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Grand Challenges, Grander Solutions

DU students, faculty and staff partner with their communities to create meaningful change

“Reluctant” is one way to describe Evon Lopez’s reaction when the University of Denver approached her about helping out in her community. “Skeptical” is another.

After all, her diverse Valverde neighborhood—bounded by Alameda Avenue, Federal Boulevard, the Sixth Avenue freeway and the South Platte River—has long been a victim of racist infrastructure investments and redlining by wealthy outsiders.

“I kept asking, ‘Why are you asking me these questions? Why do you need to know this?’” Lopez  remembers. “I felt this undercurrent of privilege. And I felt taken aback by [thoughts of], ‘Oh they’re looking at me, they’re frowning on me because I don’t have the academia and they don’t understand my culture, my religion, my story, my neighborhood.’

“But after seeing how they connected on a human-to-human basis, willing to go the extra mile doing things that were asked of all of us, I soon realized that they’re in it to win it. They’re not here to show off and brag about their fancy degrees. They’re here to help.”

Lopez and daughter Adriana (MA ’15) had already begun pushing back against development and gentrification in
Valverde. They saw the need to expand community health and wealth through investments in transportation and street safety. But they needed a bit more muscle. DU’s Grand Challenges (DUGC) program provided a lift to tackle what Cara DiEnno calls these “wicked problems.”

“They are complex,” says DiEnno, executive director of DU’s Center for Community Engagement to advance Scholarship and Learning (CCESL). “They can’t be addressed by any single discipline. It really requires people with different sets of knowledge and skills and experiences and worldviews to come together and to think collectively about how to address them.”

In storytelling circles at Valverde Neighborhood Fest, residents shared tales about their community.

The road toward meaningful solutions began four years ago, at cafes, restaurants and kitchen tables across Denver and around the world. Anne DePrince, CCESL’s former director, and the Collaboration for the Public Working Group drew upon a Chicago program to create

A Community Table as a small-group forum for identifying and addressing community issues. CCESL provided logistical
coordination, brainstorming materials, discussion questions, a stipend for food and a simple request: Just talk.

“Those conversations, that approach to dialogue has ended up essential to the ongoing work,” says DePrince, a DU psychology professor and associate vice provost for public good strategy and research. “The challenge we put to this new initiative was: Can we help people connect in new ways that open up new routes for collaboration, new ways of thinking about impact?”

Using ideas gathered during hundreds of events at nearly as many locations, from Denver’s Capitol Hill to Kathmandu, Nepal, and Knoxville, Tennessee, CCESL began turning aspirations into action. 

The Civic Canopy, a community-based nonprofit, helped CCESL develop “collective impact cohorts” to address grand challenges in four areas: crime and safety, urban sustainability, migration, and housing and food insecurity. For six months, interdisciplinary teams narrowed their foci and submitted proposals. Then, with funds from DU IMPACT 2025 and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, they got to work.

A folklórico dancer performs
at Valverde Movement Fest. 

A neighborhood on the move

Evon Lopez and her family have lived in Valverde for 60 years, but past ideas to improve her community had driven people away. The challenge for Cara DiEnno and the urban sustainability cohort was to improve infrastructure without paving the way for gentrification.

“We’re trying to find out: Where do neighbors want and need to go?” DiEnno says. “And what kinds of mobility solutions would be appealing to them, making sure it’s responsive to their interests and needs?”

DU, the University of Colorado Denver, the Center for Community Wealth Building and many other collaborators posed those questions to residents through a storytelling campaign called the Valverde Movement Project. Any solutions, they realized, had to be achieved within the context of the neighborhood’s history.

In April, DUGC helped host a bilingual Valverde Movement Fest, bringing community members together to share what Valverde means to them. Between bites from local food trucks and performances from folklórico dancers, residents made their way through a series of storytelling activities. Their recollections and ideas now live on a large online map of the neighborhood and will help inform city planners and engineers as they brainstorm solutions for improvement.

“In this marginalized neighborhood, as you go on the internet, it’s hard to find any documented stories,” Lopez says. “I feel because of racial inequities, stories were never captured. The people that did engage and did tell their stories, we were so grateful and so thankful because some of them were raw and the truth.”

DU is staying involved, hosting pop-up community cleanups, soliciting more stories, and applying for additional funding and grants to support the neighborhood’s parks and commission new artwork, among other things.

“It seems like when I come up with these grandioso ideas, Cara and those folks help bring it to life. I quickly saw those walls come down about privilege and academia,” says  Lopez, who was inspired to return to college to complete her bachelor’s degree. “It just touched my heart that they would take the time and pitch in.”

Safe spaces to rest 

When it came to helping those experiencing homelessness, Nantiya Ruan realized she didn’t need to reinvent the wheel—she just had to get it rolling.

Ruan, a professor of the practice at Sturm College of Law and co-lead of the food and housing insecurity cohort, was looking for a way to make the biggest, most immediate impact in the community. After months of brainstorming, Ruan and her colleagues zeroed in on the approximately 1,000 Coloradans who live out of their cars. 

The Colorado Safe Parking Initiative (CSPI), an all-volunteer nonprofit, was taking its first steps toward meeting their needs. CSPI’s intent was to identify private parking lots that were vacant in the evenings and willing to host people with nowhere else to go. The lots would improve safety and security for people and their property, reduce stress among users, provide access to resources and offer the first steps toward permanent housing.

The DUGC cohort offered CSPI guidance to make the idea a reality. They provided legal and social research, created a website, secured funding, formed relationships with stakeholders and helped the organization become a nonprofit.

“It was a nice influx of support and expertise and resources that helped them to get off the ground,” Ruan says. “They would have gotten there eventually, I’m sure, but we helped infuse them with the resources and the people to get it to where it is now.”

One of those people was Katie Calhoun, a PhD student in the Graduate School of Social Work, who designed and conducted a survey to make sure CSPI was achieving its goals.

“Navigating these tricky pieces of community-engaged research during COVID was a really unique and great opportunity for me as a student,” Calhoun says. “Getting to still feel connected to the community, even from my kitchen table, has been great professionally, but I think even more so personally.”

Ruan agrees. CCESL’s approach made her cohort’s work “the most impactful project that I’ve had a part in.”

“Research universities tend to be seen as more insular ivory towers,” Ruan says. “DU has always challenged that, being a private institution for the public good. The policy from the get-go has been to engage with the community. Grand Challenges is putting their money where their mouth is.”

Reforming criminal justice

Jeffrey Lin has always had a little beef with academia. “I’ve had issues for a long time with my discipline’s applicability or impact,” says Lin, an associate professor of sociology and criminology in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. “I hate that I spend years writing journal articles that eight people read.”

In DU Grand Challenges, Lin found what he long had sought—a chance to get beyond theory and help real people.

Lin and his colleagues on the DUGC crime and safety cohort directed their attention to people who are incarcerated or recently released from prison. They started by assessing the reentry landscape in Denver and Colorado. 

Those recently released from prison, Lin says, need a lot of things—food, treatment, transportation—but don’t know where to find them. Many are further hindered by a fear of doing something wrong and ending up back behind bars.

In partnership with Remerg, a local nonprofit helping people released from jail or prison, Lin and his cohort are working to devise a map that is searchable by ZIP code, in contrast to existing resource directories, which are rarely categorized geographically.

“Where things are matters so much more when you’re poor,” Lin says. “We really saw the need for a geographic map that would point people who are confused and poor and struggling to these resources that were there.”

Meanwhile, others in the cohort collaborated with DU’s Prison Arts Initiative to host an art exhibit and facilitate conversations about prison reform.

Chained Voices features works created by people currently incarcerated in Colorado. Proceeds from art sales go directly to the artist, targeted toward a personal or charitable need. At the show’s grand opening in August, DU’s new Community Commons hosted a panel on prison reform, featuring a formerly incarcerated artist, a state lawmaker and a representative from the Colorado Department of Corrections.

“I feel relieved that we’re going to have something to show for this,” Lin says, especially in a year when COVID forced the cohort to scale back its original ideas. “And those things will actually be positive in the world.”

“Ho’okipa,” a painting by Christopher Allen, is on display at “Chained Voices,” an art show created by the DU Prison Arts Initiative

Equipping immigrant entrepreneurs

DU Grand Challenges couldn’t have arrived at a more perfect time for Arianna Nowakowski (PhD ’12). After discussions with Karen Gerwitz, president and CEO of World Trade Center Denver (WTC), she knew there was an opportunity to help immigrants who dream of starting a business. But neither knew exactly how to move the idea forward.

With Grand Challenges, Nowakowski saw an opportunity to make a meaningful collaborative impact.

“I suggested to Karen that we should join the collective impact cohort on migration and see how we might work with other university and community partners to provide greater opportunities for immigrants to succeed in the business community and beyond,” says Nowakowski, who co-leads DUGC’s migration cohort and serves as assistant director and teaching assistant professor for University College’s Global Community Engagement Program.

The gears started turning. More and more immigrants were coming to WTC for help, but their level of preparedness varied. Some had advanced degrees and business experience; others didn’t know how to write a check.

Discussions as a cohort led to the creation of the Business Development Certificate through University College and DU’s Center for Professional Development. A series of four courses covered the basics of a business plan, finance, branding, marketing and legal issues. Gerwitz, WTC president and CEO, was also part of the cohort.

Teguo Daniel Djoyum, back, trains others to conduct neurodiagnostic testing through his company, Purple Point Neurodiagnostics. A business certificate obtained through a partnership between DU and World Trade Center Denver helped launch his idea.

Funding from DU Grand Challenges allowed participants to receive significant scholarships. Twenty-five people already have completed the program, which COVID forced online.

“The cohort was broadly attempting to remove barriers and provide opportunities to immigrant populations—a pretty big charge,” Nowakowski says. “I think it was really inspiring to see people from all different parts of campus and the community come together in pursuit of a common objective and a common good.”

Feedback from the World Trade Center shows the programming did just that. Prospective entrepreneurs showed up well prepared to hire employees, develop products and get them to market. 

The progress would not have been possible without the brainstorming forum that CCESL provided, Nowakowski says. Plus, the program has fostered community connections that could lead to future partnerships.

“In academia, we theorize about things all day long and never get to see the fruits of our labor,” she says. “To see tangible results come out of that hard work was very gratifying.”

It’s gratifying for DePrince and the CCESL team too. With this success, she hopes DUGC can be a model for institutions of higher education across the country, proving that diverse groups of people—on campus and off—can make quick, meaningful change, so long as they’re placed in a supportive ecosystem.

“I just feel this tremendous pride in this place,” DePrince says. “I think it’s a really, really important way that we accomplish the vision the University has set forward, and it’s a way that’s open and accessible to anyone who wants to get involved.” 

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