Monaco hosts local leaders for symposium on community partnerships

University President Anthony Monaco addresses the Tufts Presidential Symposium on Community Partnerships in the hall of 51 Winthrop St. on Feb. 26. Alexander Thompson / The Tufts Daily

More than 100 community leaders, students and administrators gathered to discuss the relationship between the university and local organizations at the 18th annual Presidential Symposium on Community Partnerships hosted by University President Anthony Monaco at 51 Winthrop St. on Wednesday morning.

Monaco used the symposium to showcase the successes of the university’s projects in its host communities and as an opportunity to hear feedback from the local leaders about those programs.

In his opening remarks, Monaco highlighted the university’s commitment to pushing students off the Hill and into the surrounding communities to support the work of local nonprofits and public services.

“From the first time they step on campus until their final walk at graduation at commencement we encourage our students to be actively engaged, civic minded and volunteering in surrounding communities,” he said.

Alan Solomont, dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, took the microphone next to tell the audience that Tufts relies on its community partners to help prepare students to play an active civic life after graduation.

“We have always known that acquiring that knowledge and learning those skills and values cannot occur solely in the classroom,” he said. “We fulfill our mission by having students work in the community to practice what they learn from books and to learn some things that books don’t teach.”

Solomont set the tone for the rest of the program, as one speaker followed another highlighting various Tisch College initiatives.

Amira Al-Subaey (LA’19), a field organizer at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), extolled the value of Tisch Summer Fellowships, which allowed her to join MIRA as an intern in the summer of 2018 while she was still at Tufts.

Marie Cassidy, the director of the Medford Family Network, highlighted the contributions of Tufts students who have worked with her organization for decades have made to the community.

“Every one of them who has been there has made an amazing difference and a sustainable difference not only for Medford families but for cities all around,” she said.

Two undergraduate students, William Lynn and Daniela Sánchez, both seniors, talked about their participation in two of Tufts’ marquee service programs, the FOCUS pre-orientation program and the Tufts 1+4 gap year experience respectively. Grace Talusan, a lecturer in English Department who teaches courses for the Tisch Scholars and the Civic Semester, rounded out the speakers.

After the speakers finished, each table held guided discussions on a variety of topics related to Tufts’ links with its partners. Monaco then listened to the comments of each table and added his own reflections.

In his closing remarks, the university president heralded Tufts’ partnerships as role models for other universities and paid homage to former University President John DiBiaggio, who oversaw the establishment of Tisch College and died earlier this month.

The Somerville Homeless Coalition was one of the organizations represented at the symposium.  Ben Wyner, an assistant program manager there, said that the symposium was a great opportunity to hear from students about their experiences working for local nonprofits.

“This is a good time to get together and hear ways we can do things better, things that have worked really well for people and hopefully we work more with the Tisch Scholars in the future,” he remarked.

More than a dozen Tufts students also attended the symposium, many of whom are current Tisch Scholars, including Rabiya Ismail, who works with immigrant youth at the Somerville-based Welcome Project.

Ismail, who is also a Tufts Community Union Senator for the Class of 2022, said that the symposium shows that Tufts is engaging directly with its partners.

“It’s really good that people from a bunch of different places in the administration all show up so they can hear the complaints and the praise from the community partners,” Ismail said.

Shirley Mark, the director of community partnerships at Tisch College, wrote in an email that the university does not count how many students volunteer in the course of a year, but explained that the university works with more than 100 organizations annually and that the Tisch Summer Fellows alone contributed around 24,000 service hours last year.

Tufts held the symposium amidst year-long negotiations with both Somerville and Medford for new payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreements in which the university pays a portion of the property taxes it would owe the municipality were it not tax exempt.

Though unaddressed at the symposium, Tufts’ community partnerships play an important role in the PILOT negotiations because the university customarily pays part of the amount in cash while the other part is paid in non-monetary benefits to its host community. The university includes contributions to local nonprofits towards its non-monetary benefits total.

Ben Echevarría is both the executive director of the Welcome Project, which has worked extensively with Tisch College, and a member of Somerville’s PILOT negotiating committee.

He qualified the university’s relationship with its partners as “tensioned,” and said he hoped other nonprofit leaders took advantage of the symposium to relay their concerns to Tufts.

Echevarría also noted the burdens the partnerships can place on community organizations, emphasizing an issue he dubbed “parachuting,” in which students engage only passively with an organization, often associated with social justice coursework.

However, Echaverría said he saw progress being made at the symposium on Wednesday morning.

“There are some interesting conversations that need to continue to be had, not just the [once a] year event kind of thing,” he said.