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Urban Studies Program led the way in community engagement, service learning

Just over 40 years ago, a bold alliance of city builders scaled the ivy-covered walls of the University of Toronto and planted the seeds of the Urban Studies Program. Now the program is a catalyst in a dynamic new landscape for the university, students and city.

Firmly rooted in community engagement and experiential learning, the program has placed over 300 volunteers and interns at non-profits, civic services and community organizations over the past five years alone.

Many of its graduates are playing key roles in a new era of urban transformation, starting their own non-profits, working in government and the private sector and running community initiatives.

“If we look at where all of those students are and the contribution collectively that they are making, it is really very impressive,” said Shauna Brail, a graduate of the Urban Studies Program and associate professor, teaching stream.

“They are really starting to make a difference in terms of some of the issues at the forefront, the things that make for a good, strong healthy city.”

Brail directed the experiential learning initiatives for urban studies for the past decade, and is widely acknowledged as the driving force behind the program’s growth.

Enrollment has more than doubled since she arrived in 2005, to about 200 students today. Although relatively small and lean, the program exerts an influence well beyond its size and boasts a number of distinctions.

Founded at Innis College in 1974, urban studies is the oldest college-based academic program at U of T, and its internship course is the longest running at the university. The program’s second-year gateway course – Multidisciplinary Approaches to Urban Studies – is the largest experiential learning course in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

The program has a strong reputation for collaboration both within and outside the university.

Other departments and even universities from the United States seek out urban studies instructors for their expertise in creating hands-on learning experiences, and the program’s growing legacy of building bridges to key initiatives in the city has not gone unnoticed.

Brail was recently tabbed by U of T President Meric Gertler – a long-time champion of the program – as a special advisor charged with helping faculty and departments from all three university campuses to connect with surrounding communities.

“One of the top priorities I’ve articulated for the University of Toronto is to strengthen our contribution to city-building in the urban region we’re privileged to call home,” said Gertler.

“So I’m absolutely delighted that Shauna Brail has agreed to take on the task of coordinating the efforts of our academic community to that end.”

Brail and the program hope to add to the contributions they are already making to city-building, playing key roles in everything from the revitalization of Regent Park – Canada’s oldest and largest social housing project – to promising new citizen-based initiatives that are just getting started.

All of which makes it hard to believe there was a time when the Urban Studies Program had to struggle for its very survival.

The program grew out of a groundswell of citizen participation and community-based development in Toronto in the 1970s, recalls former director Patricia Petersen.

From its beginnings, the Urban Studies Program went against the grain. The college system had not originally been intended to run academic programs, and Innis College enlisted reform-minded councillors such as Jack Layton to help set up and teach the curriculum.

Petersen says it was an attempt to connect the university to the rapidly changing world outside its ivory towers, but the program had to hang on through some lean years as enrollment fluctuated, kept alive largely by the efforts of then-college principal Frank Cunningham and supporters like Gertler, an urban geography professor at the time.

“Our message always was: “Guys, the world is urbanizing. Toronto is growing up,’” says Petersen.

The program’s multidisciplinary approach – students have to take courses in related departments like geography to complete their degree – is a key strength, and a turning point came in 2006 when urban studies was allowed to offer a minor.

The minor has generated hundreds of enrollments since its inception, attracting the likes of former student Tony De Franco, now working on several downtown city renewal initiatives as a planner with Urban Strategies.

De Franco did his urban studies internship at the city’s planning department before going on to take his master’s degree and starting his career.

“Toronto is its own kind of urban laboratory – it’s incredibly diverse – and so using those skills you are learning in school and then applying them in practice was a superbly valuable experience,” he says.

The fourth-year internships are the most sought-after in the program, an academically rigorous combination of seminars, course readings, written assignments and eight hours a week at a work placement outside the university.

Brail had 45 applications this year for 20 placements, which are reserved for the highest achievers. The course also provides some of the most important “win-win” relationships between the city and the university.

“The students get to see what the bump and grind of politics is all about, and we get to interact with the academic and intellectual rigour that these students can provide,” said Toronto Councillor Joe Mihevc, who has taken on several interns over the years.

“If we want to have a more thoughtful approach to city-building, I think these kinds of relationships are really important.”

Urban studies graduate David Fitzpatrick interned at the city’s planning office in 2006 and now works as special projects coordinator in the chief planner’s office.

“The internship not only gave me great insight into how the city actually works, but now I work professionally side by side with people I met while I was interning.”

Brail worked in economic development for the province and in the private sector – where she connected with the late city-building guru David Pecaut, among others – before a retiring Petersen encouraged her to apply for her job in 2005.

She arrived with the goal of diversifying the internship course, and now places students in a range of city planning and economic development offices, as well as non-profits and community groups such as the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), Jane’s Walk, the United Way, Evergreen Cityworks, the Centre for Learning and Development in Regent Park, and research organizations like the Martin Prosperity Institute.

Many of those relationships were forged by Brail after attending events or making cold calls to organizations she identified as a good fit for students, the program’s academic goals and the city’s needs.

The ripple of benefits for both students and the city has been undeniable.

“Shauna Brail came to me and said we can give you a student for a year,” recalls Tonya Surman, the CEO of the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), which provides work space and support for start-ups with a social mission.

“That was around 2006, and at that time we only had three staff, so having one more set of hands, even for a day a week, was huge” for CSI, which now boasts 50 staff and includes 800 organizations in three Toronto locations, generating 1,700 jobs and $250 million in revenue a year.

As an intern, Erin Kang was involved with the opening of CSI’s Regent Park office, which Surman calls a “beautiful example” of the synergy between the academic work Kang did as a student with the centre’s mission.

Now she is CSI’s events coordinator and one of Surman’s key staff members.

“That’s why the internship program was so valuable,” said Kang. “A lot of it is all about making connections, and those connections result in a lot of their own ripple effects.”

Since finding her calling at CSI, Kang notes she’s also built relationships with many other parts of U of T, such as student groups at the Rotman School of Management, the U of T Alumni Association and the University of Toronto, Scarborough.

CSI “alum” Matt Blackett – publisher and creative director of Spacing Magazine and Store – is another who counts his relationship with Brail and the Urban Studies Program as an important connection.

“One of the great things about the people who come to us from this program is they have very strong research skills and a pretty deep knowledge of urbanism,” said Blackett, noting that many still contribute to the civic-minded publication.

“They are all people just like us who care about the city and are trying to improve it.”

The popularity of the internships with both placement organizations and students alike led to the creation of another experiential learning stream in 2009. To give students an earlier exposure to the concept, the program’s second-year introductory course was expanded from 40 to about 100 students and a new “service learning” option added. Brail teamed up with U of T’s Centre for Community Partnerships who provided support to the program.

Now referred to as “Community Integrated Learning,” service learning was meant to match community needs with learning experiences. This past year, the program placed 54 students at 15 non-profit organizations such as food banks, shelters, community centres and neighbourhood associations.

Every student placed at an organization spends 12 hours volunteering and writes a reflective journal about their experiences that integrates what they learned at the placement with course readings and materials. Well over half of all students choose the service learning option each year, said Brail.

“It excites them in terms of being able to understand concepts we’re talking about in class and to contribute to the city.”

A study she did based on a review of 31 reflective journals submitted by students over a three-year period (2009-2011) concluded experiential service learning creates ongoing benefits for students and placements alike, a fact urban studies graduates continue to demonstrate.

Taylor Brydges did her service learning placement at the Fort York Food Bank and her internship at the Martin Prosperity Institute.

She continued to volunteer at the food bank for several years after her placement, and wrote her undergrad thesis on the gentrification of the surrounding neighbourhood. Brydges later wrote her master’s thesis on fashion retailers in the area and worked as a researcher for the institute after her internship.

Now doing her PhD at Uppsala University in Sweden on the Canadian fashion industry, Brydges says experiential learning is where she really saw the rubber hit the road.

“Urban studies facilitated those opportunities for me. And faculty like Shauna are still some of my biggest mentors and supporters. They just care about their students.”

Brail says the work that goes into supporting students and maintaining program standards cuts both ways, turning out “top-notch” graduates and building the program’s reputation but limiting its ability to expand their internship course, for example, within their current resources.

“I think the greatest challenge is sorting out, both institutionally and departmentally, how to support the development of these types of courses and demonstrating an appreciation of the intensive work required to run them successfully over the long term,” she said.

“This is a problem that has been documented elsewhere as well and it is not unique to U of T.”

That’s why Brail is understandably excited about the chance to create more opportunities for student placements by expanding collaboration with colleagues at U of T through the new advisor role and helping them leverage their expertise to connect with community needs.

She notes a solid foundation is in place through the work the Urban Studies Program is doing in places such as Regent Park and elsewhere throughout the city, and their advice is already widely sought after by other departments trying to develop their own internship and experiential learning programs.

“Increasing the number of experiential learning opportunities for our students is a key part of what we hope to accomplish, and Professor Brail has a brilliant record of leadership and innovation in teaching and learning outside the classroom,” said Gertler.

“In particular, she has shown tremendous skill and energy in building relationships with internal and external stakeholders, to provide invaluable opportunities for our students to learn by doing, in urban-focused settings.”