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Elder Atum Azzahir

Elder Atum Azzahir, executive director of the Powderhorn Phillips Cultural Wellness Center in south Minneapolis, has worked with several University units over the ten years of the center. She will give the keynote address for Public Engagement Day.

Engagement party

First Public Engagement Day will celebrate U-community partnerships

By Stephanie Wilkes

Brief, April 4, 2007

Elder Atum Azzahir has plenty of experience with community-University partnerships. Over the ten-year history of the Powderhorn Phillips Cultural Wellness Center in south Minneapolis, its executive director has worked closely with the U's Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Humphrey Institute as well as the Academic Health Center, the Center for Spirituality and Healing, and the Department of Nutrition.

In a keynote address for the University's first Public Engagement Day April 11, Azzahir will talk about the importance of generating community knowledge as well as University knowledge.

"It is about the vision the community has of these partnerships," says Azzahir. "I want this day to be a convergence of ways--a chance for the community and University teachers to come together to solve problems."

Wednesday, April 11
8:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Coffman Memorial Union
U of M-Twin Cities

8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Registration is free but required to attend addresses, lunch, and workshops.
4-6 p.m. Open house celebration in the Great Hall - no registration required.
Evening awards dinner is by invitation only.

See the complete schedule.

Xolela Mangcu will be visiting the Twin Cities for events including a Tuesday lecture, "Which Way South Africa After Thebo Mbeki?" April 10, 8 p.m., Cowles Auditorium, Humphrey Center.

Azzahir's local community perspective will be complemented by a global perspective in opening remarks by Xolela Mangcu of South Africa. Mangcu is a leading voice in South African public life who has called for revitalization of the traditions, politics, and practices of broad democratic participation and community interaction. He directs the Centre for Public Engagement at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. See box, left. The day's schedule will include workshops and examples of current community-University partnerships across the state to give a deeper understanding of what public engagement means.

"This is a day for students, faculty, staff, and community partners to convene and celebrate mutual work," says Diana Martenson, organization and program development specialist, University of Minnesota Extension, and coordinator for the event. "It's a place to discuss how partnerships have developed and the knowledge created. We also want to address some of the challenges of community-and-University partnerships and work collectively to come to solutions."

After Mangcu's opening address, U associate vice president for public engagement Victor Bloomfield will talk about the history and context of public engagement work at the University of Minnesota.

Participants will choose among workshops--six in the morning and seven more in the afternoon--on public engagement in areas ranging from the local foods movement to best practices in U-community partnerships.

In addition to giving a keynote, Azzahir will speak in one of the afternoon workshops about the role of the community as a producer of knowledge.

"I want faculty members to see community and cultural groups as sources of valuable knowledge and as leaders in their own right," she says. "The process of community creating knowledge is the best kept secret, and, as University people realize and respect that strength, we can go on to create truly valuable partnerships."

The final afternoon session will showcase exhibits on campus-community partnerships in the Great Hall. Finally, at an evening dinner, winners of the Outstanding Community Service Award and Josie R. Johnson Award for Human Rights and Social Justice will be honored.

"Engagement is about closing the distance between knowledge and the people," says Azzahir.

Martenson says Public Engagement Day is an important way to celebrate the University's land-grant mission.

"Respectful community and university partnership working collectively to address an important issue results in a win-win," she says. "There is mutual benefit, for the community at large and for the research and teaching agenda at the University.

Diana Martenson
Public Engagement Day coordinator Diana Martenson is an organization and program development specialist for University of Minnesota Extension.

"Important issues are addressed in the community, research is advanced, teaching and learning stimulated," says Martenson. "Public Engagement Day is an opportunity to engage with people currently involved in partnerships, and it encourages others that are not involved by showing ways that they can engage their work."

Azzahir stresses the importance of public engagement to the University and society on a larger scale.

"If the University continues to produce knowledge that is distant from the people and their experiences, it will continue to have isolated ideas and concepts that do not work," she says. "I think that engagement is about closing the distance between knowledge and the people. A good education--a meaningful education--an education that will produce new leaders--has to close the gap between the scholars and the people on the ground."

Stephanie Wilkes is a junior in English and linguistics and a communications intern in the Office for Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail