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Irma McClaurin

Irma McClaurin, director of the Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center, stands outside the shopping center at 2001 Plymouth Ave. N. that the U will renovate into a headquarters for the initiative.

McClaurin helps U forge new partnerships

Engaging with the Northside

By Martha Coventry

July 22, 2008

Irma McClaurin is intellectual enthusiasm and personal commitment personified. She talks with obvious zeal and expertise on topics like Brown vs. Board of Education, modern anthropology, Zora Neale Hurston, and politics and the media. She also believes in confronting society's challenges and is willing and able to take on the hard work of changing even a small piece of the world.

In McClaurin's work at the University of Minnesota, that small piece of the world is Minneapolis's Northside, home to some 63,000 residents as well as striking economic and health disparities compared with the rest of the city and county.

Three years ago, the University joined forces with the Northside community to explore these issues and their interrelated causes and effects, such as poverty, crime, unemployment, and access to health care and fresh food. They formed the University Northside Partnership (UNP) to "build healthier families and stronger communities together."

"We can't just replicate the rural centers. And we're not a social service. We are truly trying to establish a partnership where we can be good neighbors. We believe in this place and we're here to stay."

McClaurin, the U's associate vice president for system academic administration, was hired six months ago to bring that goal down to earth and help put it into practice. She is the first director of UROC--the Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center.

Taking it to the streets Based on the U's successful rural research and outreach centers, UROC will formally--and physically--take the U's public engagement mission into an urban setting. A shopping center at 2001 Plymouth Ave. N. is being renovated to make UROC a hub of neighborhood activities and U public engagement endeavors and research. Having an actual building in the community makes UROC the only urban engagement program of its kind in the country.

UROC's efforts will include programs to keep children active and interested during out-of-school time, nutrition education, and initiatives to incubate local businesses and provide entrepreneurial training for youth, all in a place where unemployment is higher than in any other area of Minneapolis.

Wielding words

Irma McClaurin specialized in poetry when she got her M.F.A., and the urge to put words on paper has never left her--she continues to write and publish poems. She also uses that drive and talent to explore and address historical inequalities and to support social and personal change.

In 1996 she published, as part of her anthropology Ph.D. dissertation, Women of Belize: Gender and Change in Central America, a book that gives an intimate look at the lives of three women in remote Belize. The book is a course requirement at some universities and is recommended for those doing fieldwork in Belize.

All of her writing is, at its core, about equality and about understanding how culture influences who we are. This year, an award-winning history textbook series will include two volumes by McClaurin, The Civil Rights Movement and Facing the Future. She sees these books as a way to send a message of pride and empowerment not only to children but also to their parents. "Schools buy these books, children bring them home, and then their parents read them, too, so they know what their children are learning," says McClaurin. "Because of this, [as a writer] you have a tremendous opportunity to talk about issues in ways that are accessible."

These volumes inspired McClaurin to write two illustrated children's books that she hopes will counter social negativity directed toward black females. And, as always, there is a poem in the works.

"With UROC we are forging new terrain, [facing] a new frontier if you will, and we're trying to figure out the best way to do that," says McClaurin. "We can't just replicate the rural centers. And we're not a social service. We are truly trying to establish a partnership where we can be good neighbors. We believe in this place and we're here to stay."

A vital part of the Northside efforts is the work of Dante Cicchetti, one of the world's leading figures in child development and the McKnight Presidential Chair and professor in the Institute of Child Development and the Department of Psychiatry. The University hired Cicchetti in 2005 in part because of a program he developed at the University of Rochester in New York that significantly reduced the number of children placed in foster care, a particular problem on the Northside. He will use his expertise to found the Child and Family Center. Initially, it will have an office in the new UROC building, but it will eventually develop its own space in partnership with the local NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center. According to McClaurin, "Dante was the original inspiration for the University's doing community-based work, and then [UROC] evolved from that."

One of the challenges of the University's partnership with the Northside was getting residents comfortable with the U's involvement in the community. The University recognizes that there is often a trust issue between "outside experts" and the people they're working with. "Occasional missteps [by previous people connected to the U] make it difficult for newcomers like UROC, but there are many others at the University who have worked effectively on the Northside for years, such as the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) and the dental school, and have been responsive and respectful collaborators," McClaurin says.

Then, when there's talk of "research" in the African-American community, the shadow of Alabama's Tuskegee Syphilis Study hangs in the air. Conducted from 1932 to 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service on African-American men with syphilis, the study involved withholding treatments, including penicillin, which could have made life easier for or saved the lives of many men.

"The people of the Northside are saying, 'We are not your laboratory,'" says McClaurin. "[But] they are not saying, 'We don't have problems and we don't want your support.' They want to know that there's a plan and that they're part of the planning. They're saying that they want to be on the ground floor and support the agenda. They want commitment and they want coordination [of all efforts on the Northside]."

New kid on the block McClaurin came to the U from the Ford Foundation and the University of Florida, where she was a tenured professor in anthropology. A poet and scholar, she recently wrote two textbooks for young adults, books that join her growing list of published works (see sidebar).

McClaurin calls herself a "public anthropologist"--one who discovers and points out issues in a community and gets people to talk about them. In short, she's engaged.

"I've done more fieldwork [in this position] than I've done in any [previous] administrative job," McClaurin says. "But that's what it takes to be on the ground and listen. And as the new kid on the block, I get to offer a new perspective on things. I've got a new pair of ears."

According to Barbara Milon, executive director of the Northside's Phyllis Wheatly Center, McClaurin is the person who "connects the dots" between the University and people and organizations on the Northside. "What I like about her is that she's very focused on working with the community," says Milon.

McClaurin loves the acronym UROC because when you say it out loud with enthusiasm, it conveys a message of belief and encouragement for a Minneapolis neighborhood that has had more than its share of bad news. McClaurin believes that as the University joins with the Northside, this effort has the potential to transform not just the neighborhood but also the U.

"We must stay open to the fact that change is not unidirectional," she says. "It can't be the University always going out and changing things. We also have to be open to things coming in and changing us."