Trustee Talk, Issue 9: Responding to Community Unrest (Part 2 of 2)

This issue of Trustee Talk is Part II of our discussion of the potential of social upheaval in a community spilling over to the community college campus. In the last issue, we focused on the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown. This issue addresses community reactions to the death of Freddie Gray in a similar incident, including subsequent unrest in Baltimore, Maryland. While these events were isolated to their respective communities, all boards can share in the lessons learned. The first step, however, is both individual trustee and collective board introspection-asking questions about the role of your college in serving all populations within the service area.


Should a trustee at a small community college be interested in knowing about lessons learned from the community unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore City, Maryland?


Some people may think the turmoil and unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore were urban phenomena that could not take place in other smaller, suburban, or even rural communities. The unfortunate truth is that there is always the potential for disruption when we turn a blind eye on pockets of poverty, underemployment and lack of opportunity within our own communities. There is also the long-term economic and social impact when components of any community, neighborhood or geographic area, are relegated to the status of 'the other side of the train track' or accepted as centers of poverty and crime. These communities often become virtually invisible. If we truly believe in the mission of our community and technical colleges to serve as beacons of hope and opportunities for all citizens who want to avail themselves of higher education opportunity and workforce training, one would expect our colleges to go to extreme lengths to connect with these communities. Therefore, one key question for any trustee and board is: Are we connected in meaningful ways to our poorest communities?

What questions are raised for boards? What lessons can be learned?

Ask whom the college is not serving.

How could such disruption occur in the midst of plenty? In Baltimore, there are over 27 institutions of higher education including Johns Hopkins University, University of Maryland, University of Baltimore, Morgan State, Towson University, Coppin State, and at least 19 more institutions for furthering higher learning. With so many colleges, including two historically black colleges, one would think that the outreach of such plentiful higher education would extend to all communities within the city, yet recent upheaval in certain neighborhoods demonstrates a deep frustration in areas where poverty is concentrated. This is most relevant to community college boards because our special mission ties us to the community. Therefore boards have to ask, whom are we not serving? Does the college go to those communities and neighborhoods where pockets of poverty are concentrated? Does the board-approved budget reflect specific incentives and specific investments to reach these communities?

How do boards stimulate social change?

How can boards inspire and help community colleges effect social change? Although community colleges are available throughout the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and The Pell Institute report Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First Generation Students, the reality is that 76% of low-income students do not enroll in educational programs after high school, and 89% of those enrolled do not complete their fields of study or obtain college degrees. How can these disenfranchised individuals become a constituency of the college and assets to their communities? How do we engage with them? If not us, who will? 

Community college trustees play an important role through the policy and strategic directions they set for their colleges. In colleges where boards establish specific goals to improve developmental and workforce education, many find programs which address the most at-risk students, i.e. basic skills and remediation/developmental programs offered at times convenient to students and in multiple modes of delivery (online, evening, weekends, etc.), short-term and long-term workforce training programs, dual enrollment programs with high schools and universities, tutoring and peer-to-peer mentoring programs. Even so, these may not be sufficient.

In reality, colleges have many initiatives, but we need to set the bar higher and be proactive. Boards need to examine the role their institutions have to channel community frustration from people from disadvantaged neighborhoods into productive collective action. Some students are encouraged and guided into community colleges, but how much actual pulling in does the college do? Reviewing college outreach efforts to identify with what community-based organizations in these neighborhoods the college is aligned could be telling. Are students from communities with the highest dropout rate or crime rate attending the college? What specific college policies and practices draw disaffected individuals into the college?

Trustees could raise the questions: How do we know our college is as welcoming as it should be to all potential students? How many students with significant socioeconomic disadvantages, often with little hope, come to our institution and actually stay to complete a degree or certificate? Has our college identified and engaged with the poorest of our communities? What does the evidence of our short-term and long-term initiatives tell us?

How BCCC engaged with the community and its students

At Baltimore City Community College, unity with the trustees allowed the president to act swiftly during the crisis. During this time, trustees stayed in contact with the college president, Dr. Gordon May, who consulted them about college decisions and campus activities. BCCC's long-term, established community engagement enabled the trustees and administration to take immediate actions during the community unrest that followed Freddie Gray's death. In up-to-the-minute contact with the mayor and city officials, and in consultation with the BCCC Board, Dr. May closed the campus for the protection of the students. From concerns about escalation of the violence and because the local public schools closed down, BCCC students, many of whom have children, had to scramble to get home to secure their families' safety.

"Safety of the students and the security of the campus were our immediate concerns since the mall area where disruption erupted was walking distance away from the college," stated Dr. Mary Owens Southall, Chair of the BCCC Board. "Having an emergency communication system, not just for the weather, and having a plan in place are critical. The President did what he was supposed to do. We are proud that no BCCC student incidents during the tense period of protests were reported. We are very proud of our students, faculty and staff."

Upon reopening two days later, the College organized a "Voicing Our Pain" college-wide assembly attended by board members. The forum presented an opportunity for students, faculty and community members to share their thoughts, devise solutions, and consider their roles as committed and responsible citizens of Baltimore City. According to May, "Many came to the mic to speak their minds. It was a healing session." 

Students, faculty and staff marched peacefully from the campus to a roadside BCCC Stand for Equity and Justice. The march was well received by the community and helped to diffuse latent tensions, leveraging the college's ties to the community for a public display of solidarity.

Individual trustees' community ties come into play during crises.

Trustees at BCCC have strong ties to the community. In his pastoral role, one board member, Reverend S. Todd Yeary, worked with city officials, civic groups and community members and others, including meeting with the NAACP, to engage with the disenfranchised communities that demonstrated their frustration during the upheaval. "I spent a lot of time in the community at the neighborhood where the evening protests took place. It gave me time to listen to members of that community, to voices that have not been heard. What appears to be a singular incident becomes a spark of things that have been brewing for a long time."

According to Yeary, the police incident was that spark, and he compared it to the Baltimore riots after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. "Under the incident are long standing intractable poverty, high rates of incarceration and police encounters, issues with bail, issues with the educational system, the same issues over time as in the 1968 Kerner Commission Report: high joblessness, difficulty getting skills, embedded poverty. Those are the issues that the College should address."

In his role as a community college trustee, Dr. Yeary's concerns focus on the learning and skills gaps and ways to build a pipeline from remediation to education to work for these communities. "There is a real-time current need for community colleges to look at the poverty numbers and focus on helping folks work themselves out of embedded despair." Yeary adds, "If that is the case, the cycle continues where manufacturing went away. We have an extended population of folks who are trapped, with impacts on health outcomes, police engagement, life's possibilities. The community college has the skill set and the capacity to address those shortfalls that the typical academic setting cannot address."

"The community's college has neighborhoods that have been neglected for decades. In poor ethnic communities, we have poor emotional support systems. Now we have blighted communities, homes next to empty buildings, needs for childcare, and a system that sometimes students feel penalizes them for having aspirations," states Yeary.

Fiduciary responsibility of the board

To serve these communities, boards may enact their fiduciary responsibility for the economic well-being of the whole community and ask, Are college resources investing in those disaffected communities who may not feel comfortable in a higher education setting, and if so, are they making a difference?

If community colleges are beacons of hope for many, how can boards help stem the squandering of young people into anger and violence? How can boards encourage the college to engage these communities? As a board member, Yeary advocates for the flexibility within the community college structure with room for creative thinking to allow folks from the community to get on a pathway with a job at the end. "We need to incentivize the learners and forgive debt. These are policy decisions."

Yeary stated that BCCC and others are starting to follow up and figure out what we do now, but first he emphasized the need to listen to the impacted neighborhoods. For the BCCC Board, Yeary stated that "We are engaging in collaborative conversations with all the people that are trying to find good answers to the questions coming from the community, with residents and members of the business community to fit the need, not come with our own solutions without first listening to their voices. We need to hear their concerns to come up with solutions collectively, to help the families, communities and the city to heal. It's more art than science and trial and error."

An example of this, BCCC Board member Pamela Paulk, president of Johns Hopkins Medicine International, kept the college engaged with disaffected communities and partnered with BCCC and 50 other CEOs from local health systems and universities, community activists, members of local churches, and the police department (who supported the efforts) to hold an Ex-offenders Hiring Breakfast meeting about hiring ex-offenders looking for a second chance. Prior to the unrest, trustee Paulk was involved in bringing many city residents like ex-offenders with barriers to employment back into the workforce. She and other Hopkins leaders teamed with Ray Lewis, retired Ravens linebacker, and BUILD and challenged the business community to hire residents with barriers because it was good for the individual, their family, the community and business.

Concluding thoughts

Boards might add these items at the next board meeting: What would happen if similar disruption were to break out in our community? What are the top three things our college is doing to engage our most isolated and socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods? What questions are we not yet asking to carry out our stewardship and fiduciary responsibilities to serve all parts of the community? What do members of these communities tell us? What processes do we have in place to solicit their comments and act according to their needs? How do we publicly acknowledge the college's efforts to conduct outreach to these communities? What policy decisions has the board made related to equitable outreach and inclusiveness, institutional security and other matters that have been brought to the surface by the events of Ferguson and Baltimore?

Disclaimer: This newsletter is offered for general informational purposes only. It is not offered as and does not constitute legal advice.

Do YOU have a Question for us? Email your question to: Norma Goldstein