The Liberal Arts Action Lab: Community-Initiated Urban Research in Hartford, Connecticut

[From left to right] Lena Wright (Capital Community College), Megan Brown (Director of the Action Lab), Michael Serrano (Capital Community College), and Emily Yen (Action Lab Faculty Fellow and Urban Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at Trinity College) collecting data on property conditions for the Absentee Landlord project in the fall of 2019.

This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum* Engaged Scholarship Series.  If you are doing Engaged Scholarship or teaching a class that asks students to do community engagement, contact Andrea Benjamin at andrea.benjamin@ou.edu. We would love to highlight your work!

By Megan Brown, Director of the Liberal Arts Action Lab

At traditional academic research centers, faculty and graduate students make decisions on what topics to study. The Liberal Arts Action Lab reverses roles by empowering local residents of Hartford, Connecticut to drive this process. Prospective community partners from different neighborhood groups and non-profit organizations submit one-page proposals about real-world problems they wish to solve. All must agree to share their proposals on a public web page, designed to share — rather than hide — what different organizations are planning to work on. The Action Lab convenes a board of Hartford residents to review and prioritize these proposals based on city-wide needs. Teams of undergraduate students and faculty fellows are drawn from the two campuses that jointly run this program: Capital Community College and Trinity College. Working together in this credit-earning one-semester program, students learn action research methods as one large group, and collaborate in smaller teams to collect and analyze qualitative and/or quantitative data with their community partners. Depending on the needs of their partners, student teams produce solutions in a variety of formats, including educational materials, technological approaches, policy recommendations, and strategic shifts. The teams present their findings and proposed solutions at a public event and on the Action Lab website at http://action-lab.org.

The Action Lab is a project-based learning environment in which students put the concepts and skills they are learning into practice immediately, in the hopes that the projects they are working on will directly impact the organizations they collaborate with. As Capital Community College student Aulona Zeka, put it: “I think it’s a great way to be more hands-on with learning. It feels like you’re actually getting stuff done and not just doing assignments – [you’re] maybe even creating change for the better in the community.”

Promoting Affordable Local Foods

Doris Zhang (Trinity College ‘19) discusses the results of the Hartford S.H.E.L.F. project with Shubhada Kambli, Director of the Office of Sustainability, City of Hartford.

One of our teams worked with the Hartford Office of Sustainability to investigate how to promote affordable local foods to Hartford residents. After researching the benefits of local foods and interviewing residents about their shopping habits, the team realized it was looking at the wrong problem: the demand for local food was strong, but information gaps existed between consumers and local merchants. While farmers markets were growing in popularity, they were poorly advertised; and merchants were spread over too many local markets. To help local farmers advertise the food they were selling at each location, the team developed a #hashtag campaign that would aggregate and coordinate in real time, making the farmers’ decentralized offerings visible on a central website. The team produced a quick, concise product to help the local farmers’ market ecosystem grow and support the work of the city. Learn more about the Hartford SHELF Project (Sustainable, Healthy, Economical and Local Foods).

Mapping Housing and Health Outcomes

Garret Forst (Trinity College ‘19) and Lindon James (Capital Community College) display the results of their hot spot analysis of vacant houses during the Action Lab’s first digital poster fair. Photo by Nick Caito.

Another team worked with Community Solutions Inc., a Northeast Hartford community development corporation, to transform their block-by-block survey into a series of story maps that could illustrate the relationship between housing conditions and neighborhood health. Staff from this non-profit organization attended classes with Action Lab students to learn GIS mapping skills. And as a result of the work, the organization added a residential strategy in their planning to redevelop an abandoned factory building. This project also sparked a larger collaboration between the Action Lab and the Connecticut Data Collaborative on housing and health outcomes in all neighborhoods across Hartford, funded by a 500 Cities grant from the Urban Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. More information about the North Hartford Promise Zone Mapping Project.

Since opening in January 2018, Trinity’s Liberal Arts Action Lab has received proposals from 50 different organizations. We have only been able to support 13 project teams, as demand from the community outstrips what we can accommodate. When we’ve shared our story with visitors and at conferences, many comment on how the Action Lab “flips the script” by asking Hartford community partners to define the research questions, which are ranked by the Hartford resident advisory board, rather than higher education faculty or administrators. The Action Lab illustrates how two different institutions — Trinity College, a private four-year liberal arts institution, and Capital Community College, a publicly-funded two-year institution– are partnering in new and impactful ways with local non-profits, city agencies, and social entrepreneurs to uplift Hartford, Connecticut.

[From left to right] Lena Wright (Capital Community College), Megan Brown (Director of the Action Lab), Michael Serrano (Capital Community College), and Emily Yen (Action Lab Faculty Fellow and Urban Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at Trinity College) collecting data on property conditions for the Absentee Landlord project in the fall of 2019.

Find out more information about the Action Lab here: http://action-lab.org.


*The Urban Affairs Forum is presented by Urban Affairs Review, a a peer-reviewed, bi-monthly journal focused on questions of politics, governance, and public policy specifically as they relate to cities and/or their regions.

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