Finding Common Ground

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Common groundHarlem has long been a mecca for Black culture, beginning with the Great Migration (1916 – 1970) of more than 6 million African-Americans from the rural South for a better life in the North, West and Midwest. Harlem, the area of New York City where the largest number of Southerners settled, soon became widely known as an African-American neighborhood. By the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, it had evolved into a sought-after enclave for an emerging Black middle class that included racially conscious artists, musicians, business owners, activists and intellectuals. 

In many ways, Columbia University, located just steps away on the Upper West Side and known for its Ivy League culture, prestige and selectivity, could not have been more different from its Harlem neighbors. Today, however, as the university expands into Manhattanville in West Harlem, the two worlds are finding common ground. 

One point of intersection is the StreetWise MBA Program. Launched in 2009 by Columbia Business School’s Small Business Development Center, the two-year program is designed to benefit small businesses in low-income areas. To date, the program has served more than 50 businesses. Kaaryn Nailor Simmons, director of the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center, hails it a success. “The StreetWise MBA is the only program of its kind offered by Columbia’s business school and businesses that participate in the program love it. We’ve graduated sixty-eight businesses comprised of restaurants, retailers, educational services and medical and health facilities,” she told The Network Journal. “It’s an Ivy League program offered for free to community businesses, which makes it extremely unique and valuable. The goal is to offer the same quality education to the community that we offer to our MBA students.” 

Supported by Citi Community Development, StreetWise is a comprehensive curriculum covering such topics as financial management, marketing and sales, human resources tactics, business strategy development, and access to capital and new contracts. In addition to this and other programs created to improve relations with local business owners, Columbia in October launched the Thompson-Munõz Scholarship program — named for two Columbia graduates from Harlem, Albert Thompson D.D.S., and Carlos Munõz — exclusively for area students. The selected Thompson-Munõz undergraduate scholars, 34 in all, will receive financial aid to cover the cost of tuition, and will be given the opportunity to meet with school administrators and community leaders.

Under normal circumstances, this would seem a boon to underserved, academically gifted kids. However, with strained relations between Columbia and local residents who accuse the university of not doing enough by way of corporate social responsibility, some have expressed sentiments indicating otherwise. “Some in the Harlem area see the initiative as a step toward improving Columbia’s community relations. But others, including some of the program’s participants, have questioned whether helping a few dozen locals attend Columbia is enough to quell concerns about the school’s growing Harlem presence,” says a post on Welcome to Harlem’s Blog.  

Columbia’s expansion has been good, at least for nonprofits, some say. Robin Bell-Stevens, director of Jazzmobile, is cautiously optimistic. “I see what’s happening and I think it’s understandable that the community has resistance. As a people, we tend to resist change. There was an expected positive impact in terms of increasing employment and economic opportunities. In terms of overall impact, it’s too soon to tell. There’s so much that’s still in development,” she told The Network Journal. “I look forward to seeing how it will impact Jazzmobile. We do our concerts and events outdoors, so I’m waiting to see if the new venue that’s being built will help us with outdoor programming.” 

In a recent interview, Marcia Sells, associate vice president of the Office of Government and Community Affairs at Columbia University, spoke highly of Columbia’s commitment to preserving and respecting Harlem’s cultural significance. When it comes to cultural programming, Columbia and Harlem enjoy a decades-old relationship. “Long before the plans to expand into Manhattanville, the university had a connection with our neighbors both through the medical center and through the Institute of Research in African American studies, which has always offered a spot for our scholars and those who are not necessarily identified with an institution who come here to lecture,” Sells explained. “There’s been a connection, broadly, between Morningside Heights and the Upper Manhattan community, which has always attended our lectures and programs. In 1977, Dance Theater of Harlem Founder Arthur Mitchell presented a Summer Community Dance Series in Wollman Auditorium, and dancers James Truitt and Carmen de Lavallade  gave a week of performances at the university’s Minor Latham Theater. I, too, was a dancer with DTH years ago and used to give lecture demonstrations, which were open to the community. Also, in the early days of the Community Benefits Agreement, the university gave a tribute to Arthur Mitchell to serve as our reminder that the legacy doesn’t flow from Columbia University, but that Columbia absorbs the riches of the connections with the Harlem community.”

Sells noted that faculty members recently created programs that connect with young people in the community. For example, longtime Harlem resident Jamal Joseph, a Columbia professor of film and former Black Panther, started the Impact Repertory Theater. He and Voza Rivers of the New Heritage Theater regularly meet at the university on Saturdays as part of their education program.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and a 2011 Network Journal 40 Under Forty honoree, attests that Sells and Rich Blint of Columbia’s Office of Community Outreach and School of Arts have been “active and visible partners in the Harlem arts scene” for much of his time at the Schomburg. “It has been a pleasure to work with them on everything from exhibitions to public programs to the Harlem Book Fair.” he said.

In other examples, for the last four years, Columbia has partnered with Harlem Stage, the Apollo Theater and Jazzmobile on the Harlem Jazz Shrine Festival; the university’s Center for Jazz Studies teamed with the Harlem Stage for what was called the Columbia-Harlem Jazz Project; in November the university’s School of the Arts Open Studios collaborated with the Studio Museum of Harlem on Columbia-Harlem Art Sunday in an effort to raise awareness about the neighborhood’s collection of visual arts organizations and galleries; and, in partnership with the Romare Bearden Foundation, the Romare Bearden exhibit “A Black Odyssey” will be on display until March 15 at the university’s Wallach Gallery.

As for jobs and economic gain for local businesses, Sells is confident that the joint outdoor festivals will bring business to local restaurants and retail shops. “When you have a festival, people tend to stop, eat and buy things along the way,” she says. 

Columbia’s much anticipated multimillion dollar Lenfest Center for the Arts is scheduled to open in 2017. “The resources made available by the center also will strengthen Columbia’s longstanding ties to the vibrant local arts community based in Harlem,” the school says on its website.

Its neighbors expect nothing less. 

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