Town and Gown Partnerships:  East St. Louis Model

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans        ACORN partnered with Ken Reardon and his team from various universities that he mobilized for the recovery after Katrina to create the Peoples’ Plan for the Ninth Ward.  His students and volunteers surveyed every property and assessed the level of damage and whether or not it could be affordably repaired, finding that the vast majority could be, and giving us ammunition to argument for support and redevelopment of our communities.  At that time almost fifteen years ago, he was the head of the Urban and Regional Planning at Cornell University, one of the largest such schools in the country.  Now he is in a similar post at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.  Talking to him on Wade’s World reminded me once again that in some ways we owed a debt for such a gift to his previous experience in building town and gown partnerships that actually worked in East St. Louis of all places when he was starting out his academic career as a young professor at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.

Partially, we were talking about Ken’s new book, Building Bridges:  Community and University Partnerships in East St. Louis.  I knew the book inside and out, having read it from front to back a number of times while editing it for publication at Social Policy Press, where it is now available, as well as from the excerpt in the current issue of Social PolicyStill, listening to him answer the softball questions I was tossing out in the interview, I was struck by the gratitude we owned the good people in the half-dozen communities in that broken and deindustrialized, largely minority city, forlornly peering across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, an afterthought and stepchild of Illinois.

In the almost mythical origin tale of these hard-won successes in East St. Louis from affordable house, light rail, parks, and other farmers’ markets, Reardon positions the story on the backs of Ceola Davis, an outreach worker at a neighborhood center, and seven other women she assembled to convince the university to embark on what would be a several decades partnership.  Davis had already “been there, done that” with researchers, plan writers, hustlers, and thieves.  From the first meeting she laid out clear principles, that Ken can still recite, that dictated the terms and conditions of any project, and, and along with Ken and his students and the resources they were able to develop, ensured that it was marriage of equals that could bridge the divides of race, class, and the rest of it.  They were the following:

  • Local residents would determine the projects for the partnership’s work.

  • Local residents would be equal partners in all aspects of the planning.

  • The university would make a five-year minimum commitment to the partnership.

  • Resources and capacity would be developed for the community and money would be split 50-50.

  • A permanent organization to continue the work would be developed before the partnership would be terminated.

There were ups and downs, fans and foes of the projects, but the chance of any such partnership succeeding would be greatly improved by revisiting and committing to something along the lines of what Reardon still reverentially calls, the Ceola Accords.