Written by
Gwen McNamara, Communications Specialist
Aug. 9, 2022

In July, members of the Pace Center for Civic Engagement and the Office of Community and Regional Affairs attended the Place-Based Justice Network's Summer Institute at the University of Pittsburgh. 

The Place-Based Justice Network is a consortium of colleges and universities focused on transforming higher education and communities by deconstructing systems of oppression through place-based community engagement. According to leading researchers, place-based community engagement is defined as "a long-term university-wide commitment to partner with local residents, organizations, and other leaders to focus equally on campus and community impact within a clearly defined geographic area."

Hosted by PBJN member, University of Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education, the Summer Institute included an extended site visit and joint learning exchange to unpack how Pittsburgh has embraced a city-wide approach to place-based community engagement. Back on campus, attendees reflected on their learning and experience. Here are a few of their thoughts:

Why did you want to attend the Place-Based Justice Network’s gathering?

"This concept and the progress that various institutions are making in this area is potentially the next level in civic engagement and volunteerism," said Ida Malloy, community partner-in-residence with the Pace Center and coordinator of civic engagement at The Baldwin School. "Too often, institutions come in as the savior instead of a authentic partner. It is impossible to build a relationship when one of the partners has an escape hatch and can leave the other holding the bag. Place-based justice meets folks where they are and seeks to address the immediate need."

Geralyn Williams, program coordinator with the Pace Center, was inspired by her previous experience with the network. "I attended because I had been to Pitt's PBJN workshops in the past and was always in awe of their work," she said. "The opportunity to learn more from them was a big reason why I went."

What did you learn?

"I definitely learned that this is a small world," said Fern Spruill, community partner-in-residence with the Pace Center and community advocate in Princeton, NJ. "When you think that you have certain injustices in your community you sometimes think its an isolated incident but you find out that the same things are going on everywhere." 

"I learned that like so many other aspects of social justice that this is a living and breathing concept," added Malloy. "All participants must be willing to be flexible and to lean into areas that are uncomfortable and unfamiliar."

What stands out to you as a memorable moment?

Malloy was inspired by the work of Jamilah (Jamie) Ducar, director of community engagement at the University of Pittsburgh. "Her energy and knowledge about the various communities in Pittsburgh and how the university has helped to create space and connection was inspiring and showed that anything is possible," she said. "Instead of taking away talent, the folks at the University of Pittsburg are intentional about being purposeful and dedicated to creating meaningful and measurable change. It is meaningful to me because I see so many places in Trenton where similar things are possible. The opportunities to build meaningful and useful connections between the university and the city of Trenton are infinite."  

Her fellow Community Partner-in-Residence agreed. "What stood out to me was the idea of what was available to the community at large," said Spruill. "That the university was adding to the community not subtracting from it."

How do you hope to use what you learned?

"I would love to help lead conversations and find ways to connect to some of our communities in Trenton," said Malloy. "I would love to help members of the Pace Center and the students build lasting and sustainable projects that have meaning and can bring about systemic change in areas of education and the stabilization of marginalized neighborhoods."  

"I hope to use what I learned to build coalitions between interested campus partners, the Pace Center and community," added Williams. "I hope to use this information to encourage us to be bold and equitable in our work in community."

For Duncan Harrison, Jr., assistant director in the Office of Community and Regional Affairs, the summer institute reinforced how higher educational institutions are essential and have an urgent need to build equity within communities. "However, to be a genuinely equitable institution, we cannot continue to do the same thing, just with a contemporary voice," he said. "Instead, we must look at how we will buy, build, hire, and how we help develop assets in under resourced communities. To accomplish this, placed-based community engagement must be at the forefront of our mission."  

Five attendees from Princeton University stand along a stone staircase.

From left, Pace Center Assistant Director David Brown, Pace Center Program Coordinator Geralyn Williams, Community Partner-in-Residence Fern Spruill (in hat), Community Partner-in-Residence Ida Malloy, and Assistant Director with the Office of Community and Regional Affairs Duncan Harrison, Jr.