Class Makes Research a Walk in the Park
Release Date: 04-22-2009
Helping communities help themselves is the foundation of research conducted by students in a course led by Dan Baker, a professor in the Community Development and Applied Economics program. Here, two students go door to door as part of Baker's Mobile Home Project.
Senior Shaun Gilpin was admittedly nervous when he entered the Brookside Mobile Home Park in Starksboro in the fall of 2008 to ask residents about life in the park as part of his Community Development and Applied Economics service-learning course. Some were reluctant to talk to a bunch of college kids who'd probably never stepped foot in a mobile home park before. Others, like John Martin, wanted to know more about the survey and how they could help make their park a better place to live.
The Mobile Home Project, started four years ago by Dan Baker, assistant professor in CDAE and member of the Starksboro Planning Commission, and his students, identifies park issues that residents can address through the formation of resident associations and the development of alliances with non-profits and local government. It has resulted in new partnerships across the state and given voice to parks residents who were previously stigmatized and left out of the local decision-making process.
Martin, who was recently named president of the newly formed Brookside Residence Association, says residents have already met with town officials and the park owner to address a host of issues identified in the survey. They include: making the park more attractive by adding shrubs and mowing; starting after-school programs for children (an artist from Rutland comes after school to work with kids on art projects); putting up new signage; making infrastructure improvements; starting a neighborhood watch program; and making upgrades to individual homes.
"Once the students told us what they were doing, I'd say 80 percent of the people thought it was a good idea," said Martin. "We were happy to see someone take the time to come out here who wanted to help. We've already developed an association and have been working with the Town of Starksboro to make the park a better place to live. Nothing is too big or too small for us to accomplish if the park residents and the people at UVM work together."
A model for success
The Mobile Home Project is an outgrowth of the Mobile Home Deconstruction Project that received national attention for its innovative approach to recycling old mobile homes. Students found that one-third of mobile homes are recyclable, which can save owners a sizeable portion of the $2,000 cost of disposing of a mobile home.
Baker's formula of generating a research-based idea to help a community and then expanding its scope based on the needs of the residents, has resulted in sustainable projects with schools, municipalities and non-governmental organizations in third-world countries such as Honduras, as well as in Vermont. The key has been to connect all possible stakeholders and include them in the decision-making process.
"All of these projects evolved over time, but started with the same basic process of looking at them in the larger context of development," says Baker. "Once an area of research emerges, we take that piece of work and focus on it, which usually leads to other projects. They tend to be interrelated and fit into our holistic approach to helping communities help themselves."
Sarah Weintraub, a CDAE alum, took this concept to her job as resident Mobile Home Project organizer at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, where she helps set up association meetings and connects residents to relevant organizations. "Dan's students have identified real problems and engaged towns to address them," says Weintraub. "In terms of organizing communities, they have been proactive in getting people to the table to try and improve their quality of life."
Letting residents set the agenda
Kelly Hamshaw, a CDAE graduate student and author of the paper "Mobile Home Park Communities in Starksboro, Vermont: A Community-Based Action Research Case Study," says the key to any community-based project is to let the residents drive the agenda. "They know what they need more than anyone else," she says. "We didn't finish the survey and say, 'Now we understand what's going on in your community,' because we don't. We want to help them form associations and make connections with non-profits and local agencies so they can find ways to improve the quality of life in their parks."
Survey data was also highlighted in a paper submitted by Baker, Hamshaw and Corey Beach, a CDAE alum and director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity's Mobile Home Project, to the International Journal of Consumer Studies titled, "Anticipating Change in Mobile Home Parks: Resident's Perceptions of Housing, Quality of Life and the Future."
The report provided useful information about the 22,627 mobile homes in Vermont (8 percent of the state's total dwellings) and found that most of its roughly 200 respondents were satisfied with the overall quality of life in the park, despite being less satisfied with the way the parks were managed. Residents tried to include park managers in meetings to help address their most pressing concerns, which included poor road conditions, water and sewer infrastructure, lack of recreational facilities and public safety.
The results had an empowering effect on residents, according to the study, and made local government officials more aware of park issues. "Our experience suggests that there are wide misconceptions about manufactured housing. This may be even more true for manufactured housing in parks. The good news is that public officials, at least here in Vermont, are hungry to learn more," concludes the report.
Beach says the partnerships that UVM has developed with organizations like hers, which include CDAE graduates, has been invaluable. "There's data on numbers of homes and things like that, but nothing to the extent that UVM has produced from a demographic perspective," says Beach, who helped create the original MPH survey as an undergraduate. "It's worked out great for the partnership between us and UVM because most of us worked with Dan as students and know where he and his students are coming from. It's having a positive impact on mobile home parks across the state."
For students, the data collection was second to the experience of working with residents to improve their community. "The greatest memory for me was the community meetings," says Gilpin. "It's one thing to talk about a theory in class, but talking with the people about these issues made it real. It meant a lot to them just to see people at the meeting who cared about what they had to say."