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Center for Engagement and Community Development

From Classroom to Community: Multi-Disciplinary Team Participates in National Parks Competition

By Amanda Bouc

NICODEMUS, Kan. – Nicodemus, Kan. may have been founded nearly 140 years ago, but for a group of students, faculty and staff at Kansas State University, this historical site is far from old news.

Instead, it has resembled a new opportunity. 

As part of a design competition sponsored by the National Park Service and the Van Alen Institute, a multi-disciplinary team of more than 40 individuals spent the spring semester of 2012 redesigning this historic site. Nicodemus, a town located in North Central Kansas, is the only remaining African-American settlement west of the Mississippi established after the Civil War. The town houses fewer than 25 residents, all of whom are direct descendants from the original settlers.The Visitor Center at the Nicodemus National Historic Site.

The competition, “Parks for the People,” prompted students to re-imagine America’s National Parks – and that’s just what this group did for a historic site close to home. Of the 41 entries, the team from Kansas State University finished in the top six.

Through hands-on studio classes, student participants travelled to Nicodemus to interact with community members, assess the site and propose suggestions for improving the park, thus developing a proposal indicative of a partnership between students, the township and the National Park Service.

The Process

Under the leadership of project co-coordinators La Barbara James Wigfall, associate professor of landscape architecture/regional and community planning (LARCP), and Josh Cheek, LARCP instructor, and project manager Dea Brokesh, LARCP landscape architect, more than 40 core participants joined forces to tackle the semester-long project.

Participants ranged from planners and landscape architects, to interior designers and decision-makers, creating a group of students, faculty and staff with diverse expertise.

Despite the underlying presence of a competition, Ashley Klingler, a senior majoring in Regional and Community Planning who also served as one of the National Park Service project interns, said the focus was on helping the community. To build a partnership, the group conducted a series of town hall meetings that served as platforms for open discussion.

Wigfall explained that the residents of Nicodemus wanted to manage their own history and tell their own stories, thus, the town halls were used as a way to emphasize interaction and empower the community’s citizens. For instance, the first meeting was labeled “Authentic Community,” because it was meant to foster relationships, while the second was labeled “Community Vision” as a way to remind residents they had a voice in the process.

“Talking with community members was very crucial,” Klingler said. “I am a believer that you have to talk with the people you are working with because you have preconceived thoughts about what they need, but that might not be what they want. Unless you talk with them, you really don’t know.”

By working first-hand with members of the community, senior Kweku Addo-Atuah said the group learned exactly what the community wanted, what they wanted their community to become, and how the groups could merge tradition and modernity.

In the process of learning the history of Nicodemus, students also gained a better understanding of the residents.

“I talked to one woman and she said she moved around all over the country but decided to come back to Nicodemus because Nicodemus was her home,” Klingler said. “It was nice being able to talk to them and realize why they decided to come back (to Nicodemus) and through that, we could make decisions on how to get other people to return.”

Will Woodard, a landscape architecture graduate student, converses with a Nicodemus resident.  Woodard was one of the participants who worked to identify community assets.This purposeful dialogue enhanced trust between the groups, Klinger said.

“The community members told us that they had more respect for us because we talked with them.”

The Proposal

With time and budget restrictions, along with requirements established by the National Park Service competition, the group focused on alterations that were realistic for the immediate future. It was this balancing act that prompted the Kansas State group to act as the bridge between the residents and the park service.

For instance, to promote sustainability of this rural community, the group suggested establishing a Nicodemus Credit Union that would permit descendants living all over the nation to remain financially connected. This money could then be used for community development projects, allowing the residents to take more responsibility for improvements.

To stabilize land ownership, the group suggested residents establish a land trust with oversight from a representative council that includes one member from each family. In turn, this council would be responsible for managing the town’s best interests.

The proposal also included suggestions for increasing revenue streams for the current populace, such as hiring residents to act as site stewards, instead of using a member of the National Park Service, and developing seasonal housing for hunters, farmers and family visitors.

Accompanying proposal suggestions, the group also accounted for population changes by showing residents how their community would look if the population increased, decreased or stayed the same.

JohnElla Holmes, an instructor in American Ethnic Studies and a Nicodemus descendant, said the proposals from the Kansas State group helped the residents of Nicodemus better understand their relationship with the National Park Service and how their piece of history could remain a living entity.Members of the multi-disciplinary project team.

The Future

For the student participants in the Nicodemus project, this opportunity not only enabled them to apply skills learned in the classroom to a real-life situation, but also how to learn from the members of the community they were working to help.

“By just being there, you learn details about a community that you can’t learn in a classroom. In the classroom, you learn the history, but being there, you get to understand how things actually work,” Klingler said.

As a land-grant institution, Wigfall explained that the Kansas State population should be concerned with helping our local communities. This dedication to community improvement is why Wigfall noted that the project wasn’t over. Instead, members of the group have enlisted additional faculty to join them in working with the residents of Nicodemus to carry-out the changes they desire.

“Our goal is to continue working with Nicodemus,” Wigfall said. “It’s not to say our work is done because the competition is over, because for us, it never was about the competition. It became the means by which to continue an association that bettered people’s lives in this community.”

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: The Visitor Center at the Nicodemus National Historic Site.

Photo 2: Will Woodard, a landscape architecture graduate student, converses with a Nicodemus resident. Woodard was one of the participants who worked to identify community assets.

Photo 3: Members of the multi-disciplinary project team.

Photos courtesy of La Barbara James Wigfall