New Student Initiative Asks Anchor Institutions to Rethink their Communities

An Interview with Alan Smith of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network
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Sarah McKinley

The Democracy Collaborative recently sat down with Alan Smith of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network to talk about their new Rethinking Communities Initiative. Inspired by the legacy of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Roosevelt Institute promotes the work of progressive economist and social policy thinkers and supports the next generation of leaders as they design solutions to current pressing issues. Their Campus Network is the nation’s largest student policy organization with 115 chapters at colleges and universities in 38 states, working to further progressive ideas, civic leadership, and long-term change.

As the Associate Director for Networked Initiatives, Alan Smith works with student leaders to coordinate projects across chapters and is leading implementation of the Network’s newest initiative. Using the Democracy Collaborative’s Anchor Dashboard as a framework, the Rethinking Communities Initiative evaluates colleges and universities as anchor institutions to determine how they can work best with their communities to improve economic development, civic engagement, and quality of life. In highlights from this interview, Alan talks about what inspired the initiative, how the Dashboard has influenced it, and what they hope it will accomplish. 

This weekend, Democracy Collaborative founder Gar Alperovitz will be keynoting the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network’s Rethinking Communities Mid-Atlantic Spring Conference at George Washington University.

Democracy Collaborative: What inspired the Rethinking Communities Initiative?

Alan Smith: The campus network has always been a loose affiliation of different nodes in a network. We had chapters around the country who were all working under the same auspices of public policy but the directions that they took, while often very influential, useful, and interesting, were often very disparate.  We’d done some national visioning and made a Blueprint for Millennial America in 2010.  The most recent is called Government By and For America.  But these were all big picture visioning documents and didn’t get us to impact like we wanted.  So we started to figure out what was something that multiple chapters could see themselves reflected in, multiple policy interests could see themselves reflected in, but that also drove us toward something that is impactful and direct.  And out of a serious three or four months of discussion with our chapter leadership – and anyone who I could track down on the phone, and alumni and all that sort of stuff – we came up with the Rethinking Communities theme as a way to locate our policy work at the hyper-local and connect it to the people who live in the shadows of the institutions where we were spending four years. 

Democracy Collaborative: How did the Dashboard play in to that?

Alan Smith: The Dashboard gave us a collective way of envisioning the problem.  So we’ve operationalized it into about 35 different questions.  And…basically the questions are our way of saying “If you’re a chapter who is doing this Rethinking Communities project, you’re going to get this holistic sense of your university’s footprint and you’re going to – by answering these 35 or 40 questions and sitting down with the administration and connecting with the community as needs be – you’re going to get a real sense over four or five months of where all the different moving parts are.” And then from that, we want them to develop “this is the metric that we think is the most important to improve.” Either because it is low hanging fruit or because it is vital that it happens now.

So one of our charges at the beginning of all this was “what can we do to get a shared experience of this project?” And that’s what the Dashboard is.  It’s a way for students to say “here’s what we have in common” by trying to answer these questions and by discovering “hey, [X University] does not track local procurement, they have no database of any of this.” So what the project at [X University] becomes, maybe, is can the students take charge on leading a sourcing of local procurement? Can they spend a year mapping that and then turning that over to the administration and saying “here’s where you should go buy.” That’s the kind of stuff we’re playing with.

Democracy Collaborative: So the Dashboard has helped give guidance to students on how to direct their efforts at their institution?

Alan Smith: One of the greatest parts about the Dashboard for me is you make it so open sourced. …Some of the questions didn’t hit, so what we end up doing, for example, [with] affordable housing is: All the students [say]: “nothing. They’re doing nothing about affordable housing.” That was the answer across the board.  So, then we [realized], “Ok, then let’s change the question.” And the question became not how much is your university or college investing in keeping housing pricing low but how much of a deleterious effect can you track about the areas directly around your university and what do the rings look like.  So that give-and-take has been really interesting.  And I think one of the best parts, from my position as trying to be both an organizer and a teacher, is that these questions open up more questions – answering these questions opens up another series of questions that are then really fun to pick apart and go in to.   

Democracy Collaborative: How is the initiative going so far?   

Alan Smith: We have 27 colleges, chapters who are signed up. I would say of those, the research phase started in January when we felt like we had questions that were ready to operationalize in some way, shape, or form.  As of right now I would say we…have some schools that are really kind of far along – that are doing it in some way shape or form.  And for some of them “doing it” means they’re dropping by their administration’s office every day and saying “how about today?” And other people have gotten more of a sit-down meeting and have gotten further along in that we know where this number comes from, we don’t know where that number comes from yet. So the [event this weekend] is going to be the first time we’re trying to move from “OK, some of these schools have some research” and now we’re going to tell each other about what we’ve found and figure out what that means, what operationalizing it means.

Democracy Collaborative: What has been the general reception on campuses from administrations?

Alan Smith: We have definitely had some people who are like, “We love what you all are doing, this is fantastic, we are in on this, but we still haven’t figured out what it means to be ‘in on it’.” And then there are other places that are like “What? Who are you?” We are definitely [talking about it] 100% as a research project – we’re not telling anyone that we’re here to throw stones or occupy faculty buildings. We’re [saying] “this is very important to you and we’re here as a resource to help you do it better.”

Democracy Collaborative: Where is the project going and what are the next big steps?

Alan Smith: The next [step is in] August which is our big student convening at Hyde Park where we get everyone to reaffirm that they want to keep doing this. That’s where we reaffirm that we want to keep doing this and try to get new chapters on board for the next academic year. And then by December, which is our first funding deadline, my goal is to have four or five, funded by us…projects which are not necessarily to the point of having a “win” but are definitively trying to improve one of the metrics. And what I would really love to have happen is I would love to have one win in the bank where we are then turning our eye as a chapter to what state or local law could – if it were changed – turn this trickle in to a stream. Because that’s where I really eventually want this project to be looking. To look at not only anchor institutions but then [look at] what does and doesn’t work…because of coop law and because of tax law and because of all of these things that are preventing community wealth from being effectively built. Those [laws] should change – if they’re not doing what we want them to do, they should change.  I think that this, as a stepping stone to a four year project to start putting some pressure on a local government, would be really what Roosevelt’s wheelhouse is in some long term way.