UROC celebrates eight years of partnerships, research

Former director Heidi Barajas honored

(l-r) Bill English, Andrew Furco, Heidi Barajas, Stella Whitney-West, Marilyn Higgins, Steven Belton, Ravi Norman ( Lou Michaels/MSR News)

Where once stood a hair shop, Snow Foods, and the legendary Lucille’s Kitchen, and where, according to Northside Job Creation Team Community Director Bill English, you could “find anything illegal in that parking lot on a Saturday morning,” the University of Minnesota developed its Urban Research Outreach Engagement Center (UROC) in 2009. It seemed a good fit with NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center and the Minneapolis Urban League right across the street.

On October 5, UROC hosted Community Day, a joint community-university celebration and open house celebrating their partnerships. Over 80 people took tours, viewed displays, enjoyed food and live music and had a sneak peek at a cultural exchange exhibit in the UROC gallery called Bridges: We Are Stronger Together. In addition, past UROC executive directors were honored, including previous director Heidi Barajas.

The recognition portion was led and moderated by U of M Associate Vice President for Public Engagement Andrew Furco, Urban League (MUL) President and CEO Steven Belton, Bill English, Thor Construction CEO Ravi Norman, and NorthPoint CEO Stella Whitney-West in a recognition of the Penn-Plymouth Avenue corridor redevelopment. They also paid tribute to former UROC Executive Director Barajas.

“This is a celebration and time to stop and recognize the broad range of partnerships cultivated at UROC,” Furco said.

UROC links the University of Minnesota in public partnerships with urban communities to advance learning, improve quality of life, and discover breakthrough solutions to critical challenges, according to its stated mission. The event also promoted healthy eating, with vendors providing information about health, proper food intake and alternative snacks.

One organization, the University of Minnesota Extension (UME), delivers practical education through the cultivation of and education on food, gardening, and proper consumption. “It’s [basically] a community outreach arm of the university, housed at the UROC building,” said Evalyn Carbrey, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) Ed-Regional Coordinator of U of M Extension.

The program provides assistance and education to low-income individuals eligible for SNAP benefits. “We work throughout the state, but [because] we are housed here at UROC, we focus our efforts in North Minneapolis.”

Carbrey further reported to the MSR that UME is federally funded under the farm bill, similar to SNAP and food stamps. “There [are] a lot of efforts revolving around improving nutrition and healthy foods in North Minneapolis.”

Minneapolis Urban League President Steve Belton pointed out how the relationships being built have made connections to sustain the community surrounding UROC. In addition, MUL uses UROC facilities with the Northside Job Creation team, which has “created a number of successes” for job training, placement and certificate completion.

“The Minneapolis Urban League has been a neighbor and partner to UROC’s inception in 2009,” Belton stated. He said that MUL partnerships have not all been institutional; they have also been personal, such as his relationship with Barajas.

He recalled the occupation of the Fourth Precinct police station following the killing of Jamar Clark. “The Urban League building was available…to use our facilities, or just as a place to sit,” Belton said. “There were also security concerns being that it was the occupation of a police station. As I contemplated what to do, I got a call from Heidi Barajas, who came up with the idea for the three buildings [NorthPoint, Urban League and UROC] to provide resources [for the community].”

As Barajas was honored, the crowd erupted with applause. “One of the things I appreciate about Heidi, in addition to being warm, loving and smart, is that she cares about this community,” said NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center CEO Stella Whitney-West, calling Barajas her “Latina sista.”

English echoed Belton with respect to community and progress. “The research that has gone on in this place is more than just an outreach center. It researches urban issues.” English noted that research by the [university’s business school] Carlson School of Management led to a successful job-creating program. “People in St Paul can even come here.”

Barajas then took the podium to express her appreciation for the staff and her career at UROC. “What’s amazing to me is who gets to do this,” said Barajas, mentioning the previous director Robert Jones.

“I don’t know how I would have survived had it not been for UROC. I needed a place that would allow me to be smart and use my intuition. I am proud of the work we have done at UROC.”
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