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K-State Today

April 12, 2013

Excellence in engagement: Multidisciplinary team participates in national parks competition

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

This feature is about one of two Excellence in Engagement award winners. Established in 2011 by the office of the provost, the university's Excellence in Engagement awards are given to highlight excellence in engaged scholarship — via research, teaching and/or outreach. These awards recognize K-State Research and Extension and campus faculty initiatives that demonstrate innovative and/or sustained efforts in university/community engagement positively impacting both university and community partners.

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 multidisciplinary team of more than 40 individuals spent the 2012 spring semester redesigning the historic site. Nicodemus, in north central Kansas, is the only remaining African-American settlement west of the Mississippi River established after the Civil War. The town has fewer than 25 residents, all of whom are direct descendants of the original settlers.

The competition, "Parks for the People," prompted students to reimagine a national park — 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, students traveled 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.

Under the leadership of project co-coordinators La Barbara James Wigfall, associate professor of landscape architecture and regional and community planning, and Josh Cheek, instructor of landscape architecture and regional and community planning, and project manager Dea Brokesh, a landscape architect II with the department of landscape architecture and regional and community planning, 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 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 said that the residents of Nicodemus wanted to manage their own history and tell their own stories. So the town halls were used as a way to emphasize interaction and empower the community's citizens. For instance, the first meeting was titled "Authentic Community" because it was meant to foster relationships, while the second was titled "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 firsthand with members of the community, Kweku Addo-Atuah, a May 2012 master's graduate in regional and community planning, 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. Through that, we could make decisions on how to get other people to return.”

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," she said.

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 K-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 of American ethnic studies and a Nicodemus descendant, said the proposals from the K-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.

For the students in the Nicodemus project, the 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 said that K-State should be concerned with helping local communities. This dedication to community improvement is why Wigfall said that the project wasn't over. 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. 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."

Find out more about the Nicodemus Parks for the People project.

—Written by Amada Bouc, master's student in communication studies

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