July 19, 2004

Cole fellows spend summer building communities


By Eric Rangus

This summer is far from a vacation for the dozen Emory undergraduates who are Kenneth Cole fellows. It's the portion of their 12-month fellowship when they take active roles in community-building projects around the Atlanta area.

Through the end of this month, the fellows will be working 32 hours a week on-site with community organizations, government and educational entities, and often with community residents themselves to pull neighborhoods together and promote positive social change.

The Cole fellows are working on five collaborative projects in the Atlanta area:

  • Building a Neighborhood Support Network for the Atlanta Region. This project is part of a wider effort to expand existing supports for the metropolitan area's neighborhood associations and leaders.
  • Healthy Neighborhoods, Healthy Families: Collaborative Efforts in Greenspace Preservation, Education and Recreation in Utoy Creek Watershed. An environmentally focused project in which the fellows work with residents of the Utoy Creek watershed region in southwest Atlanta to better utilize the communities' natural resources.
  • Better Information for Better Collaboration in Mechanicsville. The fellows are assisting community-building efforts in the intown neighborhood specifically in the areas of affordable housing, employment and early childhood education and health.
  • Changing Times, Changing Minds--Leave No Parent Behind Parental Involvement Initiative. This effort aims to increase parental involvement in the education of their children at Benjamin Carson Honors Preparatory School, a middle school serving the Hollywood Courts section of northwest Atlanta.
  • Perry Homes Library. This project is a partnership with the northwest Atlanta community of Riverside geared toward better utilizing its existing assets, particularly its library.

Now in its third year, the Kenneth Cole Fellowship in Community Building and Social Change is a comprehensive 12-month program that combines community service, teaching and research to prepare undergraduates to become the next generation of community builders. It is administered by the Office of University-Community Partnerships.

The program's most high-profile event, the Kenneth Cole Leadership Forum, took place Jan. 28-29. Titled "Many Faces in One Place: Building the Diverse Community," it featured keynote speaker Harry Belafonte.

Famous guests may bring the headlines, but behind the scenes is really where the Cole fellows earn their stripes. Each one commits to 12 hours of community-related coursework throughout the academic year and the summer practicum, which carries a stipend.

While they meet frequently with in-class guests during the school year, the summer practicum challenges the fellows to practice in the community the skills they learn in the classroom. Work on the practicum begins long before any student steps off campus.

Cole Fellowship Director Sam Marie Engle first met with a variety of community groups in July 2003 to see if they were good matches for the program. A call for proposals was made in October and a record 20 applications were received for the five available slots. After receiving the proposals, Engle and a team of at least one undergraduate and one graduate fellow visited each site and wrote a report, which then was submitted the program's community stakeholders group.

Those stakeholders include a variety of business, academic and community leaders from around the Atlanta area. They met over the winter, and in March the final selection of the fellowship partners was announced. Once the projects were identified, the fellows chose which one to work.

Ansley Dillehay, a senior from Lawrenceville, chose the "Changing Times, Changing Minds" project because of her interest in education. "There are a lot of barriers that prevent parents from being involved with their children's schools," she said. Many of the parents Dillehey and project partners Carina Alberelli and Tori Gordon meet did not graduate from high school. Some have challenges reading themselves. Many believe it is a teacher's job to educate students and parents should not necessarily need to be involved.

"School is very intimidating for some of these parents," Dillehay continued. Not only do the Cole fellows meet with these parents (nearly 50 so far in focus groups and informal interviews) to discuss ways to participate in their children's education, but the fellows also research best practices to determine strategies so families can back each other up.

"Many parents really are passionate about making a difference in their children's education," Dillehay said. The fellows' work is already beginning to show some effects. Dillehay said some parents have volunteered to transport their neighbors' children when needed, and one parent even offered to teach art classes for the middle-schoolers.

The fellows' goal is to empower the residents to take charge of building their own network of care. "We'll be gone in August, and we want to create a project that will be community driven," Dillehay said.

The "Changing Times, Changing Minds" project is not unique to the fellowship. Each fellow, regardless of his or her job, is embedded in the community where they work. A faculty advisor works with each project group, but the fellows are independent workers.

Every Monday to Thursday through July 29, the fellows work on-site. Final reports on their projects are due Aug. 6, but that's not all they do. As part of their four hours of coursework, on Wednesday nights they meet for dinner and a guest speaker (Cole himself spoke on June 9). On Fridays the fellows conduct site visits to a variety of community organizations such as the Atlanta Food Bank.

The Perry Homes Library project marks the first time a Cole alumna is returning to work on a new project. Sarah Osmer, a 2002-03 fellow who earned high honors for her thesis examining the effects of mixed income housing on the social interaction of neighbors (based on a project she worked last year as a Cole fellow), is teaming with graduate fellow Terry Easton to work with the residents of the northwest Atlanta community of Riverside to document its assets, define its priorities and develop a plan for meeting those priorities. The community's library will serve as a centerpiece of this plan.

"I had a wonderful experience last year," said Osmer, a Princeton, N.J., native who graduated in May with a double major in sociology and religion. "The Cole fellowship was probably my biggest learning experience my whole time at Emory."

"We had students who still wanted to participate after graduation," said Engle, adding that Osmer's schedule--at the end of the summer she will begin working with the Emerson Hunger Fellowship, first in Chicago then Washington--allowed her to participate. "This is the first time we have done this, but I'm sure we'll do it again next year.

"They have done a remarkable job moving complex projects toward completion in such a short time," Engle continued. "Each fellow possesses not only a keen intellect but also a strong sense of mission. It is a privilege to play a role in their growth and learning."

Cole, a 1976 graduate of Emory College and University trustee, is founder, president and chief executive officer of Kenneth Cole Productions, one of contemporary fashion's top labels. Long committed to philanthropy and social justice, Cole's foundation donated $600,000 to Emory in November 2001 to create the fellowship program.