To shape our thinking here, we are using the definition of a community of practice created by the nonprofit, Campus Compact. “A community of practice is a learning community or collegial network, defined as a group of people who share interest in an area of inquiry, and engage in collective learning about that issue as it relates to their work or practice. Through discussions, joint activities, and relationship building, the community of practice develops a shared and individual repertoire of resources, skills, and knowledge to use in their practice.”
Excerpts from edited transcript.
Lia Howard: Our guests today are experts at the nuances behind these ideas. We’re looking forward to hearing today about the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania. Welcome to Rita Hodges, who’s the Associate Director at the Netter Center and Faustine Sun, who is the Assistant Director of the Netter Center.
Thank you for the deeply important work you do at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships to, according to your website, “have Penn engage in sustained, mutually beneficial partnerships with our West Philadelphia community.” The past couple of years have been so challenging, and we are interested and curious to hear your ideas about the Penn community and our neighbors in West Philadelphia. Rita, could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your role as the Associate Director of the Netter Center?
Rita Hodges: Sure. Well, first, thank you, Lia, for having us. It’s a pleasure to work with you and your colleagues at Paideia, and it’s a pleasure to be with you here today. I am originally from Birmingham, Alabama, and I was an undergraduate at Penn Class of 2005. I got involved with what’s now known as the Netter Center towards the end of my undergraduate years, and it was a very transformative experience for me. I’ve been very fortunate to have spent most of my career here at the Netter Center in various capacities.
And then I earned my master’s in education along the way and am now a doctoral candidate in the Higher Education Division at GSE. In my role as one of three Associate Directors at the Netter Center, I support all aspects of the Netter Center as a university wide hub that develops and helps implement democratic, mutually transformative place based partnerships between Penn and West Philadelphia. More specifically, I help oversee our internal operations and communications. I manage the Center’s development and alumni relations activities, including working closely with our National Advisory Board, and I advance our regional, national and global outreach and networks of institutions of higher education that are working collaboratively with their local communities within that work.
I support the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development a network that we house here at the Netter Center, but represents over 25 colleges and universities in the Greater Philadelphia region. And I also serve as Executive Secretary of the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy, which is chaired by the Netter Center’s Director, Ira Harkavy.
Lia Howard: Wow, Rita, that’s incredible. All those different roles that you manage so well and seamlessly. Faustine, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role as the Assistant Director of the Netter Center?
Faustine Sun: Sure, absolutely. So I am also a proud alum of Penn. Originally from right outside Houston, Texas, and then came to Penn for my undergrad in 2014. I graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 2018, and then I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to go next.
But luckily, I’d worked with another center as a student leader throughout my undergraduate career, and even if I didn’t know anything else about myself and my future, I at the very least was sure about my passion for a community engagement and university community partnerships. So I applied for a full time position with Netter and started my journey here back in July 2018. I worked first in the role of Academically Based Community Service or ABCS coordinator. In which I worked with Penn faculty and students to support Penn’s 70 plus ABCS courses.
And then in January 2021, almost exactly a year ago, I transitioned into the Assistant Director position, and in this role I oversee all aspects of Penn student support, including recruitment, hiring, orientation and the placement of Penn students into our many, many, many staff in student run programs. I work very closely also with our Steward Advisory Board, which is active the entire academic year. I work with them to improve our Penn student engagement. Outside of Penn Student Support, I with Rita oversee the internal operations and communications of the Netter Center and supervise the administrative team. I also work with her to support some alumni and development activities.
Lia Howard: Well, Faustine, happy anniversary. That’s wonderful. And you also shoulder so many different important roles. It’s wonderful to hear about them and I want to hear more. So first of all, I want to think a bit with you all about the Penn community and what it looks like from your vantage point at the Netter Center. You are experts at leveraging the resources of a large university like Penn to best serve the community. So Rita, can we start with you again? When you think of the Penn community, what comes to mind in a place as large and diverse as Penn?
How do you balance the need for a unified campus, especially in the current pandemic, with respect for an awareness of the many distinct mini communities here? You, as you said, were an undergrad at Penn and you’re working on your doctoral degree, as well as playing a critical role on the staff here at Penn.
So has your view of the Penn community changed and how?
Rita Hodges: Yeah, that’s a great set of questions. So first, what comes to mind for me of the Penn community is really that we’re part of this ecosystem that also includes the West Philadelphia community and to some extent, Philadelphia at large. So thinking about the Penn community as students, staff, faculty, alumni and community members, including the many youth that we work with from the West Philadelphia community in a similar vein at the Netter Center, we have four distinct advisory boards that really help guide the work that we do every day and plan for the future.
And so we have a community advisory board, a faculty advisory board, a student advisory board and a national advisory board. As you mentioned, you know, one of our our big objectives is to really galvanize and engage this broad range of Penn resources, particularly its human resources, to work with and contribute to us.
Philadelphia. For me, as an undergraduate, my engagement was primarily through the ABCS courses of the Netter Center offers, and I really stumbled upon that opportunity, and it became such a significant part of my experience at Penn, particularly studying under Dr. Harkavy when I was a senior and then ultimately shaping my career.
And so when I think about what’s what’s changed in part, what I think about is how some of that stumbling still happens for sure. But much more often we now see students writing about this work, about community and civic engagement as part of their application to Penn.
And then they come in as freshmen eager to get engaged in a really meaningful way. We’ve seen it get more embedded into the curriculum, which has been a big illustration of how community engagement has become more central to the university. And I think Penn and West Philadelphia relationships have also evolved and strengthened. There’s an increasing understanding for mutual benefit and the idea of this shared community. Of course, as much as Penn has done, there is much, much more than that we should and could do. Also, through my work as a staff member I increasingly began to understand the broader role of universities in their local environments and this whole concept of the university as as anchor institutions. And this has really become the focus of my doctoral research. The idea of anchor institution is really about leveraging the full range of resources of a higher education institution and other place based institutions.
So for universities, their academic, their human, their economic and cultural resources in strategic partnership with the local community to the benefit of both. And so Netter really focuses on those human and academic resources for Penn. And then we work with the Executive Vice President’s Office on Aspects of Community Economic Development. So, you know, the work with the community in thinking about building this Penn community and in this large and diverse place, as you mentioned earlier, you know, we also came to mind for me thinking about that question was that work with our local community has the potential and we have seen some of this in practice to leverage and unite the community beyond the traditional silos and fragmentation and actually increase interdisciplinary collaboration. It’s this idea of what the social psychologist Muzaffar Sharif defined as a super ordinate goal theory. The idea that significant complex local problems that people care deeply about can be a way to draw together expertise from across the university and from not only inside the university. Outside the university are community members expertise, and it can help align the work of various departments, centers, institutes and schools across our great university.
Lia Howard: Rita, thank you so much. I’m hearing so many good ways that the Netter Center has changed the discourse around community engagement, and I heard you many times say with working with and then working across, I really appreciate this conceptual lenses. Thank you. Faustine, what would you add? How does this look at the big vision level and then at the programing level? You also mentioned that you were an undergrad at Penn. And how has your view of the Penn community changed?
Faustine Sun: So at the Netter Center, one of our major strategies is University Assisted Community Schools or UACS for short. We recognize that public schools are one of maybe the core institutions for community engagement and democratic development in a community. And what our programing aims to do is to bring together Penn students, faculty staff with K-12 students, teachers and community members for mutually beneficial outcomes. So you access a comprehensive, collaborative approach to neighborhood and school improvement that educates and empowers, engages and and serves not only public school students, but also all other members of the community.
So to optimize our impact, our partner schools, we want to be integrating and aggregating resources by working across schools and centers of the university. And given our long-standing relationships with the West Philadelphia community at this point over 30 years, the Netter Center is really uniquely positioned to be able to facilitate connections between the different parts of the university with our neighbors in West Philly. So, for example, one of our new student led programs is Nonprofit Connect, which works very closely with the Wharton Undergraduate Division to increase opportunities for Wharton students and student groups to apply their learning by engaging in real world projects with Philadelphia nonprofits.
Another example is educational pipeline program that is a partnership between the Netter Center and Penn Medicine, and also includes Penn Vet and the Vagelos program in Life Sciences Management. And this program works to provide STEM and health sciences, mentorship and education for high school students.
Yet another example is our Young Quaker’s Committee Athletics Program, which collaborates with analytics to connect Penn varsity teams to youth in West Philadelphia. So as you can see, we have many, many partnerships, we have many other partnerships and programs as well with Penn Dental and with the Weitzman School of Design, with Penn Engineering and Nursing and, of course, School of Arts and Sciences. And I think all of this is to say that for me, like Rita also said the Netter Center really embodies the Penn community, bringing together disparate parts of the university and working toward this larger goal of making the world a better place.
Starting on campus and with the local community. And then to answer your second part of your question, Lia, about my personal change in perspective, when I was an undergrad taking several classes a semester and participating extracurriculars, even though I worked with West Philly students at the Lea School through one of the Netter Center’s programs, Francophone Community Partnership, I was really only engaging once a week for about an hour. As a student who spent the vast majority of my time on campus, I felt the Penn bubble pretty keenly. But then summer before my senior year, I participated in really a life changing program. The Penn Program for Public Service Summer Internship at the Netter Center, which includes an amazing ABCS seminar that’s co-instructed by Netter’s director, Dr. Ira Harkavy, and Netter’s Post-Secondary Success Coordinator Theresa Simmonds and the Penn Program for Public Service also includes this paid internship, where interns work full time at a Netter summer enrichment program for K-12 youth.
That experience really opened my eyes to how interconnected Penn and West Philadelphia really are and could be with Penn students, staff and faculty working so closely, together with school teachers and students and other community members. As a Penn student, Penn community, to me, meant mostly peers and professors now as staff, I’m much, much more aware of a larger Penn community that includes this vast number of people that support the workings of the university as staff or as local businesses supplying food and goods. And a lot of these folks are from West Philly. All of this is to say that I really understand that Penn is not an isolated entity, but one piece of a larger ecosystem, as Rita said, and that West Philadelphia is an integral part of the Penn community and vice versa.
Lia Howard: Faustine, so appreciate you talking about the different programs, the very specific programs that you offer at the Netter Center and also your personal experience. Thanks so much. That was enlightening in many different ways. So going right along with many of the things that you read to have shared and you, Faustine have shared as well.
I want to just look at your website and just for a moment, it talks about three important strategies that guide your practice, and I just want to read a portion just for a second. It says three key strategies underpin our work. “The first is academically based community service, or ABCS service, rooted in an intrinsically connected to research, teaching and learning. The second is a university assisted community schools. You ask us which educate, engage, empower and serve not only students, but also all other members of the community, providing an organizing framework for bringing our programs, including ABCS courses to West Philadelphia schools. Third, we view ABCS and UACS as core to a comprehensive anchor institution strategy in which universities engage in sustained, mutually beneficial partnerships with their communities. These strategies are shared with others across the country and around the world, serving as a model for Democratic University community engagement.” A fabulous mission and vision and really cool strategies. So Rita, can you comment on these three strategies and how they help Penn undergraduate students better understand their role as citizens of the Philadelphia community? Do you have any stories of how this works through specific programs? I mean, some have been shared already, but going forward, what other practices would you like to introduce to continue to build a vibrant and inclusive community here at Penn?
Rita Hodges: Thank you, Lia, for another great question. So you read these core strategies that really do underpin our work and support our broader mission to develop and sustain democratic, mutually transformative place based partnerships between Penn and West Philadelphia. And within that mission and through these strategies, we have many different objectives. Among them are to advance academic engagement and learning with the community to generate knowledge that help solve real world problems and improve learning across all levels of schooling. We often say K through 16 or pre-K to 20 plus, meaning that we are working with students in the K-12 community, as well as our undergraduate, graduate and professional students to advance their learning and development together. One of our objectives is also to prepare Penn students to be creative, compassionate, ethical, justice seeking citizens who significantly contribute to the welfare of others. Now, while they are students here at Penn and into the future throughout their lives.
And so our ABCS classes and our UACS programs provide wonderful opportunities to realize these goals as Faustine just spoke about several of these opportunities. And I’m going to be turning to her in a minute again to share many more fantastic examples. But I want to also note that undergraduates have played such a significant role in pushing this work forward at Penn, and that includes advancing Netter Center as an organization. I also want to note that we’ve been increasingly engaging graduate students, particularly working with Ph.D. students, to support community engaged scholarship and research through programs like the Provost Graduate Academic Engagement Fellowship at the Netter Center. And we have some really fantastic fellows working with us right now. And when thinking about, you know, moving the the community forward, continuing to build a vibrant and inclusive community here at the last part of your question, you know, as I mentioned before, while relationships between Penn and West Philadelphia have greatly improved, more needs to be done and the pandemic has made this more clear than than ever before. You know, our thought is that every department and every school at Penn should turn its intellectual and human resources to working with community partners to make a positive difference and ultimately help eradicate inequities and the processes through which these activities are carried out really matter. So if the work is not done in a thoughtful, strategic democratic way with the goal of mutual change, then it has the potential to do more harm than good to to displace existing residents or exploit vulnerable populations.
So, you know, we really want to engage the resources across the entire institution, particularly these human and academic resources, the work that we do every day at the Netter Center, but also work with our other partners across Penn to include the institutional resources, things like purchasing, procurement, hiring and other economic resources in an integrated way that will really lead to a more equitable and inclusive community on and off campus. And this entails mutual learning and mutual respect. It involves bringing the university and community partners together on an ongoing basis, not around specific research grants or specific crises, but in an ongoing, sustained neutral way so that we can make a difference in the quality of life on campus and in the community, and also advance research, teaching and learning. I want to step back for just a minute and give a quick sense of the current scope of the work, since we also see growth as a goal.
So the Netter Center has grown significantly over time, including significant evolution since I was a student, as we were talking about before. But we now have 50 full time staff and well over 100 part time staff this year, around 125 who work primarily in our after-school programs. In the community, we engage about 15 hundred Penn students through our ABCS courses, and that’s undergraduate, graduate and professional, about 70 to 75 courses each year. And then an additional 400 students through federal work study, and other paid academic internship positions. And in any given year, between 500-900 volunteers. So we have we have grown and our goals are to continue to grow and engage more individuals and more academic resources across the university. But to do so in a way that really maintains that very values driven approach that I’ve spoken about and one that centers even more clearly our focus on racial and social justice. So now let me turn to Faustine so she can share some more specific stories and examples.
Lia Howard: Well, thank you, Rita, that was excellent. I appreciate your intentionality around both your language and your processes, and wow, what an operation. I did not realize that the Netter Center was so large. Thank you for sharing those numbers. What would you add, Faustine, as Rita sets you up?
Faustine Sun: Sure. So in both my roles at the Netter Center as ABCS coordinator and now as assistant director, I’ve worked very closely with Penn students. I hear all the time how an ABCS courses or UACS program has absolutely changed the way they think about their Penn education, which is really incredible. The Center takes a problem solving learning approach in which Penn students and also K-12 students learn by doing and in particular by helping to solve a real world problem as it’s manifested locally. So, for example, we support an engineering ABCS course, in which Penn students work with K-12 students to learn about building sciences and weatherization. And then they actually work together to weatherize their school building or their homes. Students are able to apply what they’ve learned in class to help solve a problem that currently exists locally. And it’s really cool. We also have some fantastic UACS University Assisted Community School student leaders now who’ve written written reflections about how working with, for example, Paul Robeson High School to facilitate a new writing program or a new engineering program which are both real, ongoing student developed initiatives right now. How working with Robeson High School has brought them so much joy and a sense of empowerment that they also pass along to their K-12 mentees.
It’s it’s always so powerful to me to hear from Penn students about how participating in Academically Based Community Service courses and University Assisted Community School programs has made them realize that the knowledge that they’re gaining at Penn can make so much positive change in the real world. I’m looking forward, some other practices that we are or plan to be using include the great work that our anti-racism working group is doing to build safe and inclusive spaces for all and all constituents, including Penn students and staff, faculty, K-12 students and community members at large.
Our anti-racism working group membership currently includes veterans and our students and staff and community members, so we get all of their input and feedback. We’ve also in the last year developed a student driven professional development committee, which has been providing peer to peer workshops and learning opportunities for Penn students engaging with Netter Center programs. So we’ve done a lot of different things and we have many more wonderful initiatives coming up in the future.
Lia Howard: Thank you so much for sharing those. It’s such a joy to hear all the good work that you are engaged in at the Netter Center. So I just want to take a moment to reflect. The past almost two years have been deeply challenging. We’re living through a pandemic which has altered the way we live and work. We’ve been exposed to tragedies like the murder of George Floyd and chilling anti-Asian hate crimes. Yet we’ve witnessed widespread protest marches where people of all races have joined together to decry these deep injustices.
We’ve experienced political toxicity, polarization, even an insurrection on our Capitol building in Washington, DC. Yet we’ve also seen a record amount of voting and political participation. All these things have influenced the way we, as U.S. citizens, think about our U.S. community and have rippled out to affect the way we think about Penn as well. In short, living in community is both challenging and invigorating, deeply painful at times, yet deeply rewarding. We want to examine what are some of the challenges and joys of your work with the Penn community. So, Rita, what are some of the things that have been challenging this year and what have been some of the things that have brought you joy, hope and encouragement?
Rita Hodges: Thank you, Lia. Such a thoughtful and also big question. Of course, there have been personal joys in addition to challenges through having more intensive time, for example, with my husband and two children who are three and five as we lived through this pandemic together at Penn and every day, my Netter Center colleagues, though, are such an inspiration. They are passionate and driven, committed, talented individuals, and during this past couple of years, they have shown even more dedication and resolve to meeting the needs of all of our partners, particularly our K-12 students and families in West Philadelphia.
And we do everything as such an inclusive team and a supportive team. We’ve been supportive of each other as we’ve all faced our own personal and professional difficulties during this time. The ABCS and University Assisted Community School Work have constantly pivoted during the pandemic, but it was wonderful to see how able our team was to was to do that so quickly and effectively because the work was built on these strong, sustained relationships and and trust and love with our youth and the families and school partners that we work with. And then besides going virtual and then hybrid and back to in-person and then back hybrid again, we really had some innovative developments as well that has been really encouraging and made me very hopeful as well. So for example, we have been doing since early September school based vaccine outreach and clinics with Penn Medicine at our different university assisted community school sites. And I just learned from our colleague and Emerson fellow and another young alumni at from Penn, Katey Givan that we’re going to be giving our 1000 shot tomorrow at West Philadelphia High School in one of our follow up vaccine clinics there. So this has been in partnership with and physically located at our different university assisted new school sites in West Philadelphia, both K-8 sites and high schools.
And it has been incredible to see the outreach and impact that that work is having. And then there’s also the work our team has been doing work that was just beginning before the pandemic and then took on a new level of significance as we endured COVID 19 with CHOP’s Healthier Together initiative where we’re focusing on social, emotional learning and supporting student trauma and grief. And it not only supports the students, but it also supports our staff and our school partners and the caregivers for these individuals in a trauma informed care. And then there’s also work that we’re doing internationally and globally that also gives me hope.
So as mentioned, I serve as executive secretary for this international consortium, which is then a pilot organization that is part of a global cooperation for the democratic mission of higher education. We work with the Council of Europe, the International Association of Universities in the Organization of American States, and so working with colleagues all over the world who are really trying to push higher education to advance a movement that helps not only develop individual democratic civic universities, but really helps push the system forward that higher education can play a stronger role in co-creating more just equitable, inclusive, sustainable and democratic societies.
And then finally, I’ll just mention that the Netter Center’s also celebrating its 30th anniversary in July, starting on July 20. 22 and next year, we are planning a range of activities throughout the year with our partners. And it really this occasion provides an opportunity for us to reflect and plan and further our work together locally, nationally and globally, and it’s an opportunity to take the center’s work to the next level. So those are some of my hopes and joy is going forward.
Lia Howard: Rita, so many exciting things. I’m still on the 1000 shot that’s so exciting, the vaccine, but so many other things in there as well that you shared. And yay for the 30th anniversary of the Netter Center. Faustine, how would you respond to that question? What are some of the things that have been challenging this year? And what are some of the things that have brought you joy, hope and encouragement?
Faustine Sun: Well, first, I want to express my thanks for this really thoughtful question and for this opportunity to reflect. I think Rita really captured many of our major challenges these last couple of years and a lot of the really exciting opportunities as well. So I want to co-sign everything that she said. In particular, I want to give another shout out to my incredibly creative, resilient and absolutely inspiring her colleagues, who have climbed several mountains in this time. They’ve centered community needs and worked tirelessly with our partners to continue to offer programing for the case of students, whether it was virtual in person or something in between. And they’ve given so much to support the youth, the families and teachers and other community partners in West Philadelphia. So big shout out to the staff and much love to them always. I also want to acknowledge that it’s been a tough time for everyone, for Penn students, faculty staff, the larger community, the world, and that sometimes just the way about the day is hard, especially for, unfortunately, the many folks who may have experienced personal tragedies or major changes to their lives. But what gives me joy and hope and encouragement is the knowledge that we are stronger together.
And I think that the work we have done together, the steps we continue to take forward proves that. And then lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my amazing Penn student colleague and give them so much love and praise and appreciation.
Again, my role is mostly Penn student, and the students I work with are my joy and my hope. Ten students are so enthusiastic and passionate and leaders and thinkers and problem solvers, and they inspire me all the time. I so look forward to collaborating with them and with our staff and faculty and community partners to continue to do good work. Into letters fourth decade.
Lia Howard: Well, what a wonderful place to end on that hopeful note and with a real respect and admiration for our Penn student community. So thank you so much to our guests, to Rita and Faustine. We’ve enjoyed our time with you and again are so grateful for the ways you serve and care for the Penn community at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. Please join us in March as we visit with another one of our partner organizations to learn about their thoughts on the Penn community and the practices they use to sustain their work here.