Fruit in boxes for sale at an outdoor market.

Hands-on Learning That Benefits Students and Local Neighborhoods

Community economic development course partners with nonprofit to assess food security and community safety in Sacramento neighborhood

From concept to completion – UC Davis student Mariah Padilla has taken what she’s learned in class to help create a tool that aims to enhance a local community’s social and economic health and well-being. Padilla, a community and regional development major going into her senior year, took a community economic development course (CRD 156) last spring which empowered students to provide an assessment of food security and community violence in two neighborhoods located in South Sacramento. The end product was an infographic with an up-close look at the demographics, conditions and needs of the communities.

“Looking at the final product I’m excited on how everything turned out,” Padilla said. “This was such a practical course that provided hands-on experience that would help anyone in their field.”

Under the instruction of Noli Brazil, assistant professor of community and regional development, Padilla and her classmates analyzed Census data, collected feedback from residents and developed recommendations on how to make improvements in the Mack Road and Meadowview neighborhoods.

“The students use a combination of data and qualitative methods and theory to try to offer some solutions or insight on a major issue that a community is dealing with,” Brazil said.

Students’ work benefits community

The students compiled data and summarized their findings for the Health Education Council (HEC), a nonprofit organization in Sacramento that works to reduce health disparities and chronic disease in the region's low-income communities. Padilla, who joined HEC as an intern after completing the course, worked with staff from the organization to help create the infographic. Despite the major challenges these communities face, Padilla said the document also sheds light on the resources and support available to residents.

“When we were creating the infographic, we wanted it to be community-centered and highlight not only the disparities but also the strengths of the community,” Padilla said. “This is a resilient community that has been actively working towards building a more just future for themselves. When creating this infographic, we had accessibility in mind and wanted everyone to be able to understand their community.”

Hiba Eltahir, program coordinator with Health Education Council, said what makes the infographic such an important tool is that it’s evidence-based and data driven. She hopes it will not only help inform residents and policymakers about the needs of the community, but also inspire HEC and other community-based organizations to dive deeper into the issues they are already working on.

“The students found that COVID-19 and the pandemic generally interrupted many of the food distribution resources in the community, and with rising transportation costs, that made accessing grocery stores difficult for people,” Eltahir said. “That highlighted, to me, the need for increased access to fresh and nutritious food.”

The infographic also reveals insight from residents, including one quote from a community member who said: “Everywhere I go, I'm looking over my shoulder,” in response to how they felt about community safety. Both Eltahir and Padilla said that including community voices, in addition to the data, may help inspire more action.

“It’s important to recognize how valuable qualitative data is,” Padilla said. “Both the numbers and community members’ experiences are important and can be very powerful.”

Gaining skills for the workforce

Brazil believes the skills and knowledge students gain during his course will be useful in their future careers.

“The learning outcomes are tied to what they will experience when they get into the workforce,” Brazil said. “Even things that may feel a little uncomfortable for the students, for example if they are collecting data when they don’t have much experience, or presenting in front of an audience, or conducting a survey or interview—all those skills are part of the career of a community organizer, planner, or an economic development specialist.”

The lessons learned during this course and internship will be something that Padilla said will stay with her as she plans for her next steps in her career path.

“When thinking about equity and sustainability and wanting to pursue a career focused on empowering local communities and building a more climate resilient future, this experience was very important,” Padilla said. “It made me feel good to create a deliverable to help inform HEC’s policies and programs that support community members.”

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