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NWRSDP Happenings- Creating Lasting Change

June 2014

University Collaboration Creates Lasting Change

By Virajita Singh, Senior Research Fellow, UMN College of Design

This story is one from a series of stories collected during NWRSDP's Most Significant Change evaluation project.

As we were beginning our design assistance work for greater MN and other communities (the program is now called Design for Community Resilience), Linda approached us about the Baudette project. This project became one of the projects we worked on with RSDP. Along with Linda and Joanne Kellner, the Depot Preservation Alliance (DPA) Representative, we discussed the possible needs of the project and outlined what we could offer through our Center for Sustainable Research.

There are many aspects of change in this story. From the perspective of the community and the DPA, I saw a really enterprising community that was committed to doing something with the Depot over the long term. The Depot was purchased for a very small amount of money back in 1987, or thereabouts, and the community had hung on to the building with a vision of turning it into something of vital use to the community. They recognized that the building had value, or at least the potential for value, for future generations. I also noticed how these small communities often have a lot of vision and hope, but not always the resources or expertise locally. It also became clear to me that RSDP plays an important role in these communities. Because they are so grounded in the community, with their citizen-led boards with local meeting and local board members, and because they are also grant makers, RSDP can actually offer communities resources and funding.

From the perspective of our team within the Design for Community Resilience program, being involved in this project had an impact on many levels. We had a graduate student who turned down a teaching assistantship in order to be involved in the project as a graduate assistant. He was a Fulbright Scholar from Belgium and had very diverse experience from both the architecture side as well as the international perspective. The fact that he turned down the teaching assistantship made me realize that our program should be providing students with many more opportunities to do meaningful work in service of communities.

We also were able to get an undergraduate student involved through the UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program). This student was originally from Cambodia, but had come to the U.S. from a refugee camp in Thailand. As for myself, I have lived in the U.S. since 1996, but originate from India. So I found it really interesting that we had very international team members working on this project on the edge of the MN-Canadian border. When we went to Baudette, the U.S./Canadian immigration post was right there. This was poignant because all of us had gone through an immigration post at one point in our lives.

While I haven't been able to return to Baudette, I thought it was amazing when they officially opened up in 2012. When we were involved, the project only had a few resources, so part of our role was to create documents that were clear and created a vision, visually, so that more fundraising would be possible. The fact that the project was added to and completed speaks to the fact that our contribution made a difference and contributed to a large degree towards the project's next steps.

Lastly, this project highlighted for me the potential for the University to be an intermediary. Sometimes there is tension when the University does work on a project because the consultants may see the University as competition. But our role is really to be the intermediary between the community and the consultants. If we can bring our research and perspective to the community, then the community is able to clarify their vision, and this helps the consultants. That is how we approach these situations but it isn't always clear how the consultants see it. But in this case, the firm that was involved was very happy with the work that we did and felt it was the perfect launching point.

Ultimately, my goal is to continue to create these opportunities for both the communities and the students. The communities need to be able to access the expertise in design and sustainability while the students need the chance to work on real life projects. While we've done many more projects since then, there is still the issue of scale and capacity. We really need to go to the next level - go to more communities and create more opportunities for students. So this is something that I am still working on and perhaps this storytelling will contribute to that. More people will hear about this story and this will help create more opportunities.

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