eBlack Symposium Builds Connections Between Campus and Community

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ALTHOUGH WE WERE TOLD “SYMPOSIA” and “conferences”
were too academic in nature—the eBlackChampaign-
Urbana project team stood by the knowledge that community
groups have conferences all the time (Canaan Baptist
Church held two in the past year; Glory Center International
held one)—and that what was needed was a new
strategy, not an abandonment of the idea of symposia. We
would encourage other individuals from the University of
Illinois to find ways not to abandon the traditional apparatuses
of scholarly production and exchange, but rather to
find new, experimental ways to make these apparatuses
relevant and meaningful both to the scholarly community
and to real, historical communities with which activist
academics work.
Over 200 people came for part or all of a two-day campus-
community Symposium on Friday, November 5 and
Saturday, November 6 at the Graduate School of Library
and Information Science (GSLIS) on the University of Illinois
campus and the Douglass Annex in Douglass Park in
North Champaign. The unifying themes of this event
were: a) campus engagements in the historical African-
American communities of Champaign-Urbana and b) digital
technology transforming all aspects of community life
(including campus engagements). The event began with
Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement Steve Sonka
speaking on how engagement at the University of Illinois
needs to complete what he called the “knowledge cycle” or
observation to documentation to analysis to implementation
and back to observation. Speaking from his personal
background in agriculture Sonka explained how this cycle,
and the University’s involvement in it, completely changed
the course of American agriculture, and the world. Sonka
was invited to give the opening remarks for this two-day
event because one of the goals of the conference organizers
(Professor Abdul Alkalimat of African-American
Studies/GSLIS and Noah Lenstra, graduate. student,
GSLIS) is to re-orient the land-grant tradition of the University
of Illinois to systematically and sustainably address
issues in African-American and low-income communities
not only in Champaign-Urbana but across the state of Illinois,
in the information age. Sonka’s address was followed
by two community respondents, District 1 council member
Will Kyles and Salem Baptist Church Rev. Zernial
Bogan, and one university respondent, Kate Williams, who
re-articulated some of Sonka’s remarks in terms of some of
the issues faced by residents of North Champaign-Urbana.
The full audio-video-pictorial-textual record of these
remarks, and the entire symposium, is available for free
online at eblackcu.net/portal/schedule.
SERVING CHAMPAIGN-URBANA
The rest of the day Friday was devoted primarily to conversations
among dedicated “service” units of the University,
such as the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and
Illinois Public Media, and students from multiple departments
involved in research projects focused on local
African-Americans, who, in dialogue with the audience,
shared what they were doing. They also explored the significance
of their individual projects in terms of larger
campus-community concerns. After the first morning
roundtable on community engagement a member of local
group Women of Prestige expressed her surprise at finding
out so many different projects work with local youth and
said the information was a little overwhelming.
USING MEDIA TO RECOGNIZE COMMUNITY
LEADERS
One way in which the eBlackChampaign-Urbana project has
tried to address this issue is through information. Specifically,
we released a book entitled Community Engagement @ Illinois:
Connecting Research and Service (also available at
http://eblackcu.net/portal/schedule) that features documentation
of over 45 different research and service projects emanating
out of the University of Illinois, or with heavy involvement
of University individuals, that have as a primary audience
or subject local African-Americans or the historical
African-American community. A copy of this book was given
to each of the 103 Difference Makers, community and campus
individuals who have gone out of their way to try to make
a difference in the lives of local African-Americans, as part of
a luncheon and awards ceremony Friday afternoon. The Difference
Makers also received a commemorative booklet with
biographies and photographs. The project team sometimes is
asked why a project dedicated to digital technology would
chose to release two books as part of its symposium. We
believe in what we call the actual-virtual-actual cycle, in other
words actual communities and individuals using the power of
digital technology to make actual change in their lives and in
the lives of others. As part of this cycle, our digitization work
of actual primary source material and our use of open source
word processing and photo editing software such as Open
Office and GIMP allowed us to release two relatively large
print publications on a short deadline that we hope will make
actual change in campus-community engagement.
WORKING TOGETHER TO INTEGRATE DIGITAL
AND DAY-TO-DAY LIFE
Saturday the symposium shifted gears—moving from
campus to the Douglass Annex for conversations on how
existing community agencies and institutions are using
digital technology, with the hope being that connections
could be made that would benefit all. Representatives of
social service agencies such as Community Elements and
Neighborhood Services (City of Champaign); educational
initiatives such as Parkland’s WorkNet Center and Urbana
High School; churches including Jericho Missionary Baptist
and Church of the Living God, and community groups
such as C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice and the National
Council of Negro Women talked throughout the day on
some of the issues and opportunities they have faced in
using digital technology as part of their work.
One theme that emerged was the need to find ways to
work together to integrate digital technology into community
day-to-day life. Kevin Jackson described some of the e-government
tools developed or being developed at the City of
Champaign while David Adcock of Urbana Adult Education
described the need to provide the most basic, rudimentary
computing education to many members of the local community.
Later in the day, during the religious institutions roundtable
a contentious discussion began about finding ways to
create non-denominational means for churches to help each
other cross the digital divide. Some thought the first step was
bringing the pastors together and getting them all on board;
others felt that those in the different churches already invested
in digital technology should find ways to work together. In
any case, the eBlackChampaign-Urbana project team believes
that these issues need to be discussed more so that everyone
can make effective uses of digital technology. One way in
which an attempt was made to bring everyone on the same
page was by asking everyone to sign a manifesto declaring
themselves “Difference Makers” and dedicating themselves to
work together to bring everyone online and to ensure everyone
can make effective use of existing and developing tools
for social change. Over 120 people have signed this manifesto—
which can be signed electronically at eBlackCU.net.
EXPANDING THE CONVERSATION
A follow-up meeting to the Symposium will be held Saturday,
January 8, from 9 a.m. to noon, at the Champaign Public
Library, Robeson Pavilion Room A & B. However, we
encourage community and campus organizations to continue
these conversations in their “home-bases.” The project
team recognizes that sustainability requires moving these
dialogues and actions off the University and into the organizations
and groups that keep our community going. One
way in which the project team hopes to make this transition
is to ask groups to take a copy of the manifesto to whatever
groups they are affiliated, discuss it, and bring remarks on
these discussions to the follow-up meeting January 8.
A FINAL THANKS
As an all-volunteer symposium with modest funding from
the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement and
the Office of Equal Opportunity and Access to pay for food,
equipment, marketing and space, the eBlackChampaign-
Urbana Campus-Community Symposium owes its success
to both the campus and community individuals and groups
who volunteered to make it a success, including:
1. the Community Informatics Club
2. the Illinois Informatics Club
3. Women of Prestige Champaign County
4. National Council of Negro Women, Champaign
County
5. Champaign Park District
6. Salem Baptist Church
7. Graduate School of Library and Information Science
8. and individuals from Parkland College WorkNet
Center and Canaan Baptist Church.

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