Gibbs College Faculty Receive Grant to Create Multidisciplinary Think Tank to Help Engage Local Community

Gibbs College faculty Deborah Richards, assistant professor of Architecture, and Vanessa Morrison, affiliate faculty in Regional and City Planning, have partnered with Dr. Andrea Benjamin from the Clara Luper Department of African and African American Studies to propose a think tank to address the implicit bias and racial inequality pervasive in classrooms. 

The researchers have been awarded a grant to fund the project “Community Led Policy and Design: A Multidisciplinary Think Tank.” The grant is part of the by the OU Office of the Vice President for Research and Partnerships’ Inequities in the Academic Research and Creative Activity Enterprise Rapid Response Seed Grant program. Their proposal was one of 11 chosen for funding at this time.  Gibbs College research C. Aujean Lee also received funding from this program

The team has found that academia has allowed environments where racialized trauma is a common lived experience amongst marginalized groups in classrooms nationwide. This is combined with coursework that may not create meaningful connections with the communities in which they work.  

The team believes that students and faculty need time to listen and engage with their communities in order to build strong relationships that will allow them to create impactful work within the community they serve.  

This engagement is crucial, as it allows students and faculty to directly engage with these marginalized communities in order to gain an understanding of the way political systems and cultural norms affect urban policy and form. This community engagement will help center the voices of residents to promote positive change in their neighborhoods, a need which is often overlooked. 

To facilitate this type of community engagement, the team has proposed a think tank that will focus on OKC’s historically neglected communities in the northeast. Being community-led, the think tank will reduce inherent bias that researchers and scholars normally hold when engaging communities.  

In addition to Richards, Morrison and Benjamin, core team members will include two students from the African and African American Studies department and two students from the College of Architecture. The think tank will research anti-racist frameworks in education through engaging stakeholders and researching precedents.  

Benjamin and Richards will co-currently lead classes in the fall 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.  

Richards will teach ARCH 4956, Design IX, which is an architecture studio that will be based on urban design strategies in northeast OKC, including interviews of community members. Benjamin will teach AFAM 4823: Politics and Public Policy, which is centered on the way African Americans have utilized the political arena to demand change and equity over time. The course will provide a useful look at how African Americans engage in local politics with regards to use of space, economic development, and representation. 

Morrison is an active member of the northeast OKC community and co-founder of BlackSpace Oklahoma, a non-profit organization on a mission to strengthen black communities for social and spatial change, will connect faculty and students to community members.  

Together, students from the Architecture and African and African American Studies classes will produce a 10-part podcast series and website that explore the themes of the think tank and includes projects researching all aspects of community led engagement and inclusive design in northeast OKC.  The website they create will serve as a central hub for sharing their experiences and an OU community resource on best practices in community engagement and inclusive design methods.