Syracuse University School of Information Studies Associate Professor Murali Venkatesh presented a paper at the colloquium “Conceptualizing the Integration of Teaching and Learning, Research, and Community Engagement” on November 24, 2010, at the University of Fort Hare (UFH) in South Africa as part of the South Africa Meets the South Side Initiative (SAMSI). Venkatesh talked about how partnerships between universities and communities work within the context of civic engagement.

“This was a chance to revisit the conceptual foundations of what it is I do,” Venkatesh said. “I talked about my own work on the South Side [of Syracuse] and placed it within the framework of Scholarship in Action, and I think it was well received.”

SAMSI, a partnership between Syracuse University and UFH and their respective communities of the South Side of Syracuse and the town of Alice, is an initiative to create opportunities for dialogue about grassroots civic activism and neighborhood revitalization. The partnership began in 2008 when the leaders of the South Side Initiative and the community engagement office at the UFH recognized the similarities in the challenges they faced and wanted to work together.

“Without knowledge of the South Side Initiative Projects, Alice residents identified three revitalization projects incredibly similar to ours,” said Linda Littlejohn, associate vice president of the South Side Initiative. “UFH developed an organization similar to the Southside Community Coalition that will serve as its community partner. Like the Southside Community Coalition, it represents the voice of the people—the residents—and is mostly unencumbered by political agendas.”

The three areas of improvement consist of cooperative, heritage, and technology development, the last of which incorporates Venkatesh’s expertise with the Southside Communications Center.

“Back in 2005,” Venkatesh explained, “there was a remarkably well attended meeting at the South Presbyterian Church, where a residents group had drafted a list of things they wanted done for the community. As they went down the list, faculty members stood up and said they could help. When it came to technology and Internet access, that’s where I saw I could help.”

Venkatesh worked with Littlejohn to create an initiative that developed into the Southside Communications Center. The first iteration was to create a community center where citizens would have a place to access the Internet. Next, they wanted to install a wireless network in the community. The third installment was to create a networking academy to improve chances for employment. Citizens would take a placement examination to be routed into the appropriate program and CNYWorks would fund $5,000 per student to send them to classes. The final, and most ambitious program, is to create a community owned and managed Internet Service Provider (ISP) that would bring in revenue to the community.

“The wireless network and Internet access should be provided by the community-owned ISP rather than some commercial provider,” Venkatesh said. “They could provide access to small businesses and help put the South Side on the map. There is a major desire to keep financial wealth in the community, but what we can accomplish depends on the community’s ability to undertake these tasks.”

Venkatesh presented these initiatives at the colloquium, which was the final in a series of three colloquia organized by Jayshee Thakrar, director of the Community Engagement Office at UFH, and is based on conceptualizing the integration of research and community engagement.

“I get excited about doing both community and civic engagement,” Venkatesh said, “but civic engagement is where you see a depth of involvement and a chance to reflect on what citizenship is. It’s a way to think about why the student should do this, apart from grades. The motivation is the sense of giving of yourself for a cause.”

Venkatesh defines community engagement as a type of service learning; a way for students to provide services for the community. It is valuable in its own way, but this is different from civic engagement.

“Civic engagement is a chance to reflect and rethink the possibilities available to the students (and the residents they work with) as citizens,” said Venkatesh. “All of the initiatives are possible because our students at the iSchool bring an ongoing supply of energy and skill.”

Going forward, Thakrar and Venkatesh have started a dialogue with members of the national Department of Science and Technology in South Africa as well as met with faculty at UFH to talk about how the school can become more engaged with the community. Venkatesh mentioned that since Alice is in close proximity to the campus, structuring a class involving citizenship and information technology could be a good first step.

“There is a lot of reciprocity in the information technology field that I am beginning to see,” Venkatesh said. “The United States is in the center of the nexus of technology, civic imagination, and civic engagement. They want to be able to harness the forces behind that movement.”

In addition to generating ideas for curriculum as well as community and civic engagement projects, Venkatesh is working with Littlejohn and Thakrar on going back to South Africa in the next few months, as well as bringing members of the South African community to Syracuse.

“I’m very eager to go back,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about community engagement in the past 20 years and civic engagement in the last three. It’d be great to share the lessons learned, and South Africa brings very interesting possibilities that I can bring back and teach.”