During the 14 years that Joan Nelson has served as executive director of the Allen Neighborhood Center (ANC), the organization has matured into a highly focused, strategic powerhouse with a comprehensive array of programs in health, food access, housing, youth development, family support, commercial corridor revitalization, and capacity-building for Lansing's Eastside neighborhood, where the Center is located, and beyond.
Never one to bypass an opportunity, Nelson has made the most of a long series of projects and partnerships with MSU over the years. The Engaged Scholar Magazine editor Linda Chapel Jackson caught up with her in July, shortly before ANC opened its new Allen Market Place.
Tell me a little bit about the new Allen Market Place.
We've had an outdoor farmers' market since 2004. It draws maybe 500 to 850 people a week. The new Market Place is built into an abandoned 5,000 square foot warehouse next to the Center that we designed and renovated. This space will allow us to link mid-Michigan growers with commercial and institutional buyers, have a licensed kitchen, and bring the farmers' market indoors for the winter so we can offer it year-round. It's perfect for all kinds of community events.
Starting in November when we bring the market indoors, we will do concurrent programming in the kitchen. For example, we'll partner with guest chefs who will buy supplies from the day's market and then do samplings with them for market patrons.
"Joan is perhaps the most remarkable community partner I have worked with, and much of this is due to the organization and community she has helped build. Working with Joan has challenged me to be smarter, more thoughtful, and more useful as a teacher and researcher."
What are ANC's major partnerships with MSU?
We've had so many partnerships with MSU it's hard to keep track of them. As ANC grows and programs expand, other people have taken responsibility for them, so I'm not as close as I was. But we developed it, one person, one department at a time.
Our most enduring partnership—10 years—has been with the School of Social Work. We routinely get two or three interns a year working across programs with our outreach team. They do information, referral, and advocacy. Julie Navarre is our contact there. We got an award as an outstanding field placement site for their MSW/BSW interns.
We work with Karen Casey1 at the Center for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement.They're a constant source of volunteers who work with the greenhouse, the farmers'market, youth programs, neighborhood cleanups, and so on.
At the Center for Regional Food Systems, Mike Hamm helped us to get foundationand USDA money to support the Market. His colleague, Rich Pirog, is creating asupport and funding network for food hubs in the state. (Did you know Michigan is second only to California in crop diversity, but 19th in consumption of locally grown food?) Six hubs have received Michigan Department of Agriculture funding. We areone. Rich hosts a gathering of grantees about once a quarter. This is a very helpful partnership for us.
Market day at ANC
We've had unexpected partnerships...Rodney Whittaker and the Jazz Studies Program...We were a partner in his proposal to the Greater Lansing Arts Council. MSU premiered four original jazz pieces at Pattengill Middle School over the course ofa year, and it was all free for students and community members! I met Rodney when Pete, my son, was in high school and was invited to practice with MSU's Jazz Band 3. Pete graduated from MSU this year in jazz studies.
Steve Gasteyer, from Sociology, does USDA funded research that looks at gardening and health. Steve works with Rita O'Brien, director of our Garden House operations
Over the years we've done projects with the Center for Community and Economic Development, with Rex LaMore and John Melcher. We've presented to students; they've interned with us. We support the "Our Michigan Ave" project.
Jeff Grabill, from Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures, gives us great interns. They assist with fine tuning our communications.
Overall, we try to be a link via newsletter and social media between MSU and the Eastside. We let them know about initiatives coming out of CCED and other units.
"ANC delivers what it says it will deliver, is happy to collaborate to get a job done, and is also committed to measuring and reporting the impacts of activities. When Joan talks, one sees a strong commitment to social justice that is refreshing and infectious."
What's it like living next door to a big university?
We get constant calls from professors who need a speaker or to work with students on a research project. We also get a lot of calls from graduate students who want to do research in the neighborhood.
So we developed a process to apply for ANC's assistance in focusing research on the Eastside. We ask for information: How will neighbors be compensated for their time and involvement? Will we be able to weigh in on study design or survey questions? Will ANC receive a presentation about the findings? Our board has to approve all research projects in which ANC or patrons of our programs are involved. We're protective of the neighborhood as well as ANC. We advocate for compensation if residents are asked to contribute significant time or effort.
"Joan is such a positive, approachable person and always has insights that make our Michigan Food Hub Network project even more effective in supporting food hubs across the state. ANC really stands out as a nonprofit that acts with and on behalf of its community residents."
Do you have any advice for MSU faculty working with community partners?
Sure. Give us a call about the nature of the project. We like to help shape it. We'll have a preliminary conversation to see if it's a good fit and then follow up with other staff on the specific topic.
Because we're visible and close, MSU usually comes to us. Where we've reached out to them is with respect to food and health related projects. Medical students come out to the market once or twice a year to do screenings. Interns from kinesiology and dietetics programs volunteer in the GardenHouse and in our youth programs that focus on nutrition and fitness education. MSU Student Organic Farm faculty generously provide presentations at our gardening workshops.
It's fair to say, MSU resources—faculty, staff, and students—are enormously valuable to us. It's a rich source of potential partnerships, information, and support for our work. We're happy to be neighbors.
We are committed to helping develop community organizers, community health workers, and social workers with rich, real-world work experiences. It's part of our mission to nurture and train the next generation that will create sustainable neighborhoods.