Community Engagement is in Our DNA: An Interview with Jason Reece
Vice Provost for Urban Research and Community Engagement and Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning Jason Reece is a scholar, teacher, and advocate whose research seeks to understand the role of planning in fostering a built and social environment that supports a just city and healthy communities.
Reece’s outreach and community engagement are well-documented. He was appointed vice provost for urban research and community engagement at Ohio State in 2023. Before that he served as the interim executive director of the Kirwin Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity and has been active in shaping Columbus through the “Ghost Neighborhoods” project, Move to Prosper (with fellow planning faculty and College of Engineering Associate Dean Rachel Kleit), and more. Through all of this, Reece has continued to conduct research, teach, and advise students at Knowlton.
We caught up with Reece just before the Autumn 2023 Engaged Scholarship Symposium to discuss his role as vice provost, his work in elevating community-engaged scholarship, and how his office supports positive collaborations between Ohio State and Columbus communities.
Can you tell us about your role as the vice provost for urban research and community engagement and the mission of the Office of Outreach and Engagement?
Our office supports and incentivizes Ohio State faculty, staff, and students who want to work collaboratively with community members. We provide professional development to help our campus constituents work better in the community. We also act as a liaison between community members, nonprofits, and neighborhood leaders who are looking for assistance but do not know where to find the support they need at the university. Essentially, we work as a matchmaker to help identify faculty who can work on particular issues within Columbus communities.
Can you share a recent partnership that illustrates this campus-community exchange?
There is a relatively new nonprofit that we are assisting on the west side that works with human trafficking survivors. They are going through an expansion because they have really touched a nerve in terms of need in the community. Although they have space, their capacity isn't quite up to the level of demand within the neighborhood. We are connecting them with faculty and students in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Design to help them think through how to renovate space to be more functional and better accommodate their clients. In this situation, the organization is also working with a team of business school students on a business plan. This is the type of campus-community relationship that we try to foster.
It sounds as if there is a range of resources that the university can offer community partners. In what ways have analysis and research impacted outcomes for community partners?
We often get requests for data from community organizations to help with decision-making or assistance in addressing a vexing need. This may involve affordable housing in a neighborhood, or it could have something to do with program delivery or service delivery. It really varies by the organization. Sometimes we work with organizations that need programs evaluated and they need research support to see what works. Often, in organic collaborations a community organization isn’t quite sure what specifically is needed to move the organization forward, so the work and research may be more exploratory in this context.
Ohio State is a big place and Columbus is a major metropolitan region. How do you identify effective matches between academic partners and community organizations?
The university has an abundance of riches with our 12 colleges and professional schools, the medical center, and OSU Extension. In addition, we also have a number of research centers across campus, such as the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis and the Kirwan Institute, which can be helpful with applied research to help community organizations. We also have an Engaged Scholars network, which is made up of people across the university who want to do community-engaged work. For example, if you are interested in urban gardening or food security, we know a network of urban gardens and others involved in the food security world that we could connect with you.
There are also a lot of different networks across the community that tend to be topically or geographically based. If I have a faculty member who wants to work on the South Side of Columbus, there is a small network of organizations there that I could immediately point them to for a partnership. Because it is a diverse landscape, it does take some time in the community to understand where these different networks are.
What are some of the challenges in establishing and sustaining these partnerships?
The university is a tremendously large and decentralized institution. In many ways, this is a strength for us and allows the university to be nimble and innovate in a number of different ways. Because of our size and structure, however, it can be challenging for the community to know how to engage with us. I think of my office as a kind of connective tissue to counteract this and to help community organizations get through this maze of what is the Ohio State University.
In terms of sustaining these collaborations, we really try to encourage our university partners, especially our faculty, to slowly build relationships with community organizations over time and let that evolve naturally. There are certain nonprofits in the Central Ohio community, for example, that I have worked with on and off for a decade or more. And when you form these types of long-term relationships, it just produces more impactful work because you truly know what the need is and how to best work with a community organization.
What do you consider to be the role of a university within the community? How does being a land-grant university impact how Ohio State responds to and supports its broader community and region?
What gets me excited about this work is that we are one of only two very large urban land-grant universities in the US, with the other being the University of Minnesota. And as you said, as a land-grant institution, we are here to serve the public in a variety of ways. The natural evolution of this is the way that we can use our research and expertise within the university to align with community members to help them deal with all kinds of challenges—from affordable housing to health disparities, transportation, poverty reduction, and youth development.
I think this is fundamental to the DNA of the university. When the university makes use of its assets and resources it can help community members implement impactful solutions, advocate for themselves, and build capacity so they can expand and undertake new types of work. From this perspective, these partnerships create a tremendous opportunity for us as a land-grant institution to have a substantial impact within our community and region.
Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning Jason Reece testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking,…