As two teenage girls stood before the Batesville, Indiana, city council, they waited to make their case for funding. They were part of the Batesville Mayor’s Youth Council and that meeting would determine whether they had to go back to the drawing board on their public art project.
In the crowd that evening was Stacy Robinson, a public affairs graduate student from the O’Neill School at IUPUI.
“The meeting actually was a little tense,” Robinson recalls. “Some of the city councilors didn’t like their idea.”
Robinson had been working with the Mayor’s Youth Council for months to help them develop a proposal that would bring a national artist in to paint two murals on buildings in downtown Batesville. The partnership was part of Robinson’s My Community, My Vision Fellowship course at the O’Neill School.
Youth-led organizations from across the state apply to the program each year through the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority. If selected, they receive $5,000 toward a community development project and are paired up with an O’Neill IUPUI graduate student to guide them through the process.
“Community engagement is the lesson plan at O’Neill,” says Marshawn Wolley, O’Neill’s director of community engagement and strategic initiatives. “This is a great example of the innovative partnerships we try to develop in order to advance student learning and impact communities at the same time.”
Wolley and O’Neill Associate Professor Adam Eckerd helped bring the partnership to the school.
“Students come into an MPA program eager to foster policy change and make communities better, but they don’t often the opportunity to see that change actually happen,” says Eckerd. “The My Community My Vision program allows our grad students to get hands-on experience using what they’re learning to lead real positive change in Indiana communities, while also having an influence on high school students who will be future public leaders.”
That combination is why Robinson applied for the fellowship. She came to the O’Neill School because of its reputation in the nonprofit world. Yet experiences like this one help her learn how to apply her education to any sector.
“I liked the idea of learning more about how local government works while working with youth,” she says. “They’re at an interesting time in their lives when they care so much about what’s happening around them, but they often aren’t given opportunities to make change happen.”
Robinson met with the Mayor’s Youth Council to get a better understanding of what they wanted to do and why.
“They had community surveys that told them there wasn’t a lot for young people to do,” she says. “They wanted to make Batesville feel like a more vibrant place that young people would want to come back to after graduation.”
Robinson taught the enthusiastic teens to think critically about how to turn their artistic dreams into reality. She worked with them on how to evaluate the project and get more feedback from their neighbors. That community buy-in, Robinson told them, was critical.
“If the community doesn’t like an idea selected by a small group of people, that’s not a good public art project,” she said. “You need to make sure the community is on board with it.”
Kim Linkel, an advisor for the Mayor’s Youth Council, says Robinson’s guidance not only made the project better but also helped the teens develop leadership skills.
“Stacy always allowed them to drive the project,” Linkel says. “They’ve realized that they’re not just some club that doesn’t make an impact. They see that, even though they’re young, they can drive change in their community.”
Their newfound confidence came through in the city council meeting. The teens presented a strong case to the council and convinced them to provide additional funding to cover the remaining cost for the murals.
The My Community, My Vision partnership paid off for Batesville, its Mayor’s Youth Council members, and for Robinson.
“It was a really positive experience,” she says. “It was great to actually be able to put things into action that we learned in the classroom and I enjoyed working with the youth. They made me feel excited and hopeful about the future.”