If Community Corps is SPEA’s division of community development specialists, then Marshawn Wolley is its general. And the general is on a mission.
His mission began after several community development stakeholders approached SPEA, worried about the number of people pursuing community development jobs, the quality of that talent, and the field’s diversity.
So Wolley got to work. He developed a course to teach students about community development techniques, careers, and challenges while finding funders to cover the costs of internships. All he needed was a group of students committed to serving their community.
Jasmine Tylor answered that call. She’s pursuing her management degree and knew this was an opportunity she couldn’t ignore.
“It sounded exactly like what I wanted to do and could give me a jumpstart on my career,” she says. “It helped bring me out of my shell by forcing me to dive into the program, head first.
Before joining Community Corps, students must first complete Wolley’s V450 course, Indy Community Development Network. This fall semester course lays the foundation for the insight, skills, and relationships students need before moving into the field.
“This course is a great way for students to significantly increase their social capital,” Wolley says. “They not only learn about what’s going on within the city but also meet key players, which will make them a valuable employee wherever they go.”
Students master elevator pitches and meet with speakers from groups such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Central Indiana Community Foundation, PNC Bank, and other key organizations in Indianapolis.
“They’re getting an introduction to all the different actors who are in the community development space: government, nonprofit, and for-profit,” Wolley says. “We also go on site visits so students can see what community development looks like in action.”
Wolley says students hear honest discussion about the needs and challenges facing those who work in the field.
“We have conversations about social justice issues, gentrification, socio-economic disparities, such as who gets funding for improvements,” Wolley says. “Providing funding essentially means the government, nonprofit, and private sectors are picking winners. That’s intense. We look at the politics of how those choices are made.”
Wolley admits many of his students are surprised by what they learn during those discussions. Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Tylor says she was no stranger to those barriers.
“I saw these challenges every day, but didn’t know what resources were available to help,” she recalls. “A lot of people aren’t aware of that assistance; that’s the problem.”
Through Wolley’s course, Tylor and other students learn about some of those resources, as well as positive strategies for enhancing communities.
“I want to take an asset-based approach: find a community’s strengths and use them to uplift that area, rather than only looking for problems,” she says.
Once students have completed the first-semester course, they can use their final essay and relationships formed throughout the class to compete for a Community Corps fellowship.
“We strategically place students in community organizations that align with their interests, push community initiatives forward, or have future employment possibilities,” Wolley says.
Wolley points out that students don’t always continue into Community Corps, either by choice or by not matching with an organization. Students who do, however, receive $5,000 in financial support. Tylor says that assistance took a huge burden off her shoulders when she was matched with Groundwork Indy.
“This fellowship made it possible for me to view the world for the first time with a deeper perspective on life, art, and community that I only gained through the class and the financial support tied to it,” she says.
She says Phyllis Boyd, executive director of Groundwork Indy, helped her connect her love of art to community development through projects, such as converting empty lots into gardens or providing much-needed mulch to home daycares.
Beyond literally getting her hands dirty in community development, Tylor says Boyd also provided opportunities for her to attend meetings with local leaders.
“We talked about real issues and real initiatives they were trying to implement,” she recalls. “It provided a different vantage point than my classroom-based courses.”
But Tylor stresses the importance of those courses and the confidence they gave her to participate in critical conversations.
“I wasn’t afraid to say what I thought during the meetings because my thoughts were based on facts I learned in my SPEA classes and through research,” she says.
Tylor is an example of how well Wolley’s Community Corps talent pipeline can work. Following her fellowship with Groundwork Indy, Boyd found more funding to keep Tylor on as an intern and hopes to extend the internship into employment.
“Jasmine has been an invaluable addition to the Groundwork Indy team,” Boyd says. “We would love to keep her on beyond this academic year.”
Community Corps is accomplishing its mission to match skilled students with community organizations in need of fresh ideas and diverse talent. It also fulfills SPEA’s purpose of preparing students to make a difference.
“Community Corps is far beyond a regular course,” Tylor says. “It provided clarity on my future. If you put in the work, you’ll make quality connections with people who will help you throughout your career.”