College/Underserved Community Partnership Program: Building a Better Tomorrow through the Power of Partnerships

Michael W. Burns, Senior Advisor for the Regional Administrator
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UCS | August 24, 2015, 2:52 pm EDT
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What if there was a federal program that connected universities and underserved communities to work together to address critical issues? Would you be surprised if I told you that program already existed? What if I told you that program was created in part to improve the efficiency of government spending—would that shock you? Well, all of this is true, and the program is called CUPP – College/Underserved Community Partnership Program. CUPP works with colleges and universities to provide vital technical assistance to underserved cities and communities. This assistance is based on the needs of these communities, and focuses on not only environmental issues, but issues that are found across the federal government.

How did this get started?

While working on American Recovery and Reinvestment Act projects, federal agencies in the Southeastern U.S. decided to work in partnership to improve the efficient use of the funding. The best way to do that was to focus in an area where multiple agencies had projects going on. The area selected was the Selma to Montgomery Trail (the Trail). Meetings were held in cities along the trails.

At a meeting in Hayneville, AL, Mayor Bell spoke about the difficulty for small communities in applying for federal grants. Each applicant must have a financial audit completed in order to apply for grants over $500,000, and preparing for these audits can cost up to $25,000. In a small underserved community, $25,000 is a significant sum, and is needed more for public safety issues. And so the very process used (for good reason) to ensure the funds are properly spent becomes a barrier to those who need the help the most.

We thought about it, and said, hey, maybe we could get a school right up the road to help this community. And the CUPP Program was born, as part of the Environmental Protection Agency, Region 4.

So how does it work?

This assistance comes at no cost to the communities, and out of the thirty schools that have, or are planning to participate in the program, only one has received federal financial assistance to do so. We have concentrated on getting schools to understand the non-financial benefits the program provides; the unique experiential learning opportunities for students to take what they have learned in the classroom and apply that knowledge to real issues to come up with real solutions that impact the lives of those needing the help the most. The students love doing this kind of work! That practical experience helps them really improve their employment opportunities, and the communities get bright creative young minds to help address old and difficult problems. It also helps to establish schools as true pillars of the community. Everybody wins!

So….what has been done?

Well…..

Students from Florida International University making a field visit to their partner city of Medley, Florida.  In the foreground on the left is Dr. Tiffany Troxler, Professor n the Department of Biological Sciences, and Mayor Roberto Martell of the City of Medley. Photo credit: EPA.

Students from Florida International University making a field visit to their partner city of Medley, Florida. In the foreground on the left is Dr. Tiffany Troxler, Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, and Mayor Roberto Martell of the City of Medley. Photo credit: EPA.

  • One student from Georgia Southern University came up with the use of solar cells to remove excess water from sewage sludge in the city of Darien, GA. The cells removed 30% of the water, and saved the city money with no utility costs.
  • Tuskegee University developed an alternate transportation plan which will help address issues of food deserts, access to health care and employment opportunities for the cities of Whitehall, Mosses, Hayneville, and Selma AL, and many other small communities along the Trail. This plan includes the use of solar cells for lights, and ventilation, and a loop-within-a-loop design that facilitates rapid transportation.
  • Tennessee State University created a design for an improvement to the storm water system, and a design for bike paths that can be used to promote bike races for the City of Pleasant View, TN.
  • Florida International University designed a plan to replace impervious paving for the city of Medley, FL. and not only reduce the storm water flow, but beautify the city through the planting of native species. They will be doing an economic development plan for the city this fall.
MBA students from Clark Atlanta University at City Hall in the City of Lithonia, GA drafting a business analysis of a potential annexation issue, to include consideration  of a brown field site. Photo credit: EPA.

MBA students from Clark Atlanta University at City Hall in the City of Lithonia, GA drafting a business analysis of a potential annexation issue, to include consideration of a brown field site. Photo credit: EPA.

  • Georgia College and State University has agreed to support the Let’s Move Initiative in the cities of Sparta and Eatonton Ga., and provide health education. They are also digitizing maps of the water systems for the City of Eatonton to support future repair and expansion.
  • Clark Atlanta University conducted a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) business analysis for the city of Lithonia, Ga.
  • The University of North Carolina in Wilmington, NC has agreed to provide long-term land use plans, historical archiving services, and ideas for community policing in the city of Navassa, NC.
  • Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College has provided recommendations for the improvement of old industrial sites of the cities of Ashburn and Ocilla, GA.
  • The University of Southern Mississippi has agreed to assist an Asian fishing community outside of the city of Gulfport, MS to address community health issues.

We will have about thirty schools lined up to support about forty-two cities and communities in ten states by the end of the calendar year.

By working with the schools to help these underserved communities, the Union of Concerned Scientists can not only provide their expertise and experience to help resolve issues identified by these communities, but their example will serve as both mentorship and guidance to the very students helping to do the work. UCS can expand their impact, and the students learn how to make a difference from experienced professionals. Both sides benefit!

For more information about CUPP, contact Michael Burns at burns.michael@epa.gov, or 404-562-8228. For more information about the upcoming forum, Community Connections: Bringing Together Scientists and Local Voices, visit www.ucsusa.org/scientistsandcommunities

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