Do academics bear a social responsibility? How can academic research promote positive change and advance social justice? What are the implications of community engagement for scholarship? These questions have shaped the life’s work of Kevin Michael Foster, an anthropologist of education and a faculty member at the Warfield Center for African and African-American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
As a doctoral student at UT in the late-1990s, Foster aimed to learn more about the challenges that affect the academic achievement of low-income students of color in the United States: indecent housing, lack of health care, inadequate nutrition, financial insecurity- to draft policies to fix them. He soon discovered that there was no “silver bullet” solution for redressing racial and class disparities in school performance. Rather, Foster came to understand that education policy must reflect what he calls “contextually grounded collaborative work” involving researchers, teachers, families, and students themselves. In other words, researchers must arrive at solutions based upon their everyday encounters with the individuals and communities they study.
In 2006, Foster founded the Institute for Community, University, and School Partnerships (ICUSP). ICUSP is an independent organization that brings together resources from local communities, universities, and schools to create programs that promote academic achievement, well being, and eventual life and career success of predominately African American and Latino students in underserved neighborhoods in Austin and Houston. ICUSP embraced the notion that education policy must take into account the everyday needs and desires of local students and communities. “I learned early on that being a good researcher meant building relationships with students, parents, and teachers in Austin,” Foster recalled. “It’s only through listening that we gain everyday insights that are critical for creating more impactful research.” By engaging Austin-area activists and teachers, Foster gained access to their everyday experiences that led him to ask better questions and produce better scholarship.
ICUSP’s first initiative was COBRA, the Community of Brothers in Revolutionary Alliance, which was founded with local school principal Mr. Patrick Patterson on the campus of LBJ High School in Austin. COBRA serves as a support group for male high school students of color. Spearheaded by students themselves, COBRA has improved academic achievement, instilled leadership skills, promoted self-confidence, and counseled prospective first-generation college students about the university admissions process and the challenges campus life. The organization was so popular that a group of female students approached Dr. Foster with a desire to create a program of their own. Each February, COBRA and VOICES students attend classes at the University of Texas and college campuses throughout the state to learn about the exciting opportunities made possible by a four-year university education. Approximately 90% of all COBRA and VOICES graduates will attend college next fall.
The close collaboration between university faculty, high school teachers, administrators, and students between high school and graduate levels sets ICUSP apart from other organizations. UT-Austin students work in all phases of ICUSP programming, playing key roles as facilitators in the COBRA and VOICES initiatives. Students have also developed content and acted as co-producers of BlackademicsTV, a recent initiative that arose out of a desire to use mass media to more broadly connect academics and their insights with communities.
Keep up with ICUSP and BlackademicsTV on these websites.