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South African delegation travels to SU as part of initiative to collaborate on community development

October 26, 2010

Kate Holloway

In an effort to promote cross-cultural collaborative dialogue, a delegation of representatives from the University of Fort Hare (UFH) in South Africa visited Syracuse University from Oct. 5-10 as part of the South Africa Meets the South Side Initiative (SAMSI) project.

“Through SAMSI, we anticipate faculty-to-faculty sharing of best practices around developing cooperatively owned enterprises, heritage preservation and community access to computer technology,” says Linda Littlejohn, associate vice president of the South Side Initiative in Syracuse. “SAMSI success occurs when, as a result of the dialogue between residents of South Africa and Syracuse south side communities, both communities have been able to increase the cultural programs and businesses that contribute to the revitalization of their community.”

“We had a dialog about appropriate relevant joint research, and the last day we talked about what we’re going to do moving forward,” says SU School of Information Studies (iSchool) Associate Professor Murali Venkatesh. “There are four areas in which we are looking to move forward—curriculum development, infrastructure for pedagogy, actual teaching and searching for areas where we can conduct mutually beneficial research and development work.”

Venkatesh will visit South Africa in November to participate in a colloquium on “Conceptualizing the Integration of Teaching and Learning, Research and Community Engagement” at the UFH campus in East London, South Africa. He will talk about connecting civic engagement, technology-related interventions, teaching and research. He will meet with faculty from a range of disciplines, IT professionals and residents of Alice, South Africa, to have a better basis on which to form plans moving forward.

The combination of civic engagement and cultivating student involvement is important to Venkatesh. “I don’t believe in doing this for the community, but with the community,” he says. “All universities want to do the right thing by their students and community, but there’s a paradigm shift. It’s not good enough to have students work on a project, but we also have to give students a sense of being good citizens. We plant the seeds and the students grow professionally and can affect other people in positive ways.”

The SAMSI project began in 2008 as a collaboration between SU and UFH to create opportunities for dialogue between residents of Alice and the south side of Syracuse, and faculty of UFH and SU. Those involved in the project work on effective methods of grassroots organizing, neighborhood revitalization through community development initiatives, and best practices for engaging communities and universities in such work.

“The South Side Initiative chose to engage with South Africa because of the systemic similarities between Jim Crow laws and apartheid, and the impact these systems have had on a large portion of its citizenry,” Littlejohn says. “We are hoping that South Side residents will be able to discuss post-Jim Crow lessons learned with South Africans who only recently experienced the end of apartheid, and draw upon these lessons to continue their community revitalization efforts.”

The community of Alice is also in close proximity to UFH, much like the South Side community of Syracuse is to the University. Alice chose certain project areas in which to focus and the South Side initiative chose professors at SU whose expertise matched those areas—Venkatesh in information technology, Professor Deborah Kenn in the College of Law and Associate Professor Joan Bryant in African Amercan Studies, in The College of Arts and Sciences.

“The fact that Alice picked areas in which they wanted help adds validity,” Venkatesh says. “It’s not just some academic cooking this up in his office.”

In 2008, the SU South Side Initiative Office invited UFH Law Professor Nasila Rembe to visit SU and Syracuse’s South Side. His visit coincided with a law clinic “Exploring Solutions to Poverty: Global Perspectives through the Local Community Lens.” During this visit, Rembe was able to not only meet with South Side residents, but was also able to participate on a panel discussing global solutions to poverty.

The following March, the vice chancellor of UFH, Mvuyo Tom, welcomed an SU delegation consisting of professor Cecil Abrahams, doctoral candidate Don Sawyer and Littlejohn to South Africa. While there, they met with dozens of faculty members, and described the Syracuse University South Side Initiative model of community engagement and Scholarship in Action.

The 2010 delegation to Syracuse from UFH included executive dean of research professor Gideon de Wet, National Research Chair for Social Change Professor Gary Minkley, department head of sociology Wilson Akpan, director of community engagement Jayshree Thakrar, and Mkhululi Jack. The community representatives from Alice included head of Alice Residents Association Victoria Nkomana and corridor manager of the Aspire Development Agency Sarel Van der Walt.

“It’s wonderful the way this thing is taking off,” Venkatesh says. “Hopefully, we can help them but learn from them as well.”

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