O’Neill grad students put classroom lessons to work for communities

By Leslie Wells, assistant director of communications, O’Neill School at IUPUI

As two teenage girls stood before the Batesville, Indiana, City Council, they waited to make their case for funding. The Batesville Mayor’s Youth Council had received $5,000 through the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority’s (ICHDA) My Community, My Vision grant program (MCMV). If they couldn’t come up with another $7,000, they’d have to take their public art project back to the drawing board.

In the crowd at the council meeting was Stacy Robinson, a public affairs graduate student from the O’Neill School at IUPUI. She had been working with the Mayor’s Youth Council for months through her My Community, My Vision Fellowship at the O’Neill School. Her assignment: to help the teens develop a proposal that would bring national artist Kelsey Montague to Batesville to paint two interactive murals.

“The meeting actually was a little tense,” Robinson recalls. “Some of the city councilors didn’t like their idea.”

Former Indiana Lieutenant Governor Sue Ellspermann started MCMV in 2014 to bring development to Indiana communities and engage young people. Every year, youth-led organizations from across the state apply to the program. Each group selected receives a $5,000 grant toward a community development project. They are also paired with an O’Neill IUPUI graduate student who guides them through the process. As part of the fellowship, each grad student receives $10,000 over the course of two semesters.

“Community engagement is the lesson plan at O’Neill,” says Marshawn Wolley, O’Neill’s director of community engagement and strategic initiatives. “This is a great example of the innovative partnerships we try to develop in order to advance student learning and impact communities at the same time.”

Wolley and O’Neill Associate Professor Adam Eckerd helped create the partnership with ICHDA and bring the MCMV grant program fellowship to the school.

“Students come into an MPA program eager to foster policy change and make communities better, but they don’t often get the opportunity to see that change actually happen,” says Eckerd. “The My Community, My Vision program allows our grad students to get hands-on experience using what they’re learning to lead real positive change in Indiana communities, while also having an influence on high school students who will be future public leaders.”

That combination is why Robinson applied for the fellowship. She came to the O’Neill School because of its reputation in the nonprofit world. Yet experiences like this one help her learn how to apply her education to any sector.

“I liked the idea of learning more about how local government works while working with youth,” said Robinson. “They’re at an interesting time in their lives when they care so much about what’s happening around them, but they often aren’t given opportunities to make change happen.”

Once she was paired with the Mayor’s Youth Council, Robinson sat down with the teens to get a better understanding of what they wanted to do and why.

“They already had community surveys that told them there wasn’t a lot for young people to do,” she says. “They wanted to make Batesville feel like a more vibrant place that young people would want to come back to after graduation.”

Robinson taught the enthusiastic teens to think critically about how to turn their artistic dreams into reality. She worked with them on how to evaluate the project and get more feedback from their neighbors. That community buy-in, Robinson told them, was critical.

“If the community doesn’t like an idea selected by a small group of people, that’s not a good public art project,” she said. “You need to make sure the community is on board with it.”

Not only did the community support the project, but so did the city council. At the meeting, they agreed to cover the remaining costs and move the Youth Council’s plan from paper to paint. Since last summer, two murals now enhance downtown. The first is a tree swing painted on Miss Shannon’s Music Studio in the Batesville Shopping Village. The second, a butterfly mural, is on Hillrom’s Training Center on Walnut Street.

Kim Linkel, an advisor for the Youth Council, says Robinson’s guidance not only made the project better but also helped the teens develop leadership skills.

“Stacy always allowed them to drive the project,” Linkel says. “They’ve realized that they’re not just some club that doesn’t make an impact. They see that, even though they’re young, they can drive change in their community.”

Their newfound confidence came through in the City Council meeting. The teens presented a strong case and convinced councilors to provide additional funding to cover the remaining cost for the murals.

The My Community, My Vision partnership paid off for Batesville, its Mayor’s Youth Council members, and for Robinson.

“It was a really positive experience,” she says. “It was great to actually be able to put things into action that we learned in the classroom and I enjoyed working with the youth. They made me feel excited and hopeful about the future.”

To read the teens’ proposal, click here.

Leslie Wells joined the O’Neill School at IUPUI as its assistant director of communications in 2018. She previously spent more than a decade in broadcast news and three years as media relations manager at the Indiana Youth Institute.

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