John Marx, Ph.D.

Community Engagement and Aggie Square

by John Marx

One measure of Aggie Square’s success will be the project’s ability to catalyze UC Davis faculty engagement with communities in the greater Sacramento area. 

Faculty from both of our campuses are fully involved in such work, it is important to note, even amidst the pandemic. In fact, they are finding that events of the past months, weeks and days are lending a new urgency to their endeavors. They are also finding innovative ways to take advantage of the platforms available during this unnerving period. 

Aggie Square will be built to abet innovative public scholarship and outreach, while providing a new front door for community access to the university in the pandemic’s wake. Precisely because engaged scholarship generates new knowledge with community stakeholders, it adds something crucial not only to a public-facing project like Aggie Square but also to our university’s land grant mission as a whole. 

Innovative Community Engagement During the Pandemic

“Building trust and keeping relationships strong are crucial to working with community partners, and that is far more challenging when we can't be together in-person,” reflects Ryan Meyer, director of the Center for Community and Citizen Science at the UC Davis School of Education. 

“The pandemic is obviously putting quite a bit of stress on our partner organizations,” he continues, “and we spend quite a bit of time just trying to understand, as deeply as we can, the implications of this new (and shifting) reality for them.”

“It’s hard to do community engagement without meeting the community,” agrees Luis Carvajal-Carmona, whose lab at the university’s Genome Center conducts research on cancer and human genetics while collaborating with the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center to increase Latino participation in preventative screenings and clinical trials. “Latinos have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis. About a third of the surrounding Latino population are foreign-born, and a good fraction lack basic health insurance. Our focus has been on increasing cancer awareness and prevention and we worry screening rates will decline.”

Carvajal-Carmona’s team is finding “creative ways” to maintain contact, “mostly through teleconferencing and social media.”

Oanh Meyer (no relation to Ryan Meyer), principal investigator for the Department of Neurology’s Diversity and Disparities Lab, reports similar efforts to stay in touch “through Zoom, telephone, or email” with community members who are struggling “to stay socially and physically active (especially those who are caregivers caring for family members with dementia).” 

Public scholars from the humanities to the sciences are finding ways to make the most of the pandemic’s dominant media platforms. The Center for Reducing Health Disparities took its Science Cafe to Zoom, hosting a conversation there between Public Health Professor Brad Pollock and Sacramento City Councilperson Eric Guerra, who represents one of the districts adjacent to the Aggie Square site and who has been a steady presence in the project’s community outreach efforts. 

From Virtual Engagement to Aggie Square

If the pandemic is bringing virtual visibility to faculty community engagement efforts, the Aggie Square project means to build on such creativity by helping “faculty to connect with civic actors in a physical space to generate ideas, tackle complex problems and engage in public discourse,” says Michael Rios, Vice Provost for the office of Public Scholarship and Engagement.  

Aggie Square can strengthen community-engaged work by being a platform or “stage set” where such collaborations can take place. This might involve community-based organizations and partners meeting and co-locating on the site with UC Davis researchers. It might mean putting university programs in what will be a more publicly accessible and visible place than their current departments. Either way, there will be more possibilities for collaboration and co-creation of knowledge, instead of the one-way “outreach” model, which presumes UC Davis faculty develop the knowledge and then simply disseminate it. 

The Quarter at Aggie Square experiences starting fall 2020 offer an early glimpse of how Aggie Square serves as this kind of platform for building and sustaining community engagement efforts involving students as well as faculty. Immersive learning and internship opportunities related to topics including transformative justice, bilingual education, and health equity will generate collaborative, co-creative opportunities for our students and community partners. 

Add possibilities for individual faculty members and public-facing centers to colocate and Aggie Square becomes a hub for “civic innovation, community serving, and policy relevant work—the types of activities our faculty find meaningful,” Rios notes. 

Hopefully, we will be able to help faculty capitalize on lessons they are learning during the pandemic. “I’ve learned that people appreciate knowing that we are checking in on them and that UC Davis cares about their well-being,” Oanh Meyer recounts. “It is a good reminder that communities want to hear that researchers care about them and their needs, pandemic or not.” 

For Ryan Meyer, the pandemic has reinforced the need for a can-do attitude: “I have realized that there is value, sometimes, in setting aside the billowing uncertainty about the future, and just agreeing on something we know we can do together now.” 

“I think we will be using more and more telemedicine approaches,” Carvajal-Carmona indicates,  and “they will make our work more efficient.” 

Telemedicine is an excellent example of a technology that is having its moment now but that will be useful for engagement in the long term. At a recent COVID-19 Research Virtual Town Hall, Lorena Garcia, a public health epidemiologist and expert in disease and health patterns in Latinas, reported on a project with the goal of establishingMulticampus Infrastructure to Advance Telehealth Implementation for Low-Income Californians.”  

Community Engagement and the Land Grant Mission

Here is the virtuous cycle that Aggie Square wants to facilitate, with community engagement driving new research, and research driving new institutional efforts to reach out to communities in need. 

Aggie Square has the potential to transform the way UC Davis sees its mission to serve the public through mutually-beneficial and reciprocal relationships,” Rios explains. “There is no better way for our institution to demonstrate its commitment to faculty-driven and community-engaged work.”

You could think of that commitment as a 21st century update to the venerable land grant research university mission to improve regional social and economic health and well-being. You could also name it with the descriptive term, “anchor institution,” which captures the notion of the university as a place-based, mission-driven entity. We’ve been thinking a lot about that term in Aggie Square planning meetings, and I will be writing more about what it conjures in a subsequent column.