rust College, Holly Springs, MS – Home Ownership Program – Rust College’s Community Development Corporation seeks to transform the low-income rural area near campus into a vibrant, self-sustaining community. To do this, they have begun constructing environmentally conscious homes with US HUD grant funding – to date, they have completed 11 of these homes. In addition, they have worked closely with the city to ensure that the area has nice streets, electricity, and water. The college provides new homeowners with education, counseling programs, and financial literacy classes.
Winston-Salem State University, Winston-Salem , NC – Enterprise Center and Simon’s Green Acre Community Garden – WSSU’s S.G. Atkins Community Development Corporation has two ventures positively impacting its surrounding community. The Enterprise Center, which is housed in the redeveloped former Boys & Girls Club building in a blighted corridor, provides business development opportunities for small businesses and focuses on educating business owners on conservation and energy efficiency. The incubator is full and has a waiting list of entrepreneurs interested in moving in. A win-win for the university and for the community, students have been hired by member businesses over the summer, and one student was even hired full time. The Center has won an Economic Development Administration Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Simon’s Green Acre is a community garden created to address the status of the community as a food desert. Through this effort, WSSU students, faculty, staff, and community residents work to provide fresh produce and improve health outcomes –in just the past two years, the garden has produced 15,000 pounds of produce. The university offers hands-on learning opportunities to students and residents in sustainable horticulture and therapeutic gardening.
Langston University, Langston, OK – T.G. Green Park Softball Field and Farmers Market – The Langston University Center for Community Engagement has leveraged US HUG grant funding to revitalize a dilapidated park into an NCAA regulation-size softball field and to construct a 3,600-square-foot Farmers Market. The university and the city both invested in this effort and have a memorandum of understanding that allows the university’s softball team to call the field home while also using it to train local children in intramural sports. The Center also leveraged funding to open a Farmers Market that provides space for local farmer and craftsmen to sell produce and other artisan goods.
These are just examples of how HBCUs are taking their role as anchor institutions in oftentimes low-income communities seriously. HBCUs, like other universities, are pillars in our communities and should be considered strong partners in community and economic development efforts.