Scholarship in Service of Community Enrichment:
A Profile of Barbara Ferman (CLA)
Professor of Political Science and Director of the University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia (UCCP)
Barbara Ferman is Professor of Political Science and founder and Director of the University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia (UCCP), also housed within the Political Science Department. She is a specialist in urban politics, and her publications focus on political leadership, public policy, housing, community development, and, over the past several years, the role of the university as a civic actor through the cultivation of education for democracy. She is also a native of Brooklyn, New York, which, she proudly reminds us, was the original home of the Dodgers baseball team.
Reflecting on civic education, she observes: “There is concern about young people’s ignorance of government. They are often blamed for their lack of knowledge instead of the system’s failure to educate or engage them. The emphasis is on ‘fixing’ young people. The contradiction is that when young people exercise their citizenship, they are often punished. Some are even arrested for civic engagement activities as in Texas last year when high school students expressed their voice on the proposed immigration legislation by participating in a public demonstration.”
Ferman also cautions against our society placing too much weight on volunteer organizations in our public institutions. “One cannot pretend that volunteers alone can transform Philadelphia public schools. Primarily, this is the responsibility of government,” she reminds us.
Ferman started the UCCP eleven years ago with the objective of leveraging some of the university’s research resources for community purposes. Recruiting a colleague from the Fox School of Business, T.L Hill, the UCCP worked with grass roots and other community based organizations, supplying the research that could aid in their advocacy, program development and/or fundraising activities. Most of the projects addressed community development issues (e.g. affordable housing, commercial corridor revitalization).
Approximately 7 years ago, the UCCP began working in the area of youth civic engagement, a development that grew out of a collaboration with a colleague at Loyola University of Chicago, Dr. Philip Nyden, who heads the Center for Urban Research and Learning (CURL), around cross city community-driven policy work. It was also inspired by recurring complaints by community leaders: There was a decline in the number of younger leaders to replace them. Nyden and Ferman also noticed that foundations working on youth were interested in their work, so they put together a proposal that blossomed into a very good program. The program was called Youth VOICES, and it was created initially with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts. “The idea was that the young participants would engage in research for policy change.”
Catie Cavanaugh (far right, 2nd row from bottom) and the Summer 2007 VOICES
Catie Cavanaugh, a graduate student in the doctoral program in Urban Education, was recruited to work on this initiative. “I was very impressed by her intelligence and thoughtfulness in my Graduate Seminar,” reflected Ferman. “I asked her to work as a graduate assistant. Beginning on a very small scale, Cavanaugh, who is now the UCCP’s Associate Director for Youth Civic Engagement, developed a program that has caught the attention of intermediaries in the field, local and federal agencies, and major funders, as a highly effective approach to engaging older youth.
“The mission of VOICES is to empower young people to use their voice individually and collectively for positive social change,” explains Ferman. Through project-based learning, VOICES’ participants are provided with unique opportunities to become engaged in issues that are relevant to their lives; develop essential leadership skills, including critical thinking, problem posing, communication and presentation; and, form connections to other youth throughout the city, their own communities, mentors, and the university itself. The idea is to provide young people with the skills necessary for navigating larger systems of decision-making. “Young people tend to think of community issues as personal problems instead of as policy or system problems. When they see a dirty street, they might say, ‘My neighbor is a slob,’ not ‘The city of Philadelphia picks up trash differently in one neighborhood than in another. We try to get them to understand that power is not an individual but a collective attribute.” Program participants have addressed issues such as educational quality, college access, peer pressure, environmental racism, homelessness, and violence and safety.
Temple Youth VOICES
Since 2001, the UCCP has directly served over 500 youth and, through workshops and community events, reached out to another 2500 youth, family members and community residents. Participants in the VOICES Program range from ages thirteen to twenty two. Older youth, who have been through VOICES, along with Temple students, are eligible to participate in the recently formed (Summer 2006) Leadership Development Institute, six weeks of intensive training about youth development, youth organizing, media as a tool for social change, and action-oriented research. Successful graduates are invited to become part of the Leaders’ Corps, the group responsible for implementing the VOICES curriculum, for working on special projects and campaigns, and for engaging in community outreach and education efforts.
“There is a huge professional development piece for Temple students as well,” says Ferman. “One of the most gratifying things to me, aside from the civic engagement component, is that as a faculty member I get to see Temple students in a different light. I get to see a whole other side of them that is very rewarding. I can’t say with 100% certainty that we have changed their way of thinking, but I can say that a host of them have gone into nonprofit organizations and public policy work.”
As evidence of the program’s quality, the UCCP recently received a William Penn Grant ($545,000) to expand the VOICES model to a city-wide level by helping other organizations incorporate its key principles for authentic youth leadership development. The UCCP relies entirely on external funding. Ferman has raised close to 4 million dollars in the past ten years to support the program, but she argues that institutional support should be developed for this and similar programs, such as Professor Eli Goldblatt’s community literacy initiatives and the community-based art program run by Pepon Osorio and Billy Yalowitz, among others.
The expansion of VOICES is welcomed by Ferman, who regards it as an important civic dimension of her colleagues and her work at Temple. “We try to fulfill the mission of being a public urban institution with a real commitment to the Philadelphia community and as a place that provides access to higher education for working-class kids,” says Ferman, who went to Queens College, a similar public institution, for her undergraduate degree.