Bringing HBCUs Back to Their Communities: Since 1837 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) Have Been Producing African American Leaders: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes, Oprah Winfrey, Samuel L. Jackson and Edwin Moses Are Only a Few HBCU Alumni Who Have Made Substantial Contributions to American Society

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But the importance of HBCUs extends beyond the young women and men they educate. They contribute substantially to economic growth by sending a steady stream of graduates into middle- and upper-income careers. HBCUs have also traditionally worked to improve the economic health of the neighborhoods surrounding their schools, and many include this commitment in their mission statements.

Collaborating to meet pressing needs

Commitment to the community often presents stiff challenges for HBCUs. Some are situated in the middle of well-established urban African-American communities, while others are in the heart of rural America. Regardless of their surroundings, institutions are faced with the need to adapt to a changing world. Shifts in demographic trends, economic structures, land-use patterns, social forces, government policies and funding patterns all affect a school's ability to address community needs.

Inadequate affordable housing, high unemployment rates, lack of accessible child care, below-par secondary schools, shortage of affordable health care and elevated crime rates create a daunting scenario for HBCUs trying to make a difference in their communities.

Addressing such issues is not a job for the HBCU alone, but one that calls for strong partnerships and coalitions with neighborhood and political leaders, nonprofit organizations, corporations, foundations and the faith community. By forming such alliances, HBCUs can maximize their value as a resource for the community.

The perspective and knowledge afforded by education is an academic institution's most obvious asset. These schools serve as centers supporting research, original thinking and innovative ideas. Faculty and students can offer talent, expertise and problem-solving skills relevant to many facets of community life. HBCUs can also bring the insights of various disciplines, including health care, education, economics, sociology, environmental management, business, information technology, architecture, urban design, and planning.

Although much work can be done through volunteer community service programs, it is unrealistic to expect them to be sufficient by themselves. Adequate funding is critical to make the best use of all the academic and human resources HBCUs can provide.

Over the years, the White House has extended its support to these efforts. In 1980, President Carter signed an executive order establishing a federal program to assist HBCUs working in their communities. Similar executive orders were issued by later Presidents. This money became an incentive prompting many schools to increase their involvement in community initiatives.

Since 1980, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which administers the funding, has allocated millions of dollars in grants. But in recent years, funds have become less available, forcing many schools to limit their involvement in community development initiatives. Some have even discontinued their programs.

Sixth District HBCU educators convene

On June 14, 2006, representatives from HBCUs met at the Birmingham Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta to discuss strategies for creating or enhancing community development programs at historically black institutions. Representatives from a dozen schools in the Sixth District identified key issues of concern:

* Preserving and sustaining existing community development programs;

* Obtaining additional grants and subsidies;

* Securing administrative, financial and moral support from college presidents and boards of regents by conveying to them how the programs benefit the school;

* Engaging the broader community.

Dr. Cordell Wynn, president emeritus of Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., opened with the keynote address, which emphasized the importance of working in partnership with the community. In addition to representatives from the Federal Reserve Bank, officials from HUD, Seedco and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board were on hand to discuss the benefits of their programs. …