Exploring the community: ‘A transformative experience’

It’s 3 o’clock on a Monday afternoon, and a group of students are on a bus headed to…well, they’re not exactly sure. It could be the poorest neighborhood in town, or it could be an affluent planned community. The only sure thing is that they will learn something new.

The students are part of Bob Hansman’s “Community Building” course. Hansman gets his students, who come from disciplines across the university, out of the classroom and into the community for walking tours. They visit businesses, meet residents, and analyze social and architectural aspects of the neighborhood. But they never know where they’re going – or anything about the area – until they get there and start learning for themselves.

“It’s much more engaging and complex that way,” Hansman says. There are no preconceived notions, no information about stereotypes. “They know they’ll meet somebody, and that’s how learning happens.”

Hansman and the students explore the neighborhoods, discussing how the communities are put together, how they define themselves, and how others define them. They start talking with shop owners, community leaders, and people they meet on the streets.

“Suddenly, it becomes not about issues, but about people. It’s not about abandoned buildings and deficits, but about assets and resilience and commitment,” Hansman says. “They’re meeting people who, when the going gets tough, they stay. They don’t run.”

The professor pairs each student with a community member, and the “final project” for the course is to develop that relationship. Community Building students are making friends to fulfill an assignment, but it goes far beyond that. Many of them form lasting relationships.

“A lot of these folks become the heroes of some of these students,” he says. And those feelings are mutual. Sometimes, community members come to WashU Commencement to see their student friends graduate.

Community Building is housed in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. It’s technically an architecture course, and it does cover quite a few topics in design and urban planning. However, it’s a valuable experience for students of any major. “Each student brings his or her own experience, value system, and way of interpreting situations,” Hansman says.

Matt Goldkind, a junior majoring in International and Area Studies (Arts & Sciences) and minoring in Economics and Strategy (Business), took Community Building last fall. “As opposed to learning concepts solely in the classroom, I was able to construct my own conception of St. Louis by listening to many different viewpoints in the community,” he says. “For instance, I’ve been able to witness firsthand how the changing price of vacant lots in a neighborhood has impacted residents who live just a Metro ride away from me.”

For Hansman, this knowledge about – and role in – the community is a way of life, not a college course. “I come at it with a passion different from someone with an academic interest.” The social justice advocate has immersed himself in some of the most troubled neighborhoods in the city of St. Louis and has made a difference, and he shares that passion with his students.

Hansman says this course gives students the opportunity to not only be empathetic to issues in the community, but to truly understand what they’re seeing and form educated responses.

“So many kids tell me it helped set their life on a different trajectory,” Hansman says. “It becomes a transformative experience for them, changing their outlook and sometimes even their career path.”

Read more about Hansman’s work at WashU and in the community here and his City Faces art and mentoring program here.