Brandon Lewis ’13 with fashion designer Kenneth Cole P ’10 at the 2011 Kenneth Cole Forum, which focused on “The Power of Community Engagement: Impact, Innovation and the Individual.”

Engaging the Community

Columbia College and Kenneth Cole P'10 empower the next generation of community leaders.

Brandon Lewis ’13 was looking for a tangible experience to apply what he was learning in the classroom as an urban studies major. Kimberly Rubin ’12 wanted to do community outreach for a not-for-profit organization. And Jason Mogen ’12 hoped to spend the summer of 2011 doing something other than working in a lab.

The three were members of the first class of fellows in the Kenneth Cole Community Engagement Program, a Columbia initiative that seeks to inspire and empower the next generation of community leaders and help students become effective change agents of change. The program was started in 2011 by Columbia College and Columbia Engineering, in partnership with fashion designer Kenneth Cole P’10.

The program’s goal is to introduce College and Engineering undergraduates to the challenges of and opportunities for community building in contemporary urban America and give them the academic and practical experience to become community leaders. Students selected for the program, called Kenneth Cole Fellows, spend two semesters studying urban issues and learning about community engagement, collaboration, leadership and problem-solving before embarking on summer-long internships at New York City community organizations. The program is designed for students who are willing to devote a considerable amount of time and energy to reflect on the process of community building.

“It was [Cole’s] impetus to want to create something at Columbia that’s about teaching students — future community leaders — how to reach for social change within their local and global communities,” said Todd Smith-Bergollo, associate dean of student affairs. “It’s really about looking at issues that are affecting our communities and how we can be a part of the solution.”

Sophomores and juniors apply to the program in mid-November, and between 11 and 13 are selected as Kenneth Cole Fellows by the end of the fall semester. Students are required to complete two electives related to community building and engagement. In the spring, they meet for a required biweekly colloquium, “Topics in Community Engagement,” and, during the summer, they are placed in teams to work at local community organizations. The projects are focused on initiatives that address local problems, encourage social action, strengthen communities and promote social change.

Fellows also live together in a Columbia residence hall during the summer, giving them the opportunity to bond over similar interests and bounce ideas off one another. Once a week, they meet with program staff members to discuss their projects, learn about community engagement and problem-solving, hear from guest speakers and visit local organizations. Each fellow also receives a $3,000 stipend.

The Kenneth Cole Community Engagement Program also sponsors public lectures, workshops and other events related to community engagement throughout the academic year, including the Kenneth Cole Forum each October, which includes special guests and presentations by past fellows on their summer experiences. The fall 2011 forum featured Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and focused on “The Power of Community Engagement: Impact, Innovation and the Individual.”

Cole said his goal in starting the program was to “empower and further inspire Columbia’s talented student body with necessary tools to be able to make meaningful and sustainable differences in their respective communities, to become effective social entrepreneurs and the next generation of ‘change agents.’”

“I have always believed that our universities need to recognize their interdependance with our communities and that the best way to address their individual needs and to provide for their collective futures is through collaborative programs like this,” Cole said. “I am proud and enthusiastic to be partnering with Columbia in this important initiative.”

During the summer 2011, Columbia students worked for the Community League of the Heights, Legal Information for Families Today, and the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center. Students working for CLOTH surveyed the community about what services were needed at a new community center in Washington Heights. Those at LIFT also surveyed community members about how to better provide legal information and education to children and families in the community.

Students interning at the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center created a business plan for “La Canasta,” a new program to distribute affordable fresh fruits and vegetables in the South Bronx. The Mary Mitchell interns also coordinated student workshops on community gardening and photography and volunteered at the local farmer’s market.

“[It’s an] opportunity to really take a hands-on approach to a community issue,” said Rubin, an urban studies major from rural Maine who worked at the Mary Mitchell Center. “It was really wonderful to be thrown in and have that much expected of you.  You really have to rise to the occasion.”

Students said the program also gave them the opportunity to learn about parts of New York City they had never known and make an impact on neighborhoods and communities.  They also got the opportunity to represent Columbia outside of Morningside Heights.

“Columbia students are in the community, using the space and the resources. We were able to go into the neighborhoods right next door and provide new resources to this community-building organization,” said Mogen, a music major from Long Island.

“I definitely recommend it to those who are interested in making an impact on their neighborhood,” said Lewis, who is from suburban Atlanta. “I think I learned most that being here is an awesome experience and it’s a special experience and those of us who are privileged to go to an institution like Columbia University should take that and use it outside of the gates.”

Learn more about the Kenneth Cole Community Engagement Program.

Published Thursday December 22, 2011

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