Creating Community and Connection

Friday, Aug 28, 2020
by Gwen McNamara, Communications Specialist

Since its founding by Princeton University students more than 30 years ago, Community Action (CA) has focused on community building, fostering connections with local community organizations, and challenging new students to think about the role service will play in their student experience. 

This year, 539 first-year students and 77 student leaders built upon CA’s traditions to explore what it means for Princeton University students to serve and build community in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, heightened awareness of racial injustice and the continued reality of oppression and violence against Black Americans, and during a presidential election year in the United States polarized across issues and candidates.

Designed by a cohort of five Community Action Fellows to be both reflective and interactive, CA used the online learning platform Canvas to share a mixture of pre-recorded content students could access at their own pace, and interactive sessions facilitated by student leaders over the three-day Orientation program.

Each of the 50 groups in CA had the opportunity to learn more about the local communities of Princeton and Trenton, NJ through online tours and connection to community and campus leaders through live or pre-recorded panel conversations. 

“Under more normal circumstances, we would be offering to take you on tours of our local communities in Trenton and Princeton,” said Pace Center Assistant Director David Brown in a video tour of Trenton and Princeton. “We take the time to do this because we know that you have to take the time to learn about not just the community’s challenges and issues, but also the assets and strengths it holds, because that is what you are going to build on.”   

Each group learned about a specific civic engagement theme, such as criminal justice and prison education, education and youth mentorship, hunger and homelessness, social innovation and technology, and sustainability. Within each theme, student leaders engaged first-year students in conversations designed to encourage them to dive deeper into their own stories and articulate their personal values. 
“We really wanted to prioritize some of the hallmarks of CA, like Brave Spaces, which gives students the opportunities to share about their lives and their backgrounds and their fears,” said CA Fellow Emily Perez, a sophomore at Princeton, in an interview for the Let’s Talk About … podcast. “So even though direct service is really difficult to achieve online, we still wanted to give students a strong introduction to the Princeton community and to the community partners that we usually work with as well.”

Even in its virtual form, CA continued to collaborate with campus partners like the Office of Sustainability and the Keller Center, as well as long standing community partners like HomeFront, the Trenton Circus Squad, Kids in Need of Defense, and more. 

During conversations with students many community partners talked about the challenges their organizations and communities face, particularly now facing the global COVID-19 pandemic, and discussed how continued collaboration is critical for meeting people’s needs. 

“For the first nine months of our fiscal year, from July 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020 we had prepared a total of 16,306 meals per month,” said Joyce Campbell, executive director of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK), in a video recording. “For the last three months, April, May, and June of this year, we provided 34,580 meals a month. So we have more than doubled our production. But it's so important to know that community support, whether it be in volunteerism, whether it be in putting lunch bags and food together and bringing it in, tying up utensils for us, providing money, community support is the backbone of TASK.”   

In addition to making meaningful connections, CA is also about action. As part of CA this year, students were encouraged to get involved and pursue more sustained engagement with the Pace Center, other units within Campus Life at Princeton, and with student organizations supported by the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students. 

In particular, CA emphasized the important role voting plays in our communities and highlighted the Vote100 initiative and encouraged students to engage and participate in the Undergraduate Student Government and their Residential College councils. 

As part of a closing video for CA, Pace Center staff shared hopes, tips, and advice for the Class of 2024 as they began their time at Princeton University. 

“Thank you for bringing your energy, excitement and enthusiasm to all of our activities and conversations over the last few days,” said CA Program Director Sara Gruppo in the video. “CA really is about making connections and I hope that you were able to start making relationships with your classmates and also with members of the local Princeton and Trenton communities.”