Gephardt Institute renews mission to address community issues, shared problems

The Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement at Washington University in St. Louis is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a new name, new initiatives and new funding for its acclaimed Civic Scholars program. The mission, however, remains the same.

“Engaged citizens and strong communities — that’s our vision,” said Amanda Moore McBride, PhD, executive director of the Gephardt Institute and the Bettie Bofinger Brown Associate Professor at the Brown School.

“Civic and community engagement is about more than just painting fences,” she said. “It’s about leveraging the expertise of our faculty and the commitment of our students to be better partners with the community.

“First, we must listen and understand. Then we can serve.”

McBride, a national leader in the role of civic engagement in higher education, refers to this approach as the shift from “charity to change.” She said universities always have strived to “do good.” But those efforts — some successful, some not — are not viewed as central to the academy’s core mission. McBride argues that universities, as anchor institutions, must take a more collaborative, comprehensive approach to addressing shared issues and common problems.

“I call this a triple win,” McBride said. “Faculty and students gain knowledge, and community partners have their issues understood and addressed. And when this happens, the university wins, too.”

To achieve this goal, McBride said the Gephardt Institute will serve as a resource both to community organizations that seek university partnership, and to faculty members and students who want to collaborate with community organizations for teaching, research and service.

“There are effective ways to establish partnerships, to enter and leave communities, to teach and do research, and yes, to serve,” McBride said. “We will provide education on the issues and approaches and serve as the effective practice provider for WashU.”

The institute also will help students better connect academic and co-curricular activities.

“Students don’t divide up their lives — ‘Here’s my class here, here’s my student group there,’ ” McBride said. “They think about their lives as a whole. So if you are a public health major, you might want to be involved in the blood drives or volunteer at Casa de Salud.

“We will help channel students into community opportunities that best develop their identities as engaged citizens,” she said.

‘Many ways to make your community stronger’

Originally named the Richard A. Gephardt Institute for Public Service in honor of former Congressman Richard A. Gephardt, the institute now includes the staff and programs of the Community Service Office.

Stephanie Kurtzman, director of the Gephardt Institute, said the new name reflects a more expansive definition of civic engagement — one that extends beyond traditional notions of political action.

“We don’t want to reduce civic engagement to just voting or volunteering,” Kurtzman said. “It is so many things. It’s learning about the world around you. It’s understanding that there are many ways to make your community stronger, and that, as a citizen, you have a voice in that.”

Incoming freshmen will get their first introduction to the new Gephardt Institute through Meet St. Louis, which debuts Aug. 29, and also takes place the weekend of Sept. 5-6. Students can sign up for one of 34 half-day experiences across the region. Registration starts Tuesday, Aug. 25 and space is limited.

Among the opportunities are a visit to a transplant facility to meet organ donors and recipients; learning about sustainable agriculture at the Tower Grove Park Farmers’ Market; and visiting Almost Home, which serves teenage mothers.

Washington University student Lucy Chin, Meet St. Louis coordinator and a Gephardt Civic Scholar, said each program will conclude with an hour of reflective discussion.

“The goal is to learn about St. Louis through conversation with members of the community,” said Chin, a junior in Arts & Sciences majoring in global health and the environment and American Culture Studies. “I hope students walk away with more questions than answers, and that they are motivated to attend a seminar or join a student group, or just spend more time in St. Louis.”

Meet St. Louis replaces Service First, which dispatched freshmen to local schools to clean classrooms, organize libraries and even paint fences.

“Service First was a great introduction to service, but it lacked depth,” Kurtzman said. “It did not expose students to the community or its underlying assets and challenges. Meet St. Louis is just that — when you meet someone, you are getting to know them and asking them questions.

“It’s a two-way street which hopefully results in a relationship that deepens over time,” Kurtzman said. “We believe this is the foundation of all civic engagement.”

Mobilizing students, faculty, staff and alumni

Also new this year is the expansion of the Civic Scholars Program from an annual cohort of eight students to 20 students. A flagship initiative of the Gephardt Institute, Civic Scholars provides leadership training, mentorship and a scholarship to support a civic project or internship. A gift from business and civic leaders Maxine Clark and Bob Fox funds the program’s expansion through 2024.

The institute also has an explicit charge to better cultivate and support faculty engagement in the community through teaching and research.

Toward this end, the institute has appointed its first Community Engagement Faculty Fellows: Bob Hansman, associate professor in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts; and Beth Martin, senior lecturer in environmental studies in Arts & Sciences.

Hansman will serve as the resident expert on the St. Louis region, providing guest lectures and tours of St. Louis as a “divided city.” Martin will provide community-based support to faculty within the sciences. The institute plans to expand the faculty fellows program across all schools.

Other programs experiencing growth include:

  • The Civic Engagement Fund, which provides grants to faculty, staff and students for community engagement initiatives;
  • Community-Based Teaching and Learning Faculty Grants, which support faculty who teach course content through community engagement;
  • evaluation assistance and grant support to help fund community-based research and to assess outcomes; and
  • the matching of community groups to students and student groups who want to volunteer.

“The strengths and resources of WashU are its students, faculty, staff and alumni,” McBride said. “The opportunity before us is to mobilize them in meaningful engagement that addresses complex community issues facing St. Louis and beyond.

“The institute’s renewed mission and new and expanded programming intends to do just that.”