Story and photo by SHELLY GUILLORY
Sarah Munro sat in a small community center in downtown Palermo, a city in southern Italy, after spending15 months conducting doctoral research with women who are active in the dangerous anti-Mafia movement. The director of the community center asked Munro to present her research regarding what she learned about the history and economic and social issues.
But Munro had one thought: I do not have anything to offer you that you don’t already know.
Speaking at the community center in 2000, surrounded by the director and the women who utilized the programs the center offered, Munro said she realized she missed an opportunity to use research in a way that was useful for the people she followed, interviewed and studied.
“As a researcher I had gone in there as researchers are trained to do, with my own questions, where it would have been an opportunity if I thought about it differently, to ask them what their questions were,” she said.
After finishing her doctoral work, Munro came to the University of Utah in 2002 with her husband, but knew she didn’t want to be a full-time academic. She heard about The West Side Initiative — a project that looked at how the U could become more engaged in west-side neighborhoods, which were ethnically diverse, socially and economically marginalized in Salt Lake City and underrepresented in student enrollment at the U.
The University Neighborhood Partnership evolved in 2003 after Irene Fisher, who led the West Side Initiative, conducted more than 300 interviews with residents, leaders, organization officials, city officials and university faculty and administrators. Fisher, director of UNP until 2006, found that residents wanted to increase opportunities for youth through education, create initiatives to expand and support community leadership, and strengthen health, housing, employment, business, safety and environmental capacities.
Munro was responsible for developing UNP’s approach, which she said in an email provides a broader national conversation about truly collaborative community-based research and what defines that.
UNP acts as a mediator and bridge to the U and west-side nonprofits, resident groups and city governments and focuses its work in seven west-side neighborhoods, including Rose Park, Glendale, Poplar Grove, Westpointe and Jordan Meadows.
“The idea is not that the university goes out and does something in the neighborhood,” said Munro, now UNP’s associate director. “It’s not community service. It’s not doing it for them. It’s setting up collaborations where we find people, who are working on those issues in the neighborhood, and the university, who can bring together their teaching, research and community-based work, so we are learning from each other.”
Munro said UNP has more than 34 partnerships. Forty-three departments, including linguistics, engineering, and social work, and 40 community organizations, such as the U’s Lowell Bennion Community Service Center, are also involved. They all focus on and identify issues, including access to healthcare, language barriers, transportation and literacy, that challenge west-side residents to obtain the economic and educational opportunities that residents in other communities have.
Though UNP doesn’t directly do the work, the program has helped create partnerships that foster youth programs, life skill classes, resident committees, English classes, healthcare clinics and youth programs.
The UNP-Hartland Partnership Center is one example of a partnership that provides services that help overcome an issue, including lack of sufficient healthcare, which impedes access to higher education.
According to its website, The UNP-Hartland Partnership Center is a project that implements programs to help residents living in the Seasons of Pebble Creek apartments, located on 1616 South, near Redwood Road, and those in the surrounding west-side communities. In addition to English-as-a-second language classes, financial classes and youth programs, the center offers health education.
Center Coordinator Kimberly Schmit said in a phone interview that UNP-Hartland Partnership Center is a not a clinic with direct medical services.
“They have a health-education referral program,” she said. “The partner is the College of Nursing at the U; the faculty and students do the work.”
One concrete example of research that helps west-side residents is a study done by researchers from the College of Social Work at the U, who focused on the mental health of children with refugee backgrounds. The researchers interviewed 22 service providers, including Valley Mental Health, Catholic Community Services and the Utah Health and Human Rights Project, as well as 21 youth with refugee backgrounds, who had been in the U.S. for at least a year.
Data from the interviews yielded a curriculum with lesson plans that focus on seven topics, such as social skills, emotional health, school rules, laws and safety, and family roles.
“This is where it becomes community building,” Schmit said. “They were getting their questions answered through her research. [The researchers] partnered with them, did the research and then gave them back her findings. That is where it is a little different [from other research]. We are looking for the partnership with the residents. The residents are the leaders.”
UNP’s Munro said research conducted by students at the center and in other UNP partnerships is not just for publication, but also helps the community strengthen itself.
“I see a big role for research,” she said. “But the way I want to see it done in the world is in really close connection with the people you are researching and letting the questions emerge from that.”