Reaching Out: Youth Initiative moves forward

A Q&A with Kent Koth on SU's intensified engagement of its neighborhood

Kent Koth Body
Story by: Mike Thee
Published: 2009-11-30

This week, faculty and staff have the opportunity to attend two open forum sessions on the Seattle University Youth Initiative (Tuesday, Dec. 1, 5 to 6 p.m., Pigott 106; and Thursday, Dec. 3, noon to 1 p.m., Pigott 107). As Provost Isiaah Crawford announced this month, development of the initiative has entered its second phase and Kent Koth, director of the Center for Service and Community Engagement, will lead the effort as special assistant to the provost. Koth recently fielded some questions about the initiative, his newly expanded role and how faculty and staff can get involved.

The Commons: Can you summarize as briefly as possible how we got to this point?

Kent Koth: Over the past 10-15 years the university’s commitment to and involvement in the wider community has grown significantly. Several years ago Father Sundborg began to ask how the University might further strengthen this commitment through a University-wide community engagement initiative. During the 2007-2008 academic year, he convened a small group of faculty and administrators to develop a concept paper for such an initiative. In 2008-2009 the planning process became more formal when John McKay from the School of Law chaired a planning committee of 20 Seattle University faculty, staff and students to develop a full proposal. After a thorough process of research and deliberation, the committee proposed the Seattle University Youth Initiative.  We now enter the next phase in the development of the Initiative.

What does this initiative mean for SU’s outreach to the community and, more broadly, the institution’s identity?

In order to “empower leaders for a just and humane world” we must engage students in the theory and practice of learning, serving, and leading in the community. For many years faculty and staff from dozens of departments, programs and offices have responded to this call by engaging students in the community through service-learning courses, internships, fieldwork and other activities. This initiative builds on these efforts by offering the potential of a long-term, focused approach to community engagement that promotes a shared vision of justice for local youth. If the Initiative succeeds, we’ll see much more interdisciplinary and cross-campus collaborations which will be great for student learning. Since the challenges faced by local youth are rarely one dimensional, these collaborative activities will also have a much more significant impact in the wider community.

The initiative could have a big impact on our identity. My dream would be that through this effort more and more students would be drawn to study at the university because we walk our talk of “the faith that does justice.” If we are successful we could become a national model for service, justice and the pedagogy of engagement.

What was the rationale for focusing on youth?

In the development of the initial concept paper the group had a series of discussions about the university’s institutional strengths, location and Jesuit Catholic tradition. We also had conversations about community issues that the university could try to address.  At one point Father Sundborg summarized this exploration by asking “how do we draw upon what we do best as a university to address the greatest community need?” From these conversations came the recognition that since our strength is educating students and many local young people face significant issues in educational access and success, we should focus on youth. During the formal planning process last spring the committee studied demographic data and met with dozens of youth and community leaders. From this process the committee proposed to narrow the focus to low-income youth living in the Central District.

What are the key components of this initiative?

Through the proposed initiative the university will partner with the wider community to create an intensive and continuous network of support for low-income youth living in the Central District. To pursue this goal the university can draw upon its resources in service-learning, community-based research, clinical and internship experiences, community service, campus facilities, and staff and faculty expertise. 

Many of the details of the specific ways to pursue this vision will be worked out during this next phase in the development of the initiative but a central component is the formation of or expansion upon partnerships with public schools and pre-K/Head Start programs within the Central District to create a pipeline of academic support for neighborhood children. Another key component is the strengthening of existing partnerships and the creation of new partnerships with community organizations to support youth and their families with wrap-around services such as legal and tax assistance; health clinics; economic development opportunities; outreach to communities of faith; assistance with afterschool and summer activities; and more.   

The committee looked around at community engagement initiatives at other universities and identified three different models—an approach based on a neighborhood, an approach based on an issue and an approach the university is fundamentally identified by its engagement initiative. What model or models would you say most closely characterize SU’s plan?

The proposed initiative represents a hybrid of the three models.  It draws upon the university’s Jesuit Catholic identity and mission to focus on the issue of low-income youth in the neighborhood of the Central District. 

What is the university hoping to accomplish through this initiative, in the short term as well as the long term?

If you look at the short overview found on the Youth Initiative website (www.seattleu.edu/SUYI/) you will see several broad intended outcomes that focus on the community and the university. The community outcomes concentrate on improving academic achievement among low-income youth in the Central District and trying to address the level of youth violence in this neighborhood. The university outcomes focus on deepening student learning, increasing student involvement in the community and expanding research opportunities related to community issues.   

In the short-term we can work to identify and highlight several promising university-community partnerships that illustrate the Initiative’s potential.  We can also work in partnership with the community to develop a shared vision and implementation plan that includes specific activities and indicators of success.

In the long-term we hope that the university can make a measurable impact on the seemingly intractable issue of educational inequity among low-income youth. We also hope that through the process of engagement we, as individuals and as an institution, might change and transform to become even stronger advocates and educators for a just and humane world. 

As far as your new role, how does this change what you’ve been doing at SU as director of CSCE?

Provost Crawford asked me to lead the next phase in the development of the Initiative—a phase that we anticipate will last 12 to 18 months. In many ways this new role builds upon my current position. CSCE’s work is about connecting the classroom and campus with the wider community. Yet, this is also new territory for me and for the university. The size and the scope of the proposed Initiative bring great opportunities as well as some interesting challenges. In thinking about this complex planning effort I am heartened by the many campus and community colleagues interested in shaping and supporting the Initiative. I am also particularly indebted to a talented group of CSCE staff, particularly Victoria Rucker, who will continue to play a critical role in the development of the Initiative. 

How can faculty and staff learn more and get involved?

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