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Summary: eBlackChampaign-Urbana Campus-Community Symposium

Posted on Thursday, November 18, 2010 in Uncategorized

Over 200 people came for part or all of a two-day campus-community Symposium on Friday, November 5 and Saturday, November 6 at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) on the University of Illinois campus and the Douglass Annex in Douglass Park in North Champaign. The unifying themes of this event were: a) campus engagements in the historical African-American communities of Champaign-Urbana and b) digital technology transforming all aspects of community life (including campus engagements). The event began with Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement Steve Sonka speaking on how engagement at the University of Illinois needs to complete what he called the “knowledge cycle” or observation to documentation to analysis to implementation and back to observation. Speaking from his personal background in agriculture, Sonka explained how this cycle, and the University’s involvement in it, completely changed the course of American agriculture, and the world. Sonka was invited to give the opening remarks for this two-day event because one of the goals of the conference organizers (Professor Abdul Alkalimat of African-American Studies/GSLIS and Noah Lenstra, C.A.S. student, GSLIS), is to re-orient the land-grant tradition of the University of Illinois to systematically and sustainably address issues in African-American and low-income communities not only in Champaign-Urbana but across the state of Illinois, in the information age. Sonka’s address was followed by two community respondents, district 1 council member Will Kyles and Salem Baptist Church Rev. Zernial Bogan, and one University respondent, Kate Williams, who re-articulated some of Sonka’s remarks in terms of some of the issues faced by residents of North Champaign-Urbana. The full audio-video-pictorial-textual record of these remarks, and the entire symposium, is available for free online at

The rest of the day Friday was devoted primarily to conversations among dedicated “service” units of the University, such as the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and Illinois Public Media, and students from multiple departments involved in research projects focused on local African-Americans, who, in dialogue with the audience, both shared what they were doing and also explored the significance of their individual projects in terms of larger campus-community concerns. After the first morning roundtable on community engagement a member of local group Women of Prestige expressed her surprise at finding out so many different projects work with local youth and said the information was a little overwhelming.

One way in which the eBlackChampaign-Urbana project has tried to address this issue is through information. Specifically, we released a book entitled Community Engagement @ Illinois: Connecting Research and Service (also available at that features documentation of over 45 different research and service projects emanating out of the University of Illinois, or with heavy involvement of University individuals, that have as a primary audience or subject local African-Americans or the historical African-American community. A copy of this book was given to each of the 103 Difference Makers, community and campus individuals who have gone out of their way to try to make a difference in the lives of local African-Americans, as part of a luncheon and awards ceremony Friday afternoon. The Difference Makers also received a commemorative booklet with biographies and photographs. The project team sometimes is asked why a project dedicated to digital technology would chose to release two books as part of its symposium. We believe in what we call the actual-virtual-actual cycle, in other words actual communities and individuals using the power of digital technology to make actual change in their lives and in the lives of others. As part of this cycle, our digitization work of actual primary source material and our use of open source tools such as Open Office and GIMP allowed us to release two relatively large print publications on a short deadline that we hope will make actual change in campus-community engagement.

Saturday the symposium shifted gears – moving from campus to the Douglass Annex for conversations on how existing community agencies and institutions are using digital technology, with the hope being that connections could be made that would benefit all. Representatives of social service agencies such as Community Elements and Neighborhood Services (City of Champaign); educational initiatives such as Parkland’s WorkNet Center and Urbana High School; churches such as Jericho Missionary Baptist and Church of the Living God and community groups such as C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice and the National Council of Negro Women talked throughout the day on some of the issues and opportunities they have faced in using digital technology as part of their work.

One theme that emerged was the need to find ways to work together to integrate digital technology into community day-to-day life. Kevin Jackson described some of the e-government tools developed or being developed at the City of Champaign while David Adcock of Urbana Adult Education described the need to provide the most basic, rudimentary computing education to many members of the local community. Later in the day, during the religious institutions roundtable a contentious discussion began about finding ways to create non-denominational means for churches to help each other cross the digital divide. Some thought the first step was bringing the pastors together and getting them all on board; others felt that those in the different churches already invested in digital technology should find ways to work together. In any case, the eBlackChampaign-Urbana project team believes that these issues need to be discussed more so that everyone can make effective uses of digital technology. One way in which an attempt was made to bring everyone on the same page was by asking everyone to sign a manifesto declaring themselves “Difference Makers” and dedicating themselves to work together to bring everyone online and to ensure everyone can make effective use of existing and developing tools for social change. Over 120 people have signed this manifesto – which can be signed electronically at

A follow-up meeting to the Symposium will be held Saturday, January 8, from 9 a.m. to noon, at the Champaign Public Library, Robeson Pavilion Room A & B. However, we encourage community and campus organizations to continue these conversations in their “home-bases.” The project team recognizes that sustainability requires moving these dialogues and actions off the University and into the organizations and groups that keep our community going. One way in which the project team hopes to make this transition is to ask groups to take a copy of the manifesto to whatever groups they are affiliated, discuss it, and bring remarks on these discussions to the follow-up meeting January 8.

Although we were told “symposia” and “conferences” were too academic in nature – the project team stood by the knowledge that community groups have conferences all the time (Canaan Baptist Church held two in the past year; Glory Center International held one) – and that what was needed was a new strategy, not an abandonment of the idea of symposia. We would encourage other individuals from the University of Illinois to find ways not to abandon the traditional apparatuses of scholarly production and exchange, but rather to find new, experimental ways to make these apparatuses relevant and meaningful both to the scholarly community and to real, historical communities with which activist academics work.

A final note on the organization of this event: as an all-volunteer symposium with modest funding from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement and the Office of Equal Opportunity and Access to pay for food, equipment, marketing and space, the eBlackChampaign-Urbana Campus-Community Symposium owes its success to both the campus and community individuals and groups who volunteered to make it a success, including: 1) the Community Informatics Club; 2) the Illinois Informatics Club; 3) Women of Prestige Champaign County; 4) National Council of Negro Women, Champaign County; 5) Champaign Park District; 6) Salem Baptist Church; 7) Graduate School of Library and Information Science; 8) and individuals from Parkland College WorkNet Center and Canaan Baptist Church.

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