SEBRA South-East Brainerd Residents Association: becoming part of the neighborhood
In order for any organization, institution, or person to be a part of solving a community s problems, that group has to know, understand, and be a part of the community. Higher education is no exception. As illustrated in the story of Central Lakes Community College in Brainerd, Minnesota, when an institution establishes genuine relationships with the members of its surrounding community, only then can it become an engaged campus. Since the day three years ago when Central Lakes first ventured into the South-East Brainerd community, the college has become an integral part of the neighborhood. Central Lakes has helped community members to solve problems and address concerns. But, of greater significance, Central Lakes has taken what John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann call an asset-based approach to community development, helping residents to see that they have the strengths and assets within their own community to tackle common problems. The story begins on a fall day in November of 1995. On that day, the mayor of Brainerd got a call from the community service office at Central Lakes Community College. Who in the community gives you a lot of complaints? they asked, because we d like to talk to them.
The mayor obliged this unusual request, and identified twelve Brainerd residents. Central Lakes staff promptly contacted these residents and invited them onto campus, where they met and watched a brief film about asset-based community development. That night, inspired by the film and the discussion that followed, the group of twelve voted unanimously to form a residents association. With that, SEBRA South-East Brainerd Residents Association was born.
South-East Brainerd is the oldest part of Brainerd. Few residents own their own homes, incomes are low, and crime is high. In 1995, most neighbors didn t know one another, and there was little communal activity. Working with the college, SEBRA set out to change all that. The result is a neighborhood transformed not in grand ways that will put Brainerd on the map, but in small ways that highlight the vitality of human relationships. SEBRA began holding monthly meetings, which now bring together 65 or more community members each month. The association began printing a quarterly community newsletter, which Central Lakes work-study students help to write and distribute. They established an annual neighborhood clean-up day, which brings the whole neighborhood together once a year.
Students in a sociology class helped the neighborhood to develop an asset map, documenting residents skills and talents, which they can use to exchange services. The association brought in the local police to conduct crime prevention workshops in the neighborhood, and residents have volunteered their homes as safe houses for youth on the way home from school. Students from Central Lakes published oral histories of the community based on interviews with elderly residents.
Community members report that since the founding of the association three years ago, they know more of their neighbors, speak out more frequently, and find the town cleaner and safer. Indeed, since 1995 crime in the neighborhood is down 40%. Since that pivotal day three years ago, Central Lakes has played an integral role in the community. It has furnished Brainerd residents with the tools for reform, and manpower in the form of students and faculty to help facilitate their efforts. But perhaps the greatest contribution of college constituents has been their insistence that the association set its own agenda, and mine the resources of its own community, so that residents can accomplish change on their own. We know we ve done our job well, staff at the college s community service office explain, when we re no longer needed. Even if they say they are no longer needed, Central Lakes students, faculty, and staff continue to share ideas, advice, and work with the neighborhood. Through the relationships they have built, they have done more than serve South-East Brainerd; they have become a part of it.
From Service Matters 1998: Engaging Higher Education In the Renewal of America s Communities and American Democracy
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