Follow Up with Guest Editor Emily Sladek

In February 2019, Metropolitan Universities journal published Issue 30.1, Urban and Metropolitan Universities: The Transformative Power of Anchor Institutions. The issue focuses on the role of urban and metropolitan universities as anchor institutions in their community to address long standing inequities. Emily Sladek, manager of higher education engagement at The Democracy Collaborative, served as guest editor. We recently sat down with Emily to get more insight into anchor mission work and how serving as guest editor made her more aware of some the great work taking place across the CUMU membership.

What are the origins of your work with anchor mission work in higher ed?

Before I knew there was such a thing as the anchor mission, I studied community-based research and popular education techniques at The Evergreen State College through a program called Gateways for Incarcerated Youth. Part of the student commitment when joining the program was to fund raise the cost of tuition for our incarcerated classmates. One of the fundraising vehicles was an annual calendar that highlighted the youths’ artwork. The incarceration facility had a graphic design and printing vocational school. I worked between the college’s foundation and the incarceration facility so that the youth, through the vocational school, could print the calendars. I still remember the look on one of my incarcerated classmates’ face when I said that we’d like to use your graphic design skills to print the calendar. As co-learners doing community engagement work, it deepened our relationship. We had more than just a peer-student relationship, where I maybe held more power because of my white, more formally educated privilege—now we were using a broader array of our skills. Professional skills that had monetary value. It was a transformative lesson in how economic reciprocity shows up in the community engagement work we do. This brief exchange has stayed with me for years and demonstrated how the college, in a small way, could make socially conscious decisions about who receives contracts and is hired, and connect these to the student experience.

How did being guest editor contribute to a better understanding of the unique role of the ‘urban advantage’ in higher education?

We received dozens of submissions for this journal issue, focused on higher education’s anchor mission. This level of interest shows how colleges and universities are really digging in and grappling with questions around how to intentionally work with their surrounding communities, and how to spark new collaborations. From community policing programs to assessing student off-campus housing, the ways that universities are developing community partnerships to advance social cohesion are broad, and each campus is developing innovations based on their own unique geo-political relationships. This is part of the urban advantage. Thinking about the interrelationships between university assets is an invaluable growth and application of knowledge opportunity for the institution. How each university listens to and evaluates its relationship with its surrounding neighborhoods—many with deep legacies of disinvestment and exclusion—will continue to evolve. What is clear is that now is the time to sharpen our vision of anchor work, so that it is more inclusive, collaborative, and impactful.

How do you see higher education anchor mission work developing over the next few years?

The wealth gap and climate change are the forefront issues of our time. Universities play a critical role in advancing solutions to these issues because of their research, student, and community power. I see the anchor mission as a clear framework for making serious progress to address these wicked problems. While the number of higher education institutions adopting an anchor mission continues to grow, because of the immediacy of these problems and how they are impacting our students and community members, we need more institutions resourcing anchor approaches. We need more institutions innovating and designing community-led solutions for improving local procurement, hiring, and investment policies. I hope more institutions continue to sustainably resource these initiatives and implement policies that will shift how their university does business. If successful in our implementation and scaling of best practices, anchor work can help to increase public support for education, which remains a critical issue.

What recommendations do you have for readers who want to keep the conversation going?

I like this question. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. The anchor mission field is still maturing and so it is of value to look to others for how it is taking shape.

Resources for literally keeping the conversation going can be found by joining the CUMU-TDC Anchor Learning Network. We are focused on peer exchange and learning platforms that support you in talking about and implementing the anchor mission on your campuses. Last year many participants conducted informal empathy interviews with staff across their campuses and held anchor meetings and events to listen to the struggles their campuses are trying to address and what part of the anchor mission your institution wants to take action on, whether it be through broadening ownership, job creation, or supporting local small businesses. If you are ready for a deeper commitment to track impact data, develop practical goals, and design anchor interventions, please encourage your institution to participate in the ALN.

Attend upcoming conferences:

The Anchor Institution Taskforce (AITF) conference, hosted by Marga, is a great place to network with practitioners and thought leaders. And CUMU’s 2019 Annual Conference, which highlights the urban mission and anchor mission work.!

More ways for engaging include reading up on key texts:

There is a deep well of publications connected to the community engagement field:

More broadly readings by Ira Harkavy, Barbara Holland, and Andrew Furco explore the anchor mission and public engagement.