University of Oklahoma Faculty Partner to Form Community-Led Think Tank

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the OU Vice President for Research and Partnerships’ page, linked here.

A community-led think tank is coming to Northeast Oklahoma City. The think tank, led by the University of Oklahoma, will research anti-racist frameworks in education through engaging stakeholders and researching precedents.

OU faculty members Andrea Benjamin in the Clara Luper Department of African and African American Studies, College of Arts and Sciences, and Deborah Richards in the Division of Architecture, Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture, lead the project with Vanessa Morrison, an affiliate faculty member in the College of Architecture and the co-founder of BlackSpace Oklahoma, a nonprofit organization on a mission to strengthen Black communities for social and spatial change.

Morrison will co-lead the think tank along with four OU students from the African and African American Studies Department and the College of Architecture.

“There are a lot of skills and perspective that students can learn from engaging with the community and learning about policy,” Richards said. “Design and policy are so interconnected and oftentimes in architecture school we’re just thinking about design aspects and spatial aspects, so I really wanted to think about bringing in how policy affects design and how the narratives and perspectives of people living in urban environments affect design. The best way to do that is really though outreach and partnering with other colleges, so Vanessa, Andrea and I were thinking about how we could create this think tank and collaboration to start to bring all of those things together.”

Benjamin and Richards are leading classes that will engage the think tank as a prototype for how a community-led service learning environment at OU could be structured in the future. Benjamin’s Politics and Public Policy course, which is centered on the way African Americans have utilized the political arena to demand change and equity over time, will review how African Americans engage in local politics with regard to use of space, economic development and representation. Richards’ course is an architecture studio based on urban design strategies in Northeast Oklahoma City.

“When we talk about working within community, we have to start with engaging the community,” said Morrison. “Oftentimes, being confined to the classroom space, you don’t have a lot of opportunity to do that. Even within our specific fields, any policy, any project, any action within the community must start with engagement and really centering the voices of neighbors, communities and people who will be the most heavily impacted by these policies we will be digging into. So, we feel that the service learning component is critical for the students to get outside of the classroom, get into the community and meet stakeholders and neighbors to understand how to really work with individuals.”

Throughout the semester, students will produce a podcast series and a website that explore the themes of the think tank. The course projects will include researching all aspects of community-led engagement and inclusive design in Northeast Oklahoma City. Students will report on the city council meetings (zoning requests or projects), zoning commission meetings, and interview stakeholders, design firms, members of the community and those impacted by the proposed projects. The website will serve as a central hub for these experiences and an OU community resource on best practices in community engagement, inclusive design and example methods that can employ such practices.

Benjamin adds that the outcomes of this project must be accessible to the community they are working to serve.

“With regards to doing community-engaged research…there have been a lot of bad actors – people who come to extract resources, do whole research projects on a community, don’t compensate the community and then don’t even tell the community ‘I wrote a whole book off you. I profited off you, and never even returned to give a community talk to share that through the course of my research I learned that you are facing X, Y and Z challenges so let’s have a dialogue about how you think we should proceed,’” she said. “They don’t do any of that, so it’s very problematic…You’ll enter a community and even if you have the best intentions, if they’ve been burned by previous researchers no one will talk to you.”

The podcast and website are one way they are going to ensure the community feels engaged throughout the process and that those they are working to serve have access to the results of their work.

“The No. 1 thing is that the community has to have access to what we do. If you can’t really provide that, you’re not really doing your job if you call yourself an engaged researcher,” Benjamin said. “So, the podcast was intentional in that it is accessible. We won’t be using paywalls, where ‘I wrote this article but no one can read it.’ That is the worst possible outcome of this project…If the northeast side doesn’t like what we’ve produced, then we have a problem…the community doesn’t have to agree with everything we’re saying, but they should consent and agree with the way we did it.”

The team also hopes that the project will be able to extend beyond the semester and perhaps beyond Northeast Oklahoma City.

Benjamin said, “When things are done well, it is iterative all the time. So, it shouldn’t just be that we develop this podcast and then it goes away. The hope is that another city, other places could do it.”

This project is one of 11 short-term projects recently funded by the OU Office of the Vice President for Research and Partnerships that position OU faculty and their collaborators to effectively compete for significant external funding opportunities related to the impact of social inequities on knowledge creation and dissemination.

“Our goal with these short-term grants was to seed the ideas that could make a real impact in both academia and the society in which we live, said OU associate vice president for research and partnerships Ann West. “This project goes so much further by extending the impact of transdisciplinary research into the classroom and the local community here in Oklahoma. We can’t wait to see the results.”

For more information about the think tank, please contact Richards at or Benjamin at