Promises Kept, More to Do: Obama's Alma Mater Expands in Harlem

Monday, January 30, 2017

When President Barack Obama comes to Harlem again- specifically to West Harlem, where Columbia University- his alma mater - is expanding its home - the visit will give residents, community leaders, and entrepreneurs as much to shout about as their neighbors in academia are celebrating.

The Ivy League university is investing $6 billion into its new campus in the community's Manhattanville section. The first buildings in the project's intial phase- the Lenfest Center for the Arts and the Jerome L. Greene Science Center -open this spring.

In her position at Columbia, Senior Vice President for Strategic Communications and Construction Business Initiatives La-Verna J. Fountain monitors construction projects and a set of remedies prescribed for economic health in West harlem. As one phase ends and another begins in the school's first major expansion in 100 years, the prognosis is promising for an economic renewal that employs a diverse workforce.

The dots are beginning to connect- in Fountain's work and life, in community relations, and in the project's progress. "In many ways, I was born for such a time as this," said Fountain. Like Obama, her background is rooted in community development. She traveled nationally for former empoyer, Save the Children, before joining Columbia. "To be here for this project that had the opportunity to change lives, is very significant."

Fountain arrived in 2007, a year before the project's pre-construciton began. The university's relationship with the community has evolved over several decades and it deepened during "an era of optimism" following Obama's election. Today, residents and activists value the chance to sit at the table, be heard, and contribute to bridge building that's pushing progress. Partnerships are forming. Projects and programs are underway.

Obama "would be proud of his alma mater doing something that for several decades to come creates a pathway that could literally change the trajectory of the future for people who currently live in poverty," Fountain stated.

Keeping the Promise

Columbia has a unique partnership with residents in Manhattan's Community District 9. The university and the West Harlem Development Corporation (WHDC) signed a community benefits agreement in 2009 that lays the groundwork for development in the working-class community. Columbia is investing more than $150 million in new benefits to the community. The WHDC independently manages $76 million to be used at the discretion of the community ways they see fit.

Residents can access services and resources at Columbia to create and fulfill their vision for community. "Development in our name is for human capital," said Kofi Boateng, executive director of WHDC.

For campus construction, the school pledged to hire a workforce comprised of 50 percent minority, women, and local residents over the life of the project.

So far, it has kept its promise. In fact, the school exceeded its goal that minorities, women, and local residents (MWL) represent 40 percent of the construction workforce. MWL workforce clocked 50 precent of 1.2 million hours spent on non-specialty construction work at the Manhattanville campus.

Columbia paid $132 million to MWL-owned firms for non-specialty constructin work. That's less than one percentage point short of its 35 percent goal. "We are serious about making sure we're meeting these very high goals," explained Fountain. "Over a five-year period, we were able to really put significant money in minority, women, and local-owned firms' hands."

Case Study

"These things don't just happen," social justice advocate Rev. Jacques DeGraff said. "It has taken compassion, wisdom, and commitment to get this far. In these changing times, Columbia has shown each. They brought in some good people on their staff and then listened to them, which then led them to listen to the community. That was the formula for success," said DeFraff, who has been excited and delighted by the results of bridge building efforts in which he participated. "It's an inside outside job." The university also included the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, Harlem Business Alliance, and Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone in the process. "This ought to be a case study about how to engage a community when expansion is going to happen," DeGraff emphasized.

He commended Columbia for its diligence in reestablishing a relationship with the community, breaking through skepticism, and responding to needs of businesses. Some businesses, for example, are challenged when it takes to to three months to recieve pay for work. Adjustments were necessary to process invoices in a timely manner. "They are not compromises to the integrity of the process," he said. "They are what I call compassionate adjustments, which Columbia has done."

More to Do

At the same time, Columbia can and should do more to support business.

"It's not enough to encourage minority and women-owned businesses to get engaged," DeGraff articulated. "You've got to reach out and let them know you have a program."

Some residents see no immediate benefit for themselves and nearby communities on the other side of the train tracks, where campus construction is underway along Broadway near W. 125th Street. Businesses have been displaced, and despite talks with Columbia about employment opportunities, only a few among the unemployed have landed jobs, community board leaders said.

"The jobs on the construction site are union jobs," CB9 2nd Vice-Chair Victor Edwards said. "The majority of people that live in that area, whether it be in Grant, or Manhattan, they're not union workers. They don't have a union card."

Going past the site, he has seen some women. "It is very difficult for the residents who live in that area to get those jobs," said Edwards, who also leads CB9's strategic planning committee. "You might see minority faces on some of the work sites. By and large, they are not residents of the CB9 community. They are from other places."

Edwards and the Rev. Georgiette Morgan-Thomas, pastor of Mustard Seed Ministiries, advocate estabilshing an apprenticeship program for young adults, 18 to 25 years old. It would serve residents that prefer covational training to academic studies. As part of teh CBA, Columbia will recruit students from the area and provide financial support through a scholarship fund.

"Everybody is not going to go to college," said Morgan-Thomas, who described interaction with Columbia as "workable and receptive." "Our young people need to start getting training" in electrical and plumbing, car repairs and furniture building.

With residents facing critical needs in emlpoyment, affordable housing, and support for entrepreneurs, she said they are less inclined to hold on to Columbia's past behaviors. "They are looking more at what Columbia is doing currently and looking forward to the possibility that the benefits can burst forward like a stream in the desert."

The accessibility to key university people in reassuring and a "great opportunity to make sure needs of the community are expressed. We're seeing movement but we're not seeing as much as the community board would like to see, given the population."

Time to Prepare

The work continues. The science center is a 21st century, nin-story structure, filling space where empty lots and warehouses once lined Broadway. "Despite hearing 'no' to our aspirations for so long" DeGraff stated, "now is not the time to disengage."

The center can be intimidating to residents as they look from their bedroom windows in Manhattanville or Grant public housing complex. "You might say 'those people don't care about me,' and 'there is nothing over there for me,' but opportunity is literally across the street," DeGraff said.

DeGraff stressed the need for residents and community to engage young people and bring them into this process. Businesses need to prepare for growth.

"The American way is to grow. When businesses grow, they create jobs in the community," he said. "If you're ready, willing, and able, we've got a place for you."

Be not afraid.

Our Home, Too

"What I can't see, I envision," Fountain said. She hopes the community will develop its own vision, both individually and collectively. WHDC is positioned to receive ideas for new visions for the community. It has resources to fund development.

The vision "has to come from the community, and it has to say 'we see you Columbia' and 'you're not by yourself. You're a part of our community. We're in this together,'" Fountain said.

She encourages anyone aspiring to work on the project to take advantage of mentorship and executive coaching programs available to prepare and train individuals and companies. "The reality is, we have a long way to go. It is really important that people understand the long-term nature of this." It will take years to finish the expansion. That gives anyone interested time to gain experience and necessary training to position themselves for future opportunities.

University President Lee C. Bollinger expressed pride and appreciation to friends and neighbors for work accomplished through relationships with the community over the past six years. Intense discussions. Thinking. Planning. At the University's annual community breakfast, Bollinger was emphatic. "We built our relationships with all of you and with people who live here, and we wanted to say this is our home, too. The partnership, this relationship, is in a sense, deep and sound. But it will grow and grow and gorw, I promise you."

So Columbia is not done with West Harlem and the 44th President of teh United States is not either. "He's made it very clear that he plans to do something with his alma mater after his term ends," Fountain revealed. "And whatever President Obama decides to do I'm certainly looking forward to it."

Story by Dorine Bethea