Poverty, economic inequality and the education disparity that affects children in poor neighborhoods—they’re three hugely complex and important issues, and some people at the University of South Florida want to do something about them.
Such action has to start with conversation first, which is what about sixty interested faculty, researchers and students engaged in at a recent event, "Poverty and Inequality: A Forum on Research, Action, and Community Engagement."
When it comes to educational disparities, associate dean for academic affairs at the USF College of Education Harold Keller said part of the problem is that, despite our best efforts, some children are indeed being left behind.
“Part of what we need to look at is how do the policies that we’re setting up, how do they need to be changed in ways that in fact do take as our central focus educating all kids, not just some of the kids, and helping our teachers understand how they can become empowered to become teacher leaders and survive, in a sense, some of the policies that are out there,” Keller said.
For retired educator and Tampa activist Marilyn Williams, most of that disconnect comes because people of different backgrounds aren’t really talking to one another.
“We have not generally set up or provided safe spaces where people of different ethnicities and races can come together, we’re not doing it in public schools, and generally speaking, we’re not doing it on higher levels of education," Williams said. "And so until we can provide those safe spaces, that problem is going to be almost intractable; it’s not impossible.”
This discussion was just the first step. The next will be to reach out to the organizations working in these high-need communities.
“What we want to do is take what we know into the community and help create partnerships or do the kinds of things that we’re uniquely suited to do along with the people who are out there doing the things that they’re uniquely suited to do, so that we can create a synergy that actually works,” said forum co-organizer, USF Emeritus Professor of Anthropology Susan Greenbaum.
But before that happens, Greenbaum knows that there are self-inflicted problems they have to overcome.
“One of the difficulties that we have is a lot of what we’ve done in the past as a university is to try to engage with the leadership, with the elected officials, with people who have wealth and influence, and have not done a very good job of finding our way to people that are just regularly people, and particularly people who are low income people who are wary of the university,” she said.
She knows it will take time—she’s been working on various research projects in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood in Tampa for a decade and still faces resentment. To many people, most researchers of poverty and educational disparities are just "clipboard holders" who "parachute" into a neighborhood, ask some questions and then leave—only to come up with observations that insult residents or solutions that don't really solve anything.
What Greenbaum wants to get across is that the university is an “honest broker of information.”
“We aren’t the landlords, we aren’t the employers, we are people who have a stake in knowledge, and knowledge is something that can be shared and it’s part of the goal of the university to intercede in situations where there are these conflicts in power that can be resolved better with understanding,” she said.
Another way USF could help is by flexing its economic muscles.
"The university can also be an economic engine and work with people in the community to create what some people are calling ‘engaged learning economies,’" said Lance Arney, Associate Director of the USF Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships. "(These are) forms of engagement that actually help create job opportunities or help improve neighborhoods or those sorts of things and then it really is truly mutually beneficial.”
For people like psychology freshman Cassandra Fonseca, what's most important is that this talk turns into action.
“I’ve been to a lot of different community gatherings in my own community in Orlando where we actually just talked amongst ourselves in very educated conversations, and there was no type of action," she said.
"In this forum though, I do see a lot of drive to actually change the community.”