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Fitz Fellows, 2023

Fitz Center community engagement program connects UD faculty with northwest Dayton

By Dave Larsen

University of Dayton faculty members are working in northwest Dayton to build a community garden, create a peer mentorship program for court-involved juveniles, and explore potential increased flood risk due to climate change through a community engagement program of the Fitz Center for Leadership in Community.

Those are just three of the projects underway as part of the Fitz Center’s Faculty Fellows, a two-year program that provides stipends and project funds for faculty in UD’s College of Arts and Sciences. The 2022-24 cohort includes nine faculty applying their expertise to projects intended to build partnerships and infrastructure to strengthen the community’s assets.

“The Fitz Center Faculty Fellows lean into University of Dayton's commitment as an anchor institution that is guided by its Marianist mission,” said Nancy McHugh, Fitz Center executive director. “By mobilizing faculty who are invested in reciprocal and responsive collaborations with community partners, the Faculty Fellows program creates impactful outcomes for communities and for students and faculty.”

The projects were selected based on priorities identified by the Northwest Dayton Partnership, a collaborative effort aimed at improving equity and educational and career outcomes in northwest Dayton.

“We are excited by the outcomes we will see in year two of these projects,” McHugh said.

Flood Issues and Environmental Justice

Chia-Yu “Charles” Wu, a lecturer in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences, is using Geographical Information System (GIS) technology to investigate how potential flood events could affect local communities, particularly those with minority and low-income populations.

Dayton experienced Ohio’s worst natural disaster with the Great 1913 Flood, when waters reached 20 feet deep in downtown Dayton, claiming more than 360 lives. The Miami Conservancy District, created in its wake, constructed a flood control system of levees and dry dams from 1918 to 1922 that is still in use today.

“All the evidence indicates that climate change presents more frequent and intense precipitation, and hence poses greater risk for floods,” said Wu, who will join the tenure-track faculty in August as an assistant professor. “Therefore, an important study question for us is whether those flood-protection systems built back 100 years ago can still protect us now.”

Wu’s study also looks at how “redlining” — which determined so-called risk areas for federally backed mortgages and home-ownership programs — shaped the socioeconomic patterns and racial makeup of the Dayton region. Today, large Black populations reside in northwest Dayton, near the Great Miami River

Wu will use GIS to evaluate flood risk based on current climate change models and map potential flood zones in the Great Miami watershed. He also will use the tool to map local populations by age, race, education level, employment rate and median household income. He will then combine the potential flood threat and demographic distribution to map flood vulnerability.

“Do we see the floods disproportionately affect those poor and underrepresented communities there?” Wu said. He plans to share his findings with local residents to make them aware of and develop a community-driven solution for flood risk.

Conflict-Competent Communities

Chad Sloss, a lecturer specializing in sociology, is developing a program to work with youth, ages 12-17, who have engaged in criminal mischief or exhibited behavioral issues at home, school or in the community. Initially, the R.U.N. (Rise Up Now) program will rely on a referral system from the Montgomery County Juvenile Court’s Intervention Center as an alternative to criminal punishment.

Sloss, who analyzes the social psychological components of trauma, will start the program this summer with 10 to 12 first-time offenders, whom he will meet at the Fitz Center and the Hope Center for Families.

Participants will engage in activities to help them learn how to manage ongoing trauma and build leadership skills, instilling what Sloss calls “conflict confidence.”

Instead of fearing conflict, these students will become active participants in creating resolutions or developing creative means of managing conflict.

“What we want to do is teach these students not only to be emotionally and socially intelligent, but to be able to deal with traumatic experiences and lessen the social outcomes that come from internalized trauma,” Sloss said. “That is the biggest thing right there, apart from having them not become a statistic and become part of the system, and to lessen recidivism rates.”

The participants will learn how to mediate and manage conflict, so they can model this type of behavior and become conflict or peer mediation ambassadors at their schools. They will be able to step in and mediate situations when fellow students are facing disciplinary action such as suspension or expulsion. They will then build relationships with those students and train them as conflict mediators.

“Ultimately, I hope to end with 50 students who are trained and in the school systems training more,” he said.

Community Development

Molly Malany Sayre, assistant professor of social work, is exposing UD students to individual community engagement in partnership with the nonprofit CityWide Development Corp., whose mission is to strengthen Dayton through strategic economic and community development.

During the 2022-23 academic year, students in Sayre’s Community Practice and Research course reached out to families in the Carillon neighborhood near UD Arena about the Bike Yard at Welcome Park, a new recreational bike park that opened in May. The students went door-to-door to inform local youth about a bike clinic that would train them to use the park’s pump tracks and trails.

“The students also attended a community meeting with City of Dayton officials, where residents were able to ask questions about the development of the Bike Yard,” Sayre said. “That was really eye-opening for students to see the interactions between city government and neighborhood residents relative to this development.”

Students also visited West Social Tap & Table, a new food hall in Dayton’s historic Wright-Dunbar neighborhood, where they met with a CityWide community developer to discuss the new amenities and who they are meant to serve.

Sayre said students build critical thinking and reflection skills to consider who benefits from neighborhood change and who does not. They also learn how to promote social justice through neighborhood change.

“It helps CityWide connect with neighborhood residents,” Sayre said. “So, it helps neighborhood residents have a voice in the work that CityWide is doing, and in the work the city and other developers are doing.”

Other Projects

The 2022-24 Fitz Center Faculty Fellows cohort also includes:

  • Roger Crum, professor of art history, is working with Gem City Recycling to help establish a state-of-the-art e-waste recycling center in West Dayton that would be staffed via an initiative to engage, hire and mentor recently incarcerated individuals from the area.
  • Felix Fernando, assistant professor of sustainability, is assisting in the planning and development of a community garden on the Omega Community Development Corp. campus that included intergenerational community members working together. His research topics include how a community garden contributes to building a sense of community.
  • Mary Wagner, associate professor of psychology, is part of a community-based partnership to evaluate how improved wages for early childhood education staff affects their well-being and children's learning. Wagner is assessing the school readiness skills of children involved in the program to assess growth.
  • Rebecca Potter, professor of English, is developing community-based experiential learning opportunities for UD students in her Sustainability Scenarios and Experiential Learning Lab for Sustainability courses, as well as students in the Fitz Center’s Civic Scholars and Rivers Stewards programs.
  • Chelse Prather, associate professor of biology, is investigating how City of Dayton solar projects affect biodiversity and ecological processes. Senior environmental biology majors are collecting preliminary data to help determine how the city's solar projects affect the environment.
  • Arne Romanowski, assistant professor of Spanish, is leading a community-engaged learning project in partnership with the Miami Valley Child Development Centers. Students in her Spanish for Health Professions course are participating in community dialogues with caregivers of Latinx children. Through what they learn in these dialogues, the students are developing workshops on healthy habits for children.

For more information, visit the Fitz Center for Leadership in Community website.

Top of page (l-r), top row: Roger Crum, Felix Fernando, Mary Wagner. Middle row: Rebecca Potter, Chelse Prather, Arne Romanowski. Bottom row: Molly Malany Sayre, Chad Sloss, Chia-Yu “Charles” Wu.

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