Harder Than Rocket Science? Westside Alliance Takes Georgia Tech Civic Engagement in New Directions

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Georgia Tech’s move eastward across I-75 into Midtown has shown how dramatically we can impact the health of Atlanta neighborhoods.  A new strategic initiative focused on the distressed neighborhoods on the west side of campus intends to find solutions from a different direction.

The Georgia Tech Westside Task Force, comprised of individuals from across campus, and the Westside Communities Alliance which includes external partners, are bringing new life to the Institute’s engagement with surrounding neighborhoods including English Avenue, Home Park, Vine City, and Centennial Park.

Led by the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts and the College of Architecture, and under the umbrella of The Ivan Allen Jr. Legacy Project, these initiatives have been underway for the past year.  They were introduced to a larger campus audience February 14 at the “Bridges Symposium: Creating New Links Between the City of Atlanta and Georgia Tech.”

“The Westside initiatives are important steps in Georgia Tech’s strategic initiatives linking our research, knowledge generation, and education to community action,” said Jacqueline J. Royster, Dean of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.  “We are bringing coherence and energy to the Institute’s engagement with these neighborhoods.  The problems here are different, so the processes won’t look the same and the solutions won’t be the same, but we expect the impact to be comparable.”

The Bridges Symposium brought together members of the GT Westside Task Force and Alliance members from the Westside communities, the City of Atlanta government, police, fire department, and school entities, NGOs, and Atlanta academic institutions.  This diverse group of attendees reflected the initiative’s growing network of symbiotic relationships and provided an opportunity to share perspectives on what the Institute can and should do as a partner in revitalizing the Westside neighborhoods and creating a holistic Westside community. 

Keynote speaker Ira Harkavy provided a roadmap for universities as engaged community citizens.  He described University of Pennsylvania’s twenty year effort to address poverty, healthcare, and crime in the West Philadelphia neighborhood that surrounds it, and to differentiate Penn by institutionalizing civic engagement as part of its intellectual and academic mission.

“Creating democratic, mutually beneficial, mutually respectful partnerships is not rocket science,” said Harkavy.  “It is harder.”

Harkavy, who is a noted expert on university/community relationships and the founding director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, emphasized that Penn’s civic engagement mission could not be sustained without the Netter Center.

While Georgia Tech does not have such a center, College of Architecture Dean Alan Balfour emphasized the commitment behind the Georgia Tech Westside initiatives.

"The problems facing English Avenue are not unique, they can be found in so many American cities and the residents of such neighborhoods too often lack the experience in terms of planning, architecture and the social sciences to be able to address them,” said Balfour. “Therefore it is the obligation of public institutions such as Georgia Tech not only to offer their expertise, but also to help put in place a system of self-support and, in cooperation with the middle and high schools, attract local young people to careers in the appropriate professions.” 

The Symposium highlighted existing efforts by Georgia Tech faculty, staff, and students to integrate service to the city into their research, teaching, and learning and how the Georgia Tech Westside Task Force and the Westside Community Alliance are coalescing those efforts. It reinforced the importance of leveraging current momentum and channeling the Institute’s efforts into a coherent and strategic model in order to experience the benefits that many of our competitor institutions who have moved in this direction are already realizing in a more robust way.   

Some key ideas brought forward during the symposium included:

  • Encouraging faculty to link outreach to their research, solving intellectual problems for long-term, sustainable engagement, and breaking down perceptions that outreach is always considered “service”
  • Giving civic partnerships better chances for longevity by pursuing more private and public funding, and leveraging Georgia Tech expertise to secure bigger partnerships
  • Advocating for community engagement to hold the same prominence as science and technology in the Institute’s core academic mission

Steven C. Swant, head of administration and finance who attended the symposium remarked, “We need to create an environment where we remove the obstacles and create incentives for faculty, students and staff to work with the community all around us.”

Hosted by Deans Royster and Balfour, the symposium was organized and moderated by Harley F. Etienne, professor in the Schools of City and Regional Planning & Public Policy.  Panelists included  Kamau Bobb, CEISMIC, Regents of the University System of Georgia, and Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts; Emma Bones, Executive Chair, Community Service Council; Chris Burke, Director of Community Relations, Office of Government and Community Relations; T. Hugh Crawford, Associate Professor, Literature, Culture and Communication; Gregory Nobles, Director and Professor, Honors Program, History, Technology and Society; Charles Rudolph, Associate Professor, School of Architecture; Ellen Zegura, Professor, School of Computer Science; Kenneth Knoespel, School of Literature, Culture and Communication, Discussant.

Picture in the Photograph (l-r): Harley Etienne, Dean Balfour, Ira Harkavy, Dean Royster


  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created By: Lauren Langley
  • Created: 02/22/2012
  • Modified By: Fletcher Moore
  • Modified: 10/07/2016

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