In its Second Year, DU Grand Challenges Looks Forward to Workable Solutions
By name alone, the University of Denver’s mission to take on “Grand Challenges” sounds like a daunting proposition. Yet the year-old initiative, fostered by the Center for Community Engagement to advance Scholarship and Learning (CCESL), can perhaps best be exemplified by a neon-colored Post-it note hanging on a whiteboard. There’s just enough room for a broad idea — just a few words really. But then another Post-it is placed beside the first. Then another, and another.
It’s May 2017 and Craig Hall has become a sea of sticky notes, a room alive with chatter and excitement. Nearly three dozen students from an array of disciplines engage with faculty, staff and the larger community at DU’s first Homeless Hackathon.
On this day, they are simply sharing ideas to improve the daily living of Denver’s young homeless population. But within months, professor Kimberly Bender and associate professor Matthew Rutherford would design and teach a seminar devoted to concrete solutions. And with the help of a DU Grand Challenges grant, the students would go on to connect with their local community, conduct research and grow their aspirations into action.
“The DU Grand Challenges approach is one of engagement,” says CCESL’s director Anne DePrince. “I see such potential in what we can accomplish when we approach university-community collaboration in a mutually beneficial and reciprocal way.”
Bolstered by the cooperative spirit of the Hackathon, the DU Grand Challenges (DUGC) initiative — which sprouted out of the University’s strategic plan, DU IMPACT 2025 — is snowballing into its second year. Further success at last spring’s A Community Table event, has only increased momentum.
“We hope to see a lot more of these partnerships develop out in the community that really make an impact on addressing the needs of the community,” says Vicky Berkley, the DUGC program manager.
Not that the initiative’s inaugural year was a slouch. The highlights included a half-dozen community forums and nearly $30,000 in grants. But this year, DePrince is focused on leveraging that success into something bigger, through a framework she calls “collective impact.” In keeping with the DUGC three-year cycle, last year’s theme, “Improving Daily Living,” will move into the action phase, while a new theme, “Increasing Economic Opportunity,” will be introduced in its aspiration phase.
“You have a chance to bring your voice into the conversation, to put your fingerprints on a plan, to take action in collaboration with others from DU and our communities,” she says. “We can galvanize leaders, tackle grand challenges, and amplify the voices of changemakers to work together toward improving daily living and increasing economic opportunity.”
Here’s what’s new this year, made possible by funding from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations:
- Advancing Community Engaged (ACE) Student Grants will support students doing community-engaged research or creative work that meets the needs of a community partner. Individuals can apply for up to $2,000 in grants as they collaborate with a faculty member and community partner. Teams of students are eligible for $5,000.
- Grand Challenges Champions is a 20-student cohort designed for upperclassmen who want to tie it all together and create something tangible. Partnering with a faculty member, students will engage with the community and create an online portfolio of their experience, with an emphasis on self-reflection and sharing experiences with others.
- The Leadership Fellows Program is an opportunity for students who want to “roll up their sleeves and get involved,” as DePrince says. Funding from Arthur Vining Davis Foundation provides a stipend to students and members of the community as they take action to improve daily living. Fellows will join faculty and staff, aided by a University-funded stipend, to form Collective Impact Cohorts. Over the course of two years, cohorts will have opportunities for hands-on learning and involvement as they develop action items in the areas of environmental sustainability, housing and food insecurity, safety, and migration. Each group will be eligible for up to $100,000 in funding from the University to pursue their collaborative project.
“The idea,” Berkley says, “was to provide a lot more opportunities for people — faculty, staff and students — to participate and be a part of DU Grand Challenges and to encourage multidisciplinary teamwork as well. They are going to turn aspirations into tangible and measurable actions.”
For evidence, look no further than the seminar Bender and Rutherford taught last fall. Their students consulted community organizations like Urban Peak and worked with municipal entities like RTD to brainstorm solutions to youth homelessness. This year, they hope to take their creative ideas — like a summer camp that teaches employment skills or a card that grants access to useful community and cultural organizations — to the next level.
“This is learning by doing,” DePrince says, “learning in action and in partnership.”