by Molly Chapple
When Collective Impact Lincoln launched a canvassing and community building effort in the city’s six most economically challenged neighborhoods, College of Journalism and Mass Communications faculty saw an opportunity to immerse students from all of its majors in a hands-on civic engagement project.
The result is “One Project, One College: The Heart of Lincoln,” which began this fall and involves students in nine classes working on a variety of assignments and projects that focus in some way on the six neighborhoods – Belmont, Clinton, Everett, Hartley, Near South and University Place. Students in journalism and broadcast news classes are reporting on the people and issues in the neighborhoods while broadcast production, advertising and public relations students are formulating communication strategies and creating content.
“This project encourages students to think deeply about community problems while considering the role and impact of journalism and strategic communications in exposing and addressing those problems,” said Michelle Carr Hassler, an associate professor of practice who is coordinating the effort. “It’s an amazing hands-on experience for them.”
The six neighborhoods, located in the city’s core, are historic and diverse. They correspond with six areas of extreme poverty where 40 percent or more of residents are at poverty level. They were identified in the 2015 Lincoln Vital Signs, an annual report, produced by the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center. The report’s findings led three nonprofits -- Civic Nebraska, Nebraska Appleseed and the South of Downtown Development Organization -- to form Collective Impact, which was awarded a Woods Charitable Fund grant to pursue the community building project.
For more than a year, Collective Impact Lincoln has been sending community builders into the six neighborhoods to canvass the residents to find out what’s working in their areas and what’s not working. Collective Impact has a program manager to help train neighborhood leaders to help themselves and a policy analyst to help turn neighborhood needs into change.
Hassler saw parallels between what Collective Impact Lincoln was doing in the neighborhoods with what good journalists should try to do: listen deeply and engage with diverse communities that often are overlooked. So she started planning ways to involve a fall reporting class, including having students accompany community builders as they canvas so students can learn how to better communicate with residents, understand their concerns and tell their stories.
In talking with Collective Impact Lincoln officials, Hassler realized there were additional learning opportunities for students at CoJMC. At the encouragement of interim dean Amy Struthers, Hassler discussed the project in May at a college meeting, where several faculty said they were eager to involve their classes.
One of those is assistant professor of practice Kelli Britten, whose advertising-public relations campaigns class is working on a marketing campaign for South of Downtown Community Development Organization. Students in this senior capstone class are looking at ways to solve consumer challenges, including trust and awareness for the organization.
Students in assistant professor Valerie Jones’ ADPR361: Owned, Earned and Paid Media class will develop an integrated media communications plan for Collective Impact Lincoln to help neighborhood leaders identify target audiences and strategize ways to connect with them. Students also will work to highlight the CoJMC's involvement in the project and research ways to generate alumni engagement and support of the project.
Students in Rick Alloway’s broadcast production class conduct public service interviews as part of their final audio project, and Alloway is interested in having them pursue stories about Collective Impact Lincoln and the neighborhoods.
On the news side, students in two of Hassler’s two reporting classes are working to produce a variety of news – from personality profiles to issue stories – that will be published on the college’s news website. Accompanying those stories will be photographs shot by students in associate professor Bruce Thorson’s class and aerial videos of the neighborhoods shot by students who – under the direction of professor of practice Matt Waite – received FAA certification to pilot drones.
A senior-level broadcasting class that produces the weekly Star City News program is reporting on issues and initiatives in the neighborhoods, said professor Barney McCoy. Those will be broadcast on Star City News and LNK TV (Allo channel 23, Spectrum 13013 or 1303, Windstream 1080).
In addition, several classes have learned about civic engagement and community building from Collective Impact Lincoln guest speakers, including the community builders, program manager Nancy Petitto and Steve Smith, director of communications for Civic Nebraska. Petitto and Smith are CoJMC alums.
Several faculty plan to offer additional hands-on learning opportunities for students in the spring semester, Hassler said.
CoJMC is grateful for the time Collective Impact Lincoln staff have devoted to working with faculty and students to make the classes successful, Hassler said.
Smith said the nonprofits are eager to have students participate.
“I think from Civic Nebraska’s standpoint, it’s a great way for a program that is going to affect so many Lincolnites in the next few years to have a new platform for people to see it on,” he said. “We’re excited to be working with the college on what we feel is a really important project, and we’re looking forward to see what stories they come up with.”