RISD Establishes Center for Community Partnerships

Community engagement initiative

Each year RISD students, faculty and staff members collaborate with numerous community groups and organizations on a wide range of projects focused on public engagement and social responsibility. The newly created Center for Community Partnerships (CCP) will coordinate and build on those initiatives, working with internal and external stakeholders to attract new community partners and steward existing partnerships.

“As a place-based institution with a... long history of applied, hands-on learning, RISD is well positioned to shape new contributions to society through community engagement.”
President Rosanne Somerson

“What we’ve heard from members of our own community as well as outside partners is that while we have been able to embrace many types of engagement over the years, there is a need for more sustained, reciprocal relationships,” says Director of Community Relations Bethany Costello, who will now be heading up the CCP.

RISD alumni celebrate Founders Day with a beach cleanup in San Francisco. photo by Jennifer Hale 93 PH

And President Rosanne Somerson agrees, noting that “community-centered work at RISD has been limited by a lack of clear criteria for engagement, minimal structures to support efficient collaboration, and unclear roles and responsibilities across the institution.” Creating a centralized hub for community projects will, she hopes, allow for longer-term engagements that drive large-scale impact.

RISD’s current strategic plan, NEXT: RISD 2020–2027, identified the opportunity to build a shared framework that uses teaching, partnerships, research and creative practice as collaborative tools for challenging prevailing social inequities. The Community Engagement Working Group established in 2019 to guide that work has now been transitioned into a standing advisory committee.

Architecture students join the festivities at a Sheridan Small Homes groundbreaking event in Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood.

An internationally recognized champion of art and design’s importance to 21st-century education, RISD has also been a fixture in local education for decades, engaging with K-12 students through a variety of programs and services. The RISD Museum attracts more than 10,000 K-12 students each year, and hundreds more take advantage of the various young artist programs offered by RISD Continuing Education.

Costello will be working closely with Continuing Education, the RISD Museum, RISD’s Research Office, the Center for Social Equity and Inclusion, RISD Careers, the Center for Complexity (which is engaged in such justice-oriented work as healthcare and public policy reform), and Project Open Door, the college access program for under-resourced teens headed up by Professor Paul Sproll, who also served as Teaching + Learning in Art + Design department head for many years.

RISD students and alumni volunteer at Bami Farm, a hub of food production run by African Alliance RI.

She’ll also partner with Student Affairs, which leads such community service opportunities as Alternative Spring Break (ASB), a six-day intensive focused on political activism and social impact; the student-run Design for America; the Leadership and Community Engagement (LACE) Fellowship, which connects students with local nonprofits; and RISD’s Pre-orientation Service Experience (POSE) for incoming first-year students.

“The goal is to bring together an already rich portfolio of community engagement work and, through better coordination and support, build the capacity to amplify and sustain the outcomes,” says Costello.

RISD techs and other staff members came together when COVID-19 struck to design and produce much-needed personal protection equipment for besieged healthcare workers.

And finally, the CCP will run its own programming to provide faculty grants for community-based projects and practice, compensate community partners brought in to provide expertise in RISD courses or programs, and offer training opportunities on principles and best practices of community engagement.

“I am excited for the potential of a long-term, cohesive strategy for community engagement at RISD and the opportunity to make a greater impact through the increased exchange of knowledge,” says Somerson. “As a place-based institution with a commitment to social equity and a century-long history of applied, hands-on learning, RISD is well positioned to shape new contributions to society through community engagement.”