UTS is celebrated for its commitment to community engagement and social justice. For 20 years UTS Shopfront has led the charge, providing under-resourced communities easy access to university-level knowledge and expertise.
Shopfront began in 1996 as a project to match UTS students with small community-based organisations, and, says former Academic Director Paul Ashton, “that same community engagement and social justice work continues to this day”.
From running just six coursework projects in their first semester, to now celebrating more than 1000 completed projects in partnership with 800 community organisations, it’s clear the Shopfront team haven’t been resting on their laurels.
Community Engagement Coordinator Lisa Andersen believes the success comes down to a few key factors. “We’re the oldest cross-faculty program in Australia, so not only did we learn from all our mistakes in the early days, but we now have a deep knowledge of ongoing social justice and community development issues.
“All the projects and research we undertake are free, community-initiated, and based on real community needs,” she says. “Our longevity comes from listening to the community sector and continuously adapting our program to respond to their needs.”
From humble beginnings in the 90s, where the program had to demonstrate its worth with just two years of funding, today, Shopfront is one of UTS’s key programs championing social justice and the scholarship of community engagement.
“The university has always had a core value around social justice, which really aligns closely with the values of the team, our approach, and the outcomes of the work we do,” says Program Manager Pauline O’Loughlin.
The very first Shopfront projects saw the creation of an anti-homophobia video and students in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building (DAB) working with non-government organisations. Some of these relationships between community groups and Shopfront continue today.
Says Ashton, “We have always prioritised small, community-based organisations and have been guided by a rule that we’ll only work with organisations that are open to working with staff and the students in their disciplines on academically rigorous projects.”
This philosophy is still a central element of Shopfront. And it is the reason why the program has received national and international acclaim for its community engagement model and for specific community projects.
In 2000, Shopfront was awarded a $100,000 grant for three community fellowships by the NSW Department for Women. They won the National Award for Community Engagement and Teaching in 2005, and came second for the International MacJannet Prize for Global Citizenship in 2015.
They’ve also recently been shortlisted for the AFR Higher Education Awards 2016 Community Engagement Award (the winner will be announced on 16 November).
Expanding on their community work, Shopfront has demonstrated how an ethos of community engagement can be valuable to strategic partnerships and research fellowships.
In 2007, Shopfront established the Research Fellowship Program, and secured a major five-year ARC grant for Cultural Asset Mapping in Regional Australia. It also established the Gateways e-journal in partnership with Loyola University Chicago in 2008, and went on to form a Gateways Partnership with the University of Cape Town in 2009.
One of Shopfront’s most remarkable successes though, has been its ability to grow and change with community needs. In 2013, in response to a sector-wide need for skilled volunteers, Shopfront developed the UTS SOUL Award – the university’s social leadership and volunteering program. Students in the SOUL Award have since completed over 51,000 volunteer hours for its community-based organisations.
Bachelor of Design (Visual Communication) student Thomas Ricciardiello undertook a group project through Shopfront in 2015 as part of the Socially Responsive Design subject in DAB.
He recounts his team had the “pleasure of working with the not-for-profit group Sailors with disAbilities on a project to document their 21-year history in the form of an online interactive archive.”
The success of the project won his team a UTS Creative Media Social Justice Award at the 2016 UTS Human Rights Awards – just one of the many Shopfront projects that has been recognised through this biennial UTS event.
Says Ricciardiello, “It was a really confirming experience to have our efforts recognised. Capturing the aspirations of Sailors with disAbilities isn’t an easy task as there is a lot more behind their work than what you can tell from their website. They are a terrific group and deserve any attention they get, so it was a lovely moment to be simultaneously rewarded for our work within the project and to give them a much-needed spotlight as well.”
O’Loughlin elaborates: “The students who are working in the community are like consultants. The organisations often don’t have the skill sets that the students have so it’s a great benefit to everyone when postgrad or work-ready final-year students can be involved.”
Shopfront has supported many high-profile community projects and organisations over the last 20 years, and alumni have become part of the rich fabric of the community sector. Though, Andersen says, “our history is full of amazing partnerships, it’s the projects that would never have happened without Shopfront being a gateway to UTS that are closest to my heart.”
Twenty years is a long time, giving Ashton, Andersen and O’Loughlin the chance to reflect and think about what’s next. All three have been involved with Shopfront since the beginning in 1996, and with O’Loughlin saying goodbye to UTS at the end of this year, Shopfront’s 20th anniversary is a chance to celebrate the achievements of the program, staff and students involved.
Says O’Loughlin, “It has been an honour to work with all of our partners, and to be part of the social justice agenda of UTS for such a long time. We’re looking forward to celebrating with everyone who has been involved in making this work possible.”
Adds Ashton, “Shopfront has been great fun!”
A 20 years celebration of Shopfront at the Design, Architecture and Building sculpture garden on Wednesday 16 November from 5.30pm to 7.30pm. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org