The Edward Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning

laptop with headshots of 16 community advisory board members and staff during zoom meeting

Written by Kayla Grant

At the Ginsberg Center, we believe that listening and responding to community-identified priorities is the backbone of ethical engagement. So when Ginsberg leadership discussed the possibility of recruiting a Community Advisory Board (CAB) in 2015, the idea seemed like a natural fit with the Center’s principles. Reflecting on the CAB’s origins, Ginsberg Center Director Neeraja Aravamudan explained that her team "understood that our community partners had different perspectives from what U-M stakeholders perceived as either challenges or priorities. Given that ‘starting with community’ is one of our core principles, that means being responsive to community perspectives on what the Ginsberg Center’s focus should be.” In light of this commitment to sensitive and nimble engagement, in 2017 the Ginsberg team established the CAB as a strategy for soliciting regular feedback and guidance from community partners.

The CAB is made up of community advocates, non-profit leaders, and government officials from across Washtenaw and Wayne Counties with a shared interest in supporting the Ginsberg Center’s community engagement efforts. Members convene officially twice per year, but participate in focus groups and provide informal guidance more often. Sara Saylor, Ginsberg’s Assistant Director for Community Engagement, noted that the CAB’s expertise has been critical in helping the Ginsberg team to cultivate more equitable partnerships between students or faculty and community partners. At a CAB meeting focused on forms of university-community partnerships, board members shared that their university partnerships seemed more successful when community representatives were involved as early as possible in a potential engagement opportunity. Early involvement, they clarified, ensured that the community organization’s goals and the academic group’s learning goals were aligned—and mutually beneficial. Saylor worked with the rest of the Ginsberg team to fine-tune their training materials for academic audiences in order to emphasize the importance of establishing genuine rapport and shared purpose before beginning a partnership. "I think this helped our academic partnerships team talk with faculty in a different way about how they offered service and engagement as part of a course,” Saylor observed. While community-engaged projects in higher education can risk disproportionately benefiting the academic partners, the CAB has been able to offer strategies for counterbalancing that inequity and ensuring that Ginsberg and U-M remain committed to community priorities.

While the CAB’s guidance has been invaluable to the Ginsberg team, Teresa Duhl, CAB member and Fund Development and Engagement Manager for Freedom House Detroit, sees it as an even broader asset. Freedom House Detroit, a Ginsberg Center partner since 2018, supports and empowers asylum seekers on their journey to safety, security, and freedom by providing comprehensive services in an inclusive space. Duhl explained that she and her organization have benefited from the informal community networking that the CAB facilitates. "It’s important for us to be plugged into a variety of communities,” she said. "We do our best work when we stay in connection.”

"We do our best work when we stay in connection.”

Jason Frenzel, another CAB member and the Stewardship Coordinator at Huron River Watershed Council, confirmed that CAB provides a unique venue for organizational cross-connection. "It’s been valuable to me in learning about the other CAB members: understanding better what they do and how they work with Ginsberg and the UM community has been a learning experience. This has also given me additional ways that our work might interface with UM.” He said that the CAB’s collaborative environment was especially valuable during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when many organizations struggled to remain connected to their communities — even as they saw a greater and greater demand for community services. Frenzel experienced the CAB as a productive place to explore potential responses to the pandemic, especially ones that balanced the safety of service providers against clients’ service priorities. "Witnessing the challenges and responses other organizations were going through [during the pandemic] helped me see that having our own boundaries was critically important to everyone involved.”

Aravamudan also emphasized that the CAB’s work took on greater significance during the pandemic. “To me, the big thing is that in the wake of the pandemic—and all the racial and economic disparities that were heightened—this is an opportunity for the university to do better for its local communities. And the CAB is an important part of that: to show us how we can be better positioned to be truly responsive and accountable to our partners.” The invaluable service of CAB members like Duhl and Frenzel ensures that Ginsberg’s ability to support its local communities continues to grow even in challenging times, enriched by the expert perspectives of on-the-ground community advocates.