The Long Arm of the Stevenson Center
As featured in the winter 2009-10 American Concierge Magazine
By Eric Jome
What do a Central Illinois non-profit organization, a Chicago suburb working to redevelop a brownfield site–a property that has pollution issues–and a West African community development project have in common? They all benefit from the work of Illinois State University’s Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development.
The center embodies the mission of public service and global understanding of its namesake, Adlai E. Stevenson II. Graduate students in the Stevenson Center use their education and training to help communities and organizations in Illinois, across the nation and around the globe improve the lives of citizens and enhance economic vitality.
The center offers master’s degrees in applied economics, political science and sociology. The degree programs feature classroom study that gives students a solid background in the principles and practice of community and economic development. After completing the classroom phase, students are placed in internships with community development organizations, government agencies, or non-profit groups across Illinois and the nation. One program even prepares students for overseas placement with the Peace Corps after they complete their classroom studies. The center also provides direct service to communities in the form of economic impact analyses and forecasting, brownfields redevelopment, and geographic information systems analysis.
Frank Beck, an associate professor of sociology and director of the Stevenson Center, said graduate students who come to the center fall into one of three categories: students who already have some experience with economic and community development; students who have completed overseas service in the Peace Corps; and students who are interested in Peace Corps service as part of their degree program. “Stevenson Center graduate students are highly motivated and dedicated people who come here for a genuine purpose,” Beck said. “They come here because they are already dedicated to public service and are looking to become community and economic development professionals.”
The center’s Applied Community and Economic Development (ACED) Fellows Program accepts students who have at least one year of full-time experience, as either a paid professional or a volunteer, in development work. Graduate students in the program complete one calendar year of full-time coursework and 11 months of full-time professional practice working for communities and organizations that need their skills. Students enrolled in the Peace Corps Fellows/USA Program arrive on campus having already completed overseas Peace Corps service. Through a year of classroom work and a professional practice internship, students apply the knowledge and skills they gained during their Peace Corps service for the benefit of U.S. communities and organizations.
Peace Corps and ACED Fellows are currently working with a wide variety of organizations and agencies in Illinois including the McLean County Community Compact, the Illinois State University/Illinois Wesleyan University chapter of Habitat for Humanity, Quality Quest for Health of Illinois, the Greater Livingston County Economic Development Council, the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging, and others. Through a university partnership, some of these students also serve as AmeriCorps members.
Students are prepared to be effective Peace Corps volunteers through the center’s Peace Corps Master’s International Program. As in the other graduate programs, students complete one year of classroom work on campus. After meeting Peace Corps admissions requirements and completing an in-country training session, students are placed in a two-year overseas assignment. Stevenson Center students in the Peace Corps Master’s International Program are currently serving in Peru, Micronesia, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, and the West African countries of Togo and Cameroon.
The Stevenson Center has the distinction of being the only institution in the country with a Peace Corps Master’s International Program in sociology and one of just a few such programs in economics.
“The Stevenson Center is very unique in that it offers students programs in community and economic development that are not found at other institutions,” Beck said. “The applied nature of the graduate programs, with the heavy emphasis on professional internships, is a major draw for students. They seek out our programs because they want to get hands-on experience working with communities and organizations.”
Currently, the Stevenson Center has 15 graduate students enrolled in classes on campus, the largest cohort of students in the center’s history. That may not seem like a huge number, but the graduate degree programs are very rigorous and the students who are accepted into them bring a broad array of experiences to the table. “When these students get together, the classroom dynamic is fantastic,” Beck said. “The viewpoints of sociologists, economists, and political scientists are all focused on real world community and economic issues. The exchange of ideas is incredible and the students learn so much from each other.”
In addition to the graduate programs and professional practice internships for students, the Stevenson Center also provides other development services directly to communities. Utilizing faculty expertise in Illinois State’s Department of Economics, the center offers help to communities searching for detailed information on how a specific business development or larger project might influence their bottom-line. Issues such as employment growth, income generation and tax revenue are taken into consideration. Expertise is also available for conducting community surveys, using census data for comparative work or trend analyses, and the development of economic forecasting models.
Through a partnership with Illinois State’s Institute for Geospatial Analysis and Mapping (GEOMAP), the Stevenson Center provides geographic information systems (GIS) services to communities and agencies throughout the state. GIS is a computer technology used for creating and managing geographic data. GIS tools for data editing, management, geographic analysis, and map making are used in a variety of fields including forestry, public health, city and land-use planning, real-estate, marketing, and transportation.
Helping communities rehabilitate brownfield sites is also an important outreach activity. Through a partnership with Kansas State University and with grant funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Stevenson Center provides the assistance at no cost to participating communities. A brownfield is an environmentally damaged property that requires assessment and clean up before it can be redeveloped. Common examples include abandoned factories or other industrial sites, and former gas stations and dry cleaning establishments. The Stevenson Center is currently helping officials in Orland Park, Decatur, and Hopkins Park with such projects.
“By redeveloping brownfield sites, towns and cities can take what were once eyesores and liabilities and turn them into economic assets,” Beck said. “We help communities secure funding for site clean-up and assist them in their redevelopment plans for those sites. This redevelopment work has the added benefits of restoring both the physical and social fabric of neighborhoods and creating vibrant, livable communities.”