Community Development Students Impact Policy as Part of Class

A group poses in front of a brick building.
The Sustainable Cities of Northern Europe study abroad course, taught by Associate Professor Catherine Brinkley, poses in front of the Hammerby Sjostad sustainable development project in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photo courtesy)

In Associate Professor Catherine Brinkley’s class, students don’t just learn about policy — they help to change it. 

“This is literally going to impact people you see at the grocery store,” said Noah Sullivan, social services branch director of Yolo Health and Human Services, after watching the graduate students’ policy analysis presentation. “This is going to be a game changer… I’m excited to have you all thinking about it.”

He added, “If you all want a job in public health after you graduate, give me a call.”

This spring, about two dozen graduate students gathered on Zoom to present their research findings as part of Brinkley’s class, Community and Regional Development 200: “Design for Health.” They weren’t just presenting to academics. Several policymakers from Sacramento and Yolo counties took notes on the students’ presentations and are now using the students’ graduate research to help write policy. 

The students presented on two issues: The Sacramento Regional Food System Plan would improve healthy food access to underserved areas. And the Yolo County universal basic income, or UBI, pilot program aims to improve the real-life implementation of UBI in the UC Davis students’ very own neighborhoods.

Students not only had a chance to improve real-life policy, but also pitch their community development skills to potential employers. Guests included Valley Vision CEO Evan Schmidt (who happens to be a UC Davis community and regional development alumnus), directors from Yolo County Health and Human Services, the CEO of Sacramento Regional and Community Development Foundation, and staff from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. 

After the food system presentation, Valley Vision staff said they planned on attributing the students and their analysis as part of the organization’s policy proposal for the Sacramento region. 

“Tremendous work,” said Trish Kelly, managing director at Valley Vision. “It’s the first time I’ve seen anything like that — reviewing the policies across the counties.”

Community development change agents

Students play a board game in class at UC Davis.
Students play a board game called In It Together in Brinkley’s class in 2019. The board game explores cooperative governance and flood management in the face of rising sea levels. Students (left to right): Yingqing Zhang, Deedee Chao, Zuleica Rodriguez Hernandez, Grace Perry, Mary Lee, Tracy Manuel and Sheena Harris. (Photo courtesy)

Community development is defined by UC Davis’ graduate group as “the process of working with diverse groups of people to achieve common goals.” That’s a broad definition because the field itself is broad. Students enter the graduate program from fields as diverse as transportation, mental health, the arts, education, public health, racial equity, food systems, and environmental justice. After graduation, they go on to work most commonly in the public sector, for governments and nonprofits attempting to improve their communities. 

For example, C. Sequoia Erasmus applied her community development education toward improving transportation. At UC Davis, she earned dual masters degrees in community development and transportation technology and policy, as well as a certificate in landscape architecture and environmental design. Now, Erasmus works in a newly created position as the associate deputy director of Equity and Engagement in transportation planning for the state of California. 

She credits her community development program with preparing her to repair relationships and engage with communities who have been historically excluded from key transportation decisions, but who disproportionately bear the brunt of the negative impacts of transportation systems. Erasmus hopes to create a better process for equity advocates to be heard by the agency. 

“Community development helped give me a more grounded approach to transportation and explore it from an angle that I was more interested in: from a community level, where my interests lie, not a top-down policy level,” Erasmus said. “Transportation as a sector is realizing it needs to change the way that it does business not just because of climate goals, but also because of the impacts of deeply rooted systems of oppression and racism. We need people from community development backgrounds. We can’t just engineer our way out of it.”

A student stands with rollerskates in her hand at the UC Davis train station.
C. Sequoia Erasmus works with the state of California on transportation and equity. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Students also get professional experience as part of the community development master’s program. This summer, Alexi Wordell is interning in two places: at the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research and the Alchemist Community Development Corporation.

Before grad school, Wordell had worked as an urban planner with the city of Oakland, the city of Mountain View and Nevada County. She came back to school to broaden her perspective toward long-term impacts and to include the community in the process of urban planning, especially vulnerable populations. 

“Community-based, participatory resources are about honoring the people you’re engaging with and them being an equal part of the research — not us being extractors of information, but building that trust with long-term relationships and highlighting their knowledge as the experts,” Wordell said. “I’ve gotten that through many classes at Davis.”

Preparing for a community development career 

Valeria Garcia, a community development graduate studies major, stands in front of a mural in the Student Community Center on Friday August 8, 2014 at UC Davis.
Valeria Garcia, a community development graduate studies major, stands in front of the Student Community Center at UC Davis. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

If you’re interested in a career in community development or preparing to apply for a graduate degree in the field, professors encourage you to get some professional experience first so that you can focus on your specialty as part of your degree. 

“Generally we like to get students who have been out for a couple of years so that they have more life experience to frame their academic work,” said Jonathan London, associate professor in community and regional development. “We value applied knowledge, people who don’t just want to understand an issue but what to do to solve it. It’s for people who have a vision for a better world and want to become effective change agents to achieve that vision of a better world.”

Brinkley suggests students do civic or public service work for at least a year, such as CivicSpark or working with the California Legislature. 

“Try to make change, experience roadblocks, and come back ready to reflect on them with faculty and learn,” Brinkley said. And then students can return to the field refreshed, with new ideas about how to make change.

Wordell echoed that advice. 

“Go into the field you’re interested in and see what some of the missing gaps are,” Wordell said. “Where in the practice are we not listening to communities as much as we should? Go into the program with that mindset of: There’s a lot of great work happening in the world, but there are some things I want to improve. That was really helpful for me going into the program.”

What might you major in to prepare for a community development career? The list is expansive. Nearly any social science major would prepare students with its balance of qualitative and quantitative research methods, faculty said. Students from the hard sciences often apply their interests to food systems, the environment or public health. Some students bring an interest in geographic information system, or GIS, computer mapping. A few students have entered the community development graduate group from the fine arts, media and communications. 

Whatever your major, London recommends getting some quantitative experience in statistics to prepare for demographic and policy analysis. 

Wordell, who majored in folklore studies, said “I feel like you can really major in anything. It comes down to having a personal desire to change our communities for the better and an interest in community health and well-being. It’s ‘pick your own adventure,’ what form that takes.” She also encouraged prospective students to reach out to faculty and students whose interests align with their own to learn more about the program. 

Regardless, many students enter the graduate program from the undergraduate major in community and regional development, where students also have hands-on opportunities to impact policy through their research. “Undergrads are out there directly working with community organizations, often on policy,” Brinkley said. “It is wildly exciting.”

Though community development students focus on heavy topics such as poverty and climate crisis, the work is energizing, said Brinkley, who is also the director of the Center for Regional Change

“You’re not feeling hopeless because you’re not just reading about issues, you’re helping to fix them with a lot of other people.” Brinkley said. “It’s like an MBA, but the focus isn’t on moneymaking — it’s on change-making. It’s about creating positive change for communities.”

Rebecca Huval is digital managing editor of the Majors Blog.

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