Story and slideshow by RYAN McDONALD
In a coffeehouse located at 631 W. North Temple in Salt Lake City, a group of about 15 teenagers and young adults gathers twice a week to discuss issues that concern them, such as media misrepresentation and stereotypes. It is one link in a large chain of community projects that University Neighborhood Partners (UNP) at the University of Utah is involved in.
UNP (originally called West Side Initiative) was created in 2001. Bernie Machen, the president of the University of Utah at the time, was concerned that if a better effort wasn’t put into helping first-generation underrepresented youth graduate from high school and get into college, the U would not have the student body to be considered the flagship university in the state.
“Since west-side neighborhoods were so totally underrepresented at the U it was a clear geographically-defined place to start,” said Sarah Munro, who currently works as the associate director of UNP. “The charge was to set up collaborative partnerships between the university and west Salt Lake neighborhoods.”
Early in UNP’s existence, an assessment was conducted in seven west Salt Lake neighborhoods to determine what was needed in order for Machen’s concern to be eased. Munro said direct student recruitment was one way of accomplishing this, but that it was not the most effective.
“The vision for this was long-term engagement,” Munro said. “By being engaged in the community, that’s how you create access. You’re addressing barriers to access to higher education. Our charge was to look at those needs and priorities that came out of the neighborhoods and say, ‘What are the university resources that could be brought to this and then how do we bring them to work in a collaborative partnership with one or more organizations?’” Munro said.
By 2003, UNP had begun working with organizations, individuals and government to help west-side residents overcome challenges Munro referred to as “systemic barriers,” obstacles that take a long time to change. The staff of UNP does not participate directly in this work, but the organization serves as a bridge between the university and these entities to enable collaborative work.
“I think that people are more creative and more motivated when they work in teams and that’s what these partnership groups really are,” Munro said.
She referenced changes that have been made in the Salt Lake City School District to respond to the growing Latino and refugee populations, in part due to collaborative work. As an example, she indicated that in-home visits are made to parents who might not otherwise be able to attend a traditional parent-teacher conference.
Munro’s philosophy of teamwork is evidenced by Mestizo Arts and Activism (MAA), which meets each Monday and Wednesday afternoon at the Mestizo Coffeehouse. MAA is a partnership between the U and Mestizo Institute for Culture and Arts (MICA).
Having finished a project working with youth on community issues about five years ago, Matt Bradley, an adjunct professor in the Honors College at the U, wanted to do more. He got in contact with the directors of MICA to explain that he wanted to do a similar project. With MICA’s support, MAA began. The Honors College is the entity that represents the U in the partnership.
MICA’s mission is, “To strengthen and build community through arts, civic engagement, and dialogue. Provide space to those who engage community through their work, are from underrepresented communities, or use art as a tool for social change.”
In that spirit, MAA brings students, primarily from West High School, together to talk about issues related to remembering and preserving their native culture. An ultimate goal is to “create the ability and potential for civic participation,” Bradley said.
During a recent meeting, students discussed the portrayal of Latinos in the media.
“I saw an episode and I got pissed,” said one teen in reference to a time he watched “Family Guy.” “It was a whole attack on Mexicans.”
Sujey, a student at West High School, said she is involved in MAA because it gives her a chance to remember a big part of who she is.
“I feel like all of us are forgetting our roots,” she said. “A lot of people at school are just trying to fit in. Over here you can just come and talk about your culture. You remember who you are and you remember where you came from. It’s a place where you can just come and talk about and relate to things with everyone. You can’t be doing that at school.”
Kania is another student from West who is involved in MAA.
“Your name, your family came from somewhere,” she said. “It began somewhere. Everybody has a different story. The people before you lived a whole different life. Everything that you’re learning, you’re learning from the mistakes that they made. Keeping our culture alive is a way of honoring them for the lessons that they are giving us.”
Another student named Israel discussed a cultural challenge he feels many of those at MAA experience.
“I just feel that mixing two cultures is a lot more difficult than you might think,” Israel said. “I feel like we have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans because not even Mexicans accept us. You have to be more American than the Americans because not even the Americans accept us. We’re just kind of in the middle sitting there wondering which way to go. It’s a big culture clash that we can’t get into. I’m glad I am (involved in MAA) because I’m able to bring two cultures together.”
Although the students discuss serious topics, fun is a core element of the activities at MAA. From having a chance to reflect on Disney movies they watched as kids to playing group games, the students are able to form close friendships through the things they do there together.
“We build a sense of family here and that has been incredible,” said Alonso Reyna, a student at the U majoring in sociology who volunteers at MAA.
José Hernandez, another mentor, began his involvement at MAA in 2008, his senior year of high school. He is now majoring in gender studies at the U and plans to become a teacher.
“I didn’t go to college just for myself, but for my family and I wanted to help my community,” he said. “Mestizo allows me to apply what I learn at the U and even learn more than I would normally learn.”
The opportunities that MAA provides these students to explore their culture is only part of its story, however. Part of UNP’s mission is to provide faculty and students at the University of Utah the chance to conduct community-based research through the work its partners are doing.
Ashley Edgette is an undergraduate student who is helping to teach students at MAA how to be community researchers and organizers. She is majoring in political science and environmental studies and minoring in French. Upon graduation she plans to attend graduate school to study city and metropolitan planning and community development. She is currently researching how best to involve people in the creation and maintenance of a community garden.
“Working with these students makes it a more involved community project,” she said. “I think this is the only way to do this kind of research. I think our students (at MAA) get a perspective that you don’t get otherwise.”
Edgette feels this research model helps the students at MAA and the surrounding neighborhoods. She also said it helps the U become more involved in the city.
“It’s not only beneficial for the U to be connected to high school students and community members, but I think it’s also really beneficial to do these kinds of studies that are based on community knowledge and based on student participation, because it shifts the way the U interacts with communities,” she said. “It makes it a relationship where they’re (the U) invested and have responsibility and are expected to participate in the action with these communities. It’s been really beneficial for my education.”
Hernandez, the volunteer who wants to one day be a teacher, said the things happening at Mestizo Coffeehouse exemplify why UNP exists. Its goal is to build bridges between the U and the community and he feels that this is beneficial for MAA. Participants get to discuss community issues and learn about the university.
“It really represents what community and higher education can be together,” he said.