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A New Chair for Urban Studies

By Lucy Kellison ’13

After one semester at Rhodes, Dr. Elizabeth Thomas has no trouble articulating a clear and attainable goal for her program.

“My vision of Urban Studies is that it becomes an interdisciplinary, academic hub for students, faculty and community partners who come from every area—from the arts and humanities to the social sciences to the natural sciences.”

Last fall, Thomas joined the Rhodes faculty as an associate professor of Psychology and the new director and Plough Chair of Urban Studies. In the short time since her arrival, she and the rest of the Urban Studies Program have done a great deal to help achieve this vision. Stepping in for Dr. Thomas McGowan, who had served as interim director since Dr. Mike Kirby’s retirement in 2010, Thomas used her first semester as chair to observe and actively learn about the projects in which faculty and students were already engaged. She also met with community partners to assess how to better develop these projects. Thomas says she was drawn to the Plough position because of the established focus on community-based learning and scholarship within the Urban Studies Program and throughout campus.

History professor Gail Murray, Kelli Zomer ’12 and Urban Studies director Elizabeth Thomas at the Midtown North Community Garden

“Rhodes has articulated a clear vision that is focused on having students translate the academic study they are doing in the classroom into leadership and action in communities,” says Thomas. “The Urban Studies Program is a really terrific illustration of the college aligning its mission with its resources. And we are so well situated because there is so much interesting work happening on campus already.”

Thomas, who came to Rhodes from the University of Washington, Bothell, where she served as associate director for graduate education in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Program, has an academic background in community psychology. Her research has focused on how children and youth actively engage in and shape their learning environments, in addition to the role of community-based arts and public art in community development. Thomas says she hopes to incorporate her research methods into a shared vision for the Urban Studies Program.

During this first semester, Thomas taught an Introduction to Urban Studies course and another one on Community Psychology. She also developed a senior seminar for Urban Studies majors, which she will teach next spring. In the course, students are asked to determine the effectiveness of community-based programs that serve youth. In addition, it focuses on key concepts, methods and approaches to participatory action research and evaluation in community contexts.

Thomas’ senior seminar is one of many courses within the program that demonstrates the applied component of academic learning that is such an integral part of Urban Studies. Kelli Zomer ’12 has worked with several community organizations throughout her time as an Urban Studies major, both in connection with her classes and through independent internships. As part of her senior seminar paper on the concept of aging, she volunteered at the Lewis Senior Center. In addition, during the summer after her sophomore year, she completed an internship at the Vollintine-Evergreen Community Association, working with Memphis residents and at the Midtown North Community Garden.

“Just as in any big city, Memphis has its own share of problems with foreclosure, poverty, crime and other issues,” says Zomer. “As an Urban Studies major, you become educated in the ways to defend against these types of things. Obviously, it is hard for one person to solve every problem. But with this major, you get the tools needed to put yourself in a better position to help the city that you live in.”

In Thomas’ Intro class, students completed a project in which they interviewed local Memphians to understand their perspectives on topics such as history, culture, political institutions, housing and the future of Memphis.

“These projects are really interesting,” says Thomas. “Students use what they learn in class to think about cities and Urban Studies. In addition to doing traditional archival research they interview local stakeholders, so the idea is to blend scholarly work with the actual resources and people of the city.”

As Plough Chair, Thomas hopes to increase this kind of student participation. One way, she says, is through the seven-member Urban Studies faculty committee. Along with serving as an advisory board to the Plough Chair, the committee acts as an interdisciplinary group that discusses course ideas and ways to connect the academic program to pressing, urban problems in Memphis. Thomas has been working to build relationships with the faculty this spring, and the committee will be officially launched under her direction in the fall.

Dr. Gail Murray, who has served on the committee since 2004, teaches History courses related to the study of urban issues. Next year, she will teach a class on the History of Poverty in America, which will look at how the American public has historically viewed the poor, and some of the ways the government and private groups have addressed their needs. Students in the class will take field trips and hear guest speakers from local organizations.

“I think wherever our students go, wherever they are citizens, they are going to be faced with crises in urban government structure, school systems, infrastructure, transportation and housing,” says Murray. “Urban Studies prepares you to understand those problems and hopefully get involved in solutions.”

Urban Studies requires majors to complete an academic internship. Murray says it provides them with transferable skills that are applicable wherever they go after graduation.

“Urban Studies majors are also much more critical consumers of the news,” says Murray. “It teaches them to question institutions like local governments and school boards, etc.”

One new way students are getting hands-on experience with local organizations is through Rhodes’ involvement in a federal program called Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, otherwise known as the HOPE VI Program. Established in 1993, the program provides competitive block grants to local public housing authorities to knock down severely distressed public housing sites and replace them with mixed-income communities. To date, Memphis has received five such grants, each of which requires a neutral third-party evaluator to assess the effectiveness of local programs related to HOPE VI. For the most recent grant, Rhodes was awarded the evaluation contract to assess the renovation and development of the Cleaborn Homes area in the 38126 zip code.

Thomas, Murray and Zomer with neighborhood residents

Dr. Heather Jamerson, assistant professor of Sociology and Urban Studies, serves as the appointed principal investigator for the 54-month contract. Her course, Field Projects in Community Organization, is focused entirely on working with the HOPE VI grant. During the fall semester, students collect data pertaining to neighborhood problems like vacancy and crime rates. They learn about public housing and work with local police and community partners to organize events such as community cleanups. In the spring, they focus on public housing and the residents themselves. This year, students conducted a door-to-door survey of previous Cleaborn Homes residents, asking how they were faring in their new settings and about any problems they may have faced. Students who work to evaluate the effectiveness of HOPE VI often present some of their data at Rhodes’ Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Symposium in April.

“The goal is to train students to be quality, social scientific researchers,” Jamerson says. “Using multiple quantitative and qualitative methodologies, they find their interest in this huge project and then are supported in pursuing that interest.”

Once students have completed either section of the course, they are eligible to work with Jamerson as research assistants on the project. This can take many forms—Jamerson has two summer fellows who work for pay, and another former student who interns with an urban planning firm in Memphis. In addition, two former students are now working in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) class to supplement the existing HOPE VI data.

This participatory action research is one of the focal points of Thomas’ background as a community psychologist, and something that both Jamerson and Thomas hope to incorporate more into the Urban Studies curriculum.

“To really know a city, to know Memphis, we need the lived experience,” says Thomas. “A lot of the history and culture of the city has not been documented. So in a way, by attending to the voices of those who have experienced Memphis, we are creating new forms of knowledge.”

Jamerson says she is thrilled that Thomas is the new Plough Chair. “I value the type of work she does with communities, which is not about just quantitative surveys but finding out who people are and how to best develop programs and services that are going to really change Memphis. I appreciate that passion.”

As for the future, developments are under way in the form of new classes and a new faculty hire this fall, Dr. Maya Evans, a political scientist who studies urban issues.

“I am so grateful for the strong foundation that has already been laid within the program,” says Thomas. “I hope to reflect on everything I have heard this year about what is already going on, and then incorporate my perspectives so that we develop a shared vision for Urban Studies.”

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