When Angelo John Lewis met with a group of faculty, staff and students of Mercer County College a few years ago, it quickly became clear that the group was dealing with not one set of problems, but many.
The administrator talked about crippling turf issues that divided administrators and faculty members. An African- American faculty member talked about festering racial issues, exacerbated by the existence of two campuses: an inner city campus with a large minority population and a suburban campus, which drew predominately white students. A student talked about the low image of the college among students and in the community at large.
Consultant Lewis heard a common thread in the motley group’s concerns. Turf issues, diversity issues, customer service issues all added up to a yearning for community.
With the help of a homegrown committee called “the Human League,” Lewis designed an initiative that came to be known as the “Mercer Community Project.” Drawing from his work building high performance teams and his ability to craft custom large group interventions, Lewis involved the committee in a five-step process.
First, the 12-member group participated in a half-day process aimed at jelling them as a team. That meeting served as the dry run for the centerpiece of the community building process, a community assessment day in which 64 invited members of the campus community reflected on the state of community at MCCC. After the team-building meeting, Human League members invited people to participate in the assessment meeting based on a number of factors, especially the degree to which they were seen by others to be influential within the campus community.
The community assessment meeting took place about six weeks after the team-building meeting. It was billed as “Building a Sense of Shared Community” and took place in a nearby hotel. During the meeting, Lewis used a modified version of the group assessment method, popularized by renowned consultant G. Gordon Reedy. Participants in a group assessment meeting generate data about themselves as a group, then meet in small groups to find common themes. The process is highly participatory, even a little chaotic.
“I like it for community building initiatives because participants quickly take ownership over the process. As they own the process, they are committed to its success. It isn’t like somebody is telling them what to do,” Lewis said later.
At the conclusion of the day, the group arrived at a dynamic consensus about the gaps that separated ideal and actual campus community. They distilled their findings into four areas: diversity/dual campus issues challenges, the need for better customer service, mentoring, and student-and-staff wellness. Before closing the day with an activity celebrating their unity and sense of accomplishment, the group designed four smaller groups to explore these issues in further detail.
The third phase of the process began a week after the meeting was over. The issue groups met while a survey was concurrently sent across campus to elicit additional feedback. Lewis and his colleague Lauren Carrington helped these issue groups with their tasks by giving them a range of problem solving activities. Six weeks later, each group completed detailed issue papers and action plans, which were further refined by the Human League. That group presented its plans to President Tom Seip who, after consultations with the initial task force, set in motion the process of implementation.
Two years later, the community building process has been integrated into campus life. A student participant in the process received an internship devoted to furthering the work of the group. A mentoring program pilot began three months after the report. A customer service initiative resulted in campus- wide staff training. The wellness program evolved into a series of programs that offer HIV screenings, depression screenings, seminars about reducing stress, and literature promoting healthy eating and exercise programs. School staff took a series of proactive steps to lesson tensions between the two campuses, including assignments of faculty to teach in each campus and greater availability of services and equipment at each campus.
Rose Nini, dean for Corporate and Community Programs, says one of the keys to the program’s success was engaging someone outside of the MCCC community. Because Lewis’ firm was viewed as a “neutral third party, most groups were receptive and comfortable discussing sensitive issues with Angelo or Lauren.”