HBCUs: Using Innovation to Nurture the Health of Black Communities

Last Updated on December 21, 2016

Healthy Black Communities: Campus Kitchen at Fayetteville State University’s Early Childhood Learning Center (ECLC).
Campus Kitchen at Fayetteville State University’s Early Childhood Learning Center (ECLC).

Written by Amanda Washington, Marybeth Gasman & Andrés Castro Samayao

Great colleges and universities, in addition to valuing everyone, also create ways to sustain, retain, and engage through bold innovation and by courageously deviating from the norm. By doing this, great institutions ensure that their footprint and impact reach far beyond the walls of their classrooms. In choosing to say yes to creativity and innovation while realizing the bigger picture, institutions are able to share their vibrancy with their students and those around them. Such an approach to higher education – to actualize a collective impact in order to have a lasting positive contribution on students, faculty, alum, and the community – makes an institution great.

Many colleges and universities across the country implement new and innovative programs to combat the issues that disparately shape the communities from which a majority of their students come. Historically Black Colleges and Universities are a perfect example of such innovative outreach. With a mission to empower and educate students of African descent, many HBCUs have chosen to implement programs that simultaneously empower those involved and innovatively tackle the very issues that disproportionately have an impact on minority communities.

For example, in 2013, Spelman College recognized that their $900,000 operating budget for the Division I sports programs would have a wider impact if used to promote health and wellness across the entire university. Then president, Beverly Tatum, envisioned a campus program that would instill a larger message to emphasize exercise and a healthy lifestyle far beyond leaving Spelman’s gates. To do this, Spelman made the fairly unprecedented decision to cut the Division I sports team and focus on a more community-wide fitness lifestyle program. To President Tatum, such implementation ensured that for years to come, African American women, their children, and the people that they reach are aware of and exposed to preventative measures to combat the detrimental diagnoses of diseases such as breast cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

There are still other institutions that innovatively use programming to directly shape the lives of community members who reside near their campus communities. At Morgan State University, the Morgan College Mile (MCM) program collaborates with stakeholders within 12.2 miles of the institution to inform the community about access to health and safety, education, youth development, financial sustainability, and community/university partnerships.

At Fayetteville State University, students and faculty host the newly launched Campus Kitchen program to fight against hunger instability in the neighborhoods surrounding their college. By participating in this partnership, university faculty and students prevent food waste by recovering food from campus dining halls and nearby food retail establishments. They then use their campus dining facilities to prepare and serve nutritional meals to low-income preschool children who are enrolled in their on-campus daycare center.

Similarly, community gardens and farms at institutions like Paul Quinn College, Fort Valley State University, Tennessee State University, and the University of the District of Columbia grow, sell, and donate thousands of pounds of produce each year. Such programs provide a solution to the concern for their surrounding communities’ accessibility to affordable grocery stores and healthy food options. Additionally, such spaces allow for partnerships between health care specialists and local stores to educate students and the community about nutritional planning and entrepreneurial spirit.

HBCUs across the country have formulated creative partnerships with arts programs to provide community access to music, visual arts, and performing arts. One such partnership is housed at Paul Quinn College. President Michael Sorrell partnered with the Dallas City Symphony and hosts a yearly public access symphonic orchestra show. In just a few years, the program has grown to accommodate hundreds of people and provides access to an art form that often overlooks the neighborhood and people that Paul Quinn College serves.

There are myriad innovative ways in which our country’s HBCUs positively influence the lives of their students and their surrounding communities. From promoting political engagement by hosting Senatorial debates and volunteering as voting poll sites, to hosting entrepreneurial leadership conferences, HBCUs understand what it takes to support and empower our nation’s most historically marginalized.

By implementing such innovative programs, these schools set new precedents and demand new standards. Such innovation also provides a wealth of opportunity and access to students and the surrounding communities while also teaching students important lessons in community building, partnership, entrepreneurship, and problem-solving. Innovation is necessary for the success and progression of institutions and the communities that they care about. Great institutions value everyone and great institutions value innovation that bolsters communities.

About The Authors

Amanda Washington is a Ph.D. student in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and a research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Andrés Castro Samayoa is a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and the Assistant Director of Assessment at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

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