The idea of the network was born during a casual conversation between service learning directors from UCLA and USC. Specifically, the two were discussing the common shared problem of receiving calls and emails every single week from community partners who were asking for help. There was a legitimate and justified concern in realizing that the caller could not be helped, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the agency or organization was located too far away from a campus, and students were unlikely to travel two hours (one-way) to serve. Other times, the caller was looking for students from a specific major that wasn’t even offered by the university. We were all experiencing the same thing, in that the number of calls to university centers and offices was far exceeding the ability to provide faculty and students.
The Los Angeles Higher Education Partnership (or “LAHEP”) was conceptualized as a way to respond more effectively to requests for faculty and/or students, to better serve and improve the quality of life for the residents of Los Angeles, and to build a higher education community that could be seen as a resource to the City of Los Angeles. We understood all the while that it would be impossible to respond to all requests for help in a large, urban city the size of Los Angeles.)
The original idea was to improve communication and collaboration among colleges and universities in Los Angeles. Our goal was to “work smarter, not harder” in creating this network. There were two levels of interest. At the institutional level, we were curious about the relationships that our counterparts had with community organizations; no one had ever asked the question or collected this data about higher education’s relationship with agencies and organizations in the City of Los Angeles. Were we all going to the same places, and does it matter? And at the individual level, our hope was that callers to any campus could ideally get a response with no more than one additional phone call through personal referrals to network members. This would increase access to complex systems of campus departments and other units.
There was a conscious decision to focus on the City of Los Angeles, and not the County of Los Angeles. This created guidelines for invitations to the initial planning meeting of campus representatives, exploring the possibility of developing a critical mass of colleges and universities who would want to create and maintain LAHEP.
There was also a conscious decision to focus on undergraduate students and their work in Los Angeles communities via academic, credit-bearing service learning courses, AmeriCorps programs or community service organizations.
Luckily, many of the identified “service learning” directors or their counterparts on local campuses already knew one another. During the late 1990s, there was an informal Southern California group of service learning practitioners and researchers that met on a semi-regular basis, with support from California Campus Compact.
In 2002, a meeting was held with representatives of local campuses and a staff person from the Mayor’s office. There were four private colleges and universities represented, along with UCLA, two Cal State campus reps and two community college representatives. The group discussed whether LAHEP was a good idea, or not.
There was general agreement that each campus could benefit from participation in LAHEP. There is a California Master Plan that outlines the roles that community colleges, the Cal State Universities and the University of California play, with different majors and degree programs offered by each of the three systems. In addition, we had four strong private colleges and universities who brought another menu of curricular and co-curricular options to the table. Together we could imagine a richer menu of partnerships for community residents and organizations.
Yet some were skeptical that we could be promising more to community partners than we could deliver. Would we be raising expectations? Could we really promise help in every instance?
There was consensus that no one college or university could respond to the requests from parents, schools, nonprofits or governmental entities in a city the size of Los Angeles. Perhaps together we can unite to do a better job, by creating relationships among service learning or community service faculty and staff on each campus. Personal referrals may help improve the connections between the campuses and communities.
During the next three years, LAHEP held three annual events. There was a small, self-identified planning committee which met several times to organize these events and to work on recruitment and logistics. In every case, these volunteers were not working full-time on LAHEP and no one was compensated for their time.
The first event in 2002 was held at a centrally-located downtown campus and attracted approximately 50 persons from eight different campuses. There was a keynote address by one of the Deputy Mayors of Los Angeles. There was a resource table with information packets on each campus, with descriptions of service learning courses or community service programs. The primary goal of this first event was to get to know people from all the various campuses, developing relationships and sharing information.
The second event in 2003 included another opportunity for each campus to distribute information on their activities and provide a description of current and planned programs. This event also included a guest speaker on after-school programs with K-12, who also provided information on resources each campus could access (including technical assistance and consultation, training and free materials). A representative of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office attended and provided brief remarks.
The third event in 2004 was much broader and ambitious. We developed a logo for LAHEP. We developed a draft of a strategic plan which the participants reviewed (available below as “Appendix A”). We had preliminary data from a GIS mapping project, and shared data from six campuses which showed where each sent students (broken down by City Council Districts in Los Angeles). We had a second “track” in this event for students from member campuses, who had their own meeting about student activism and networking, with support from California Campus Compact. We also had a guest speaker talk about including students with disabilities in service learning courses (not as service recipients).
And then California fell on hard times. Budget cuts were hurting all the public institutions, and community colleges were particularly impacted. Some of the community college partners lost jobs; centers or offices were closed. LAHEP became relatively inactive, other than continued meetings of the planning committee. Many of our colleagues at community colleges were reassigned to other areas or left those institutions.
During the next two years, LAHEP members continued to engage in other activities to promote the idea of a regional higher education network that could be seen as a resource to the City.
In 2004, the two founding members of LAHEP made a presentation to a Los Angeles City Council Committee on Education, providing members (including the current mayor) with packets of information on the network, and offering a partnership that could potentially meet information needs of council districts through faculty/student research projects.
In 2005, three LAHEP members presented a session at the national Campus Compact Conference the following year, displaying basic information on the network as well as the preliminary mapping data that showed where (as a network) we were sending students and faculty.
LAHEP has been reinvigorated with a new California Campus Compact project, called the Youth to College or “Y2C” Initiative. UCLA is one of four statewide subgrantees working to increase the number of disadvantaged youth who go to college, through funding from Learn and Serve.
This new project has given new energy to LAHEP. We went back to our members and started planning new service learning training events for faculty from all the campuses. We invited members of the San Diego regional network to meet with us, to share their experiences and offer advice. We created a new one-page description for the Los Angeles regional network. We wrote letters to elected officials representing the districts in which we were working with local high schools, telling them about the service learning and regional work being done in Los Angeles.
In 2006, we hosted an event for service learning faculty and campus leaders attracted representatives from eight different campuses. A staff person from the Mayor’s Office was also in attendance to hear what colleges and universities were doing in the community and to offer feedback and connections to other community partners.
Our next event (scheduled for March of 2008) will showcase faculty, students and K-12 community partners from campuses throughout the region. The plan is to have ten colleges and universities in attendance and/or present their recent service learning work from a variety of disciplines.
One of the biggest challenges in developing this network is the size of the Los Angeles region. The City is spread out over a large geographical area and there is not an adequate public transportation system. Traffic is a constant concern. Getting members to attend a meeting becomes a challenge, because the location and the time of day have to be practical. Students without cars can not realistically participate in events that are not held on their home campuses.
Another challenge has been the turnover of campus representatives. This is sometimes due to attrition due to budget cuts, as previously mentioned. But other times, it is due to promotions or reorganizations or the completion of grant-funded projects that is not sustained. Oftentimes, a campus champion of service learning is reassigned and no one fills that role. Or, a faculty member may be doing the work with community partners as part of his or her teaching load and does not speak for the institution. The core group of LAHEP continues to come from four colleges and universities and the remainder are intermittent participants.
We have had more success with our current work focusing on K-12/higher education service learning partnerships, instead of trying to map or inventory the entire scope of what each college or university does in the community. In the case of some larger member institutions (30,000+ students), this would have been an overwhelming and unworkable task.
When we are successful in convening faculty from around the region, we continue to note the interest in creating a community of service learning practitioners and scholars. We see the energy and passion for the work, and observe disciplinary or interdisciplinary relationships being created. Connections are made for new community partners. Generous offers of resources are consistently made and accepted.
However, it is important to note that not all member campuses are equal, when it comes to resources and faculty workload. The teaching requirements and the expectations for scholarly publications vary. This affects the availability and energy that faculty from various campuses can bring to network activities, especially if events or meetings are not held on their home campuses. It is important to move meetings around the region, in the hope of continuing this loose association of like-minded faculty and staff who are consistently working in the communities of Los Angeles (and oftentimes in the same communities of Los Angeles).
Our pilot mapping project opened our eyes to the number of schools and non-profits with whom we all work. Most (if not all) campus representatives were completely unaware that other colleges and universities were sending their students and faculty members to the same locations. In one case, there were four campuses sending students to a single non-profit in South Los Angeles. Not one of the four knew the other three were there.
The mapping project was very exciting and consumed enormous amounts of time, but did not continue. Our original dream was to create a website, hopefully funded or supported somehow by the Mayor’s Office. (We now have a new mayor, to whom we will have to talk.) The idea was that each campus could have a way to continually update their data on a city-wide map, showing their partnerships with local organizations. This would be accessible to community residents, the campus partners, and elected officials. So if you are a parent looking for tutoring for your child, you could see what colleges and universities might be offering tutoring at local non-profits. If you are a city councilmember, you could see what community-based research projects are being conducted. Colleges and universities could see how many students are going to the same non-profits, and create a more focused and intentional approach to working with that community.
We have learned that LAHEP has to bring resources to campus members, or they see no benefit to participating or attending events. This can be funding for new service learning courses, or training from service learning faculty from throughout the region. It can also take the form of access to elected officials or distribution of free/low-cost resources.
Originally, we talked about joint grant proposals that could be collaborative efforts of 2-3 campuses in the network. We have not seen that become a reality. We also talked about including community partners in events, and yet we could not come up with a plan that would move the network forward, while providing reciprocal benefit for overworked non-profit staff or directors.
We have learned a great deal by talking with members of other regional networks in the state. We have shared theoretical and practical concerns. One of the most pressing that must be addressed is the advantage or incentive for individual campuses to participate. What is the benefit? How does this work fit with institutional priorities?
At this point in time, the loose, informal association of LAHEP members (with no formal status, dues or budget) continues to be housed at UCLA. It stays alive and provides communication among colleges and universities who play a leadership role in the promotion of undergraduate service learning and civic engagement in Los Angeles.