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CommUniverCity Beginnings Cast Strong Foundation

Authors: Marisela Castro, Communications Specialist; Katherine Cushing, Executive Director

The story begins in 2000. Eighteen years ago, Dr. Susan Meyers, Dean of SJSU’s College of Education, wanted to take direct action on place-based community service learning. “At the time, the California State University system was strongly promoting service learning as a pedagogy, a new way of teaching,” stated Dr. Meyers. In response, SJSU and its sister campuses began creating new courses centered around combining local issues with academic coursework. Dr. Meyers understood that the power of service learning reached beyond fostering civic engagement in college students. She saw to the potential for community-engaged learning to do much more.

Susan began holding workshops for faculty members all over campus, illustrating how academic goals can complement community needs. According to Dr. Meyers, SJSU was considered “a bit of an island” since engagement with the community at the time was very low. One day, after a particularly lively faculty workshop, Susan decided to call the City Manager of San Jose, Del D. Borgsdorf to see if he was interested in formalizing a city-university-community partnership focused on leveraging the power of SJSU faculty and students. Upon receiving Dr. Meyers’ call, Del memorably replied, “I’ve been waiting for this call for 30 years.” Immediately following that conversation, CommUniverCity was born.

“CommUniverCity’s name sprouted out of the partnership between the community, the city, and the university,” Susan recounts. “One day I was doodling while talking and taking notes with a colleague of mine, Professor Debbora David, from Health Science and Education. As I kept writing the words over and over again, they visually came together–C-O-M-M for community, U-N-I-V-E-R for SJSU and C-I-T-Y for San Jose.” A local artist created a playful image connecting SJSU’s Tower Hall, San Jose’s City Hall, and a house, resulting in the organization’s iconic logo.

Together, the fledgling team comprised of a few faculty members, city councilmembers, and resident leaders began developing strategies for identifying community needs. Early adopters included classes in urban planning, education, and political science. In partnership with neighbors from Five Wounds Brookwood Terrace, such as Joan Rivas-Cosby, the group began creating neighborhood ‘top ten’ priority lists based on intensive year-long investigations.

Map of Five Wounds/Brookwood Terrace neighborhood.

One of the effort’s early wins was the City’s adoption of a BART transit village plan created by the coalition. As momentum grew, Dr. Meyers’ outreach extended to recruiting SJSU faculty who had credibility at SJSU and with the local community to “help solidify already strong bonds.”

Since its serendipitous beginning, participation in and the accomplishments of the CommUniverCity family have continued to grow. Today, CommUniverCity spearheads 40 community-based projects in underserved Central San Jose neighborhoods every year in concert with 20 academic departments, dozens of City staff and administrators, hundreds of residents, and over 800 SJSU students. Our focus has also expanded to encompass the community-identified priorities of community health and the environment, creating a college-going culture, and neighborhood leadership, with the cumulative value of our work being valued at over $6 million.

Students engaged in projects like Writing Partners, Engineering in Action, Safe & Green Halloween, and Design For All: Fountain Alley.

As the founding “mother” of CommUniverCity, Susan is proud to see how the collaboration has thrived over the years. “CommUniverCity is now institutionalized within the university and San Jose. That really speaks to how both institutions truly value what CommUniverCity brings to the table.”

Next week, CommUniverCity partners will gather in community to celebrate the fruits of our collective efforts to “build great neighborhoods for everyone” over the past 13 years at Celebrating Partnerships.

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