Morgan's Community Mile bridges the town-gown divide

On a Tuesday afternoon in Hamilton-Lauraville, a sprawling farmer's market fills an empty lot with fruit, vegetables, baked goods, honey, and a lemonade stand. Nestled among the food is a vendor's table decked out in orange and blue and staffed by a Morgan State University representative. Sometimes, Morgan's jazz quartet or other musicians play. Sometimes students hand out brochures. Always, the university's regular presence is the sign of a new initiative by MSU President David Wilson, who launched "The Morgan Community Mile" program three years ago as a way to bridge the town-gown divide and share university resources with nearby neighborhoods.

It's a way of "letting the community know they are accessible and present," says Regina Lansinger, Director of Hamilton-Lauraville Main Street, which sponsors the market and welcomes the school's involvement in the neighborhood.

But the Morgan Community Mile is more than a table at the farmers market. As broadly conceived by Wilson, the "Mile" is in reference to the neighborhoods that fall in a one-mile radius around MSU and actually encompasses the 12.2 square miles surrounding the campus and the 141,000 residents that live there. The thinking is that a university like Morgan has resources—faculty and students, if not money—that it can share with the community in a mutually beneficial way that also gives students some hands-on experience working in their fields. For example, MSU Community Health and Policy associate professor Lorece Edwards is using a $900,000 federal grant to increase HIV/AIDS awareness and prevent substance abuse in the community with the help of students. Meanwhile, students at MSU's School of Global Journalism and Communication are working out of their digital newsroom to report on The Morgan Community Mile neighborhoods, providing news coverage for locals and gaining journalism experience at the same time. They have partnered with four area schools and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers to similarly help and learn. The students are partnering with the Chesapeake Conservation Corps to create a walking trail through the campus along a stream that will connect five parks in the area.

The mile radius around the university includes nine communities and more than 56 community associations. The school is focusing on several priorities: health and public safety; education and youth development; the environment; living, working, spending in the area; and improving university-community relations.

Ellis Brown, director of the program, describes the origins the Morgan Community Mile as arising from two questions the university posed: "In the 100 years since Morgan State has been in northeast Baltimore, is northeast Baltimore better or worse because of it? And has east Baltimore benefited from what the university knows and what the university can do?"

To both questions Brown would say "yes"; however, in some ways, the latter is more challenging to assert because there is no visual data to back it up.

Next year marks the 150th anniversary of MSU, which means the school has spent considerable time reflecting on its past—and future. The school began as a private institution known as the Centenary Biblical Institute and was founded to train men in ministry. In 1875, the institute admitted its first female student and shifted its mission to train both men and women as teachers. The school changed its name in 1890 to honor Reverend Lyttleton F. Morgan, the first chairman of the Board of Trustees who donated land to the campus. In 1917 Morgan relocated to its present location on E. Coldspring Lane and remained a private institution until 1939 when the state of Maryland purchased the school after a state study determined that Maryland fell short in providing opportunity to its black residents. As the largest HBCU (historically black college or university) in Maryland with approximately 7,700 students, Morgan remains committed to that mission but is reshaping its vision. Wilson hopes to make the school a leading research university that, according to his strategic plan, "focuse[s] on urban sustainability and applied research on intractable challenges facing Baltimore and other urban centers across the nation and around the globe."

The Morgan Community Mile is part of this plan.

Morgan has always been active in the community, Brown says, but they need to do more. "We're not really telling our story," he says, "so folks could go away with the notion that Morgan is not really involved in the community."

And sometimes, the university is the one causing problems in the neighborhood.

One point of contention is student parking—so Community Mile partners tackled that a couple of years ago. With a $200 per semester parking fee for students to use the campus garage, many opted to park on the street. Irritated residents were often unable to find spots on the streets near their homes. The also complained that students threw trash all over the place.

At a community meeting several years ago, a resident suggested putting the parking fee inside student tuition costs so that when they're paying tuition, parking is already paid for. The previous administration nixed that idea.

But a community meeting that Wilson attended ended differently. He liked the idea and, beginning in 2012, folded the parking fee into students' tuition and fees. The university also put out trash cans, built security booths, and re-landscaped swathes of property on the Hillen Road side of campus.

"We were now seeking for opportunities to be a part of creating some pretty cool change in neighborhoods," says Johnette Richardson, MCM Board Chair and the Executive Director of Belair-Edison Neighborhoods, Inc. Richardson works closely with the "Live Near Your Work" program within the Community Mile. Live Near Your Work promotes the idea that faculty and staff can see the surrounding area as a place they could live, in turn putting resources back into the community—and truly integrating the university into the neighborhoods.

One of the challenges with being a young organization, Brown says, is that residents want you to move and get more done faster. But Brown says that Morgan is committed for the long haul.

Richardson, on the other hand, sees this as a challenge that HBCUs face in particular—their resources, or lack thereof.

"You read in the paper about Johns Hopkins who can offer $36,000 for a Live Near Your Work program," she says. "But then Morgan, their Live Near Your Work bucket of money is $25,000 for the whole year and everybody has to play in that one bucket."

Richardson says this challenge requires Morgan to think more creatively about how to use students and faculty as resources, bringing intellectual knowledge, or even manpower, to the table.

She sees the Morgan Community Mile as a kind of facilitator that provides continuity among an evolving student body, a single touch-point so community associations do not have to continually reestablish individual relationships with all of Morgan's departments to discuss problems, propose solutions, or implement projects in neighborhood.

"They can quarterback for you on campus, [explain] who you should talk to, and help make those connections," she says.

These connections may come in useful as MSU negotiates the contentious upcoming redesign of nearby Northwood Plaza. The university owns nine acres of the nearly 23-acre lot. Redevelopment for the shopping center was stalled while the university, the developer, the community, and the owner of the remaining acres hashed out prospects for the space. The newest development in the plaza is Morgan's Earl G. Graves School of Business and Management, a newly constructed building that opened its door in November 2015.

Plans for the $50 million redevelopment includes retail space and housing for upperclassmen and graduate students at Morgan.

Back in February, State Senator Joan Carter Conway tried to block the developer's plan for student housing there, unless the community associations directly impacted approved it.

"[Morgan president David Wilson] greets the community with, 'what do you want to see develop here?'" says Victor McCrary, Vice President of Research and Economic Development, asserting that the mutual interests of the community, university, and developers are met. "I think that Dr. Wilson has done a good job in saying Morgan plays a role in that, but we want to do what's best for the community," he adds.

McCrary says Morgan is interested in the ideas the residents have to make the community even stronger. "It's not about being an ivory tower," he says. "It's about being out on the street, and that's where we are—to listen."

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