As Project Ujima enters the final months of a three-year, $674,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the pilot program’s goal of strengthening the community and establishing trust in Akron schools faces more challenges than funding.
At the most basic level, the program was challenged by an inability to reach people through standard means of communication, and even if it did, they often lacked transportation to participate.
Nonetheless, the program, launched by The Akron Neighborhood Trust in 2011, has garnered attention and support from community leaders, who have taken a backseat to the grass-roots process of engaging a largely African-American, low-income neighborhood in West Akron.
The project aims to arm disenfranchised residents with the tools necessary to help themselves.
“One of the key things about Project Ujima is the process in which every voice is to be heard and respected,” said Akron Councilman Russel Neal Jr. “Sometimes we get it confused with being a program. It’s a process.”
By design, the process is slow, thoughtful and sometimes laborious to a fault. While some applaud the benefits of carefully deliberating for hours, participants also note frustration with a process that requires multiple meetings before agreement is reached on a single issue, and even longer before talk turns into action.
And the issues are many, ranging from financial literacy to how Akron’s new taxpayer-funded schools should be used to enhance employment, health, education and more.
“It has to be the community’s work,” said Akron Superintendent David James. “It isn’t going to work if I come in there and say it’s my way or the highway.” The project must be driven by the “voices in the community. I was very clear to the group at the beginning. I will go to the first meeting. ... But I didn’t want it to be a thing where Akron Public Schools is an overseer of the project.”
James, along with City Council and community leaders, guided the project’s formation. But he’s not in charge.
Nor is the The Akron Neighborhood Trust. The nonprofit provides guidance, training for moderators and offers a forum for deliberative, community-fed discussion. Every Thursday at one of four schools in the Buchtel cluster, citizens take collective leadership of an issue and its solution. The conversation is moderated by one of their own, and led by all.
And that’s a good thing, says Neal, who makes it a point not to use his position as a councilman to influence decisions. “Every voice is valued,” he said.
But there are voices essential to the process that have been absent. They belong to parents who aren’t showing up.
“One of the challenges, quite frankly, is to get parents who have children in the buildings to get actively involved in the process,” said Crystal Jones, a co-founder of The Akron Neighborhood Trust.
“The foundation of it all is to trust one another,” Jones stressed.
Distrust of institutions and schools has been an issue for Buchtel residents, who may feel disenfranchised. That distrust resurfaced at a recent Ujima Project discussion at Buchtel CLC.
The discussion on how to get parents involved was attended mostly by residents with no children attending Akron schools.
Attendee Danmark Cunningham was an exception. A father and Buchtel resident, he talked about how his daughter, a sixth-grader at the time, was suspended for fighting with a boy. Cunningham had a contentious exchange with a school administrator following the incident.
“As a parent I felt offended, like I didn’t have any rights,” Cunningham said.
Unlike other parents, Cunningham bottled his anger. He didn’t pull his daughter out of the school, as some might. The problem worked itself out and the suspension was lifted after he learned “how to advocate for [his] child and how to do things within the school system.”
Cunningham’s anecdote folded into a broader conversation that touched on physical and social barriers to parental involvement.
As the circle of people took turns presenting solutions, one idea offered by Akron Community Outreach Director Carla Sibley stood out.
Sibley said she can no longer sit back and wait for parents to show up, and neither should Ujima.
“I am sort of done with asking parents to do things that are beyond their abilities. I am very passionate about this,” Sibley said, noting that transportation and communication can create unseen barriers.
Some parents would have to catch three buses to visit her downtown office, Sibley explained. Others may be single parents consumed by work.
And reaching parents can also be difficult. Addresses often change and listed phone numbers sometimes ring disconnected.
“We just have to do things differently for parents who will never walk into a school,” Sibley said.
Idea to action
Time ran out on the two-hour discussion circle and the group agreed to reconvene in a month. While they didn’t iron out all their issues, they walked away with an idea: go to where the parents are and find out what stands between them and their children’s education.
The plan is to have “parent liaisons” — not school employees — meet parents in the community, perhaps at a Jobs and Family Services office, and identify barriers. If it’s trust, relationships can be mended. If it’s transportation or communication, teachers should know before giving up attempts to reach their students’ parents.
At the February meeting, the process labors on as those who return (many from the previous month did not) will examine the plan’s pros and cons before addressing funding and staffing. That can be equally daunting.
The Ujima Project has developed and implemented initiatives that mirror already established programs, like a third-grade mentoring group similar to Akron Reads. Other programs, like a financial literacy game offered in the community, present innovative solutions to multifaceted problems, such as debt and employment.
But finding volunteers and sustainable funding have stymied some efforts.
The group has taken an important first step in dissecting issues and assigning task forces. But it will take more than good ideas and funding to sustain Project Ujima.
“If there aren’t the people who are willing to take great ideas to action,” said Susan Vogelsang, co-founder of The Akron Neighborhood Trust, “then all we are left with are great ideas.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com.