Activating the Liberal Arts

New collaboration at Constitution Plaza spurs innovation and civic engagement

By Andrew J. Concatelli

Students work in project groups in front of a wall of windows in the Action Lab. Photo by Nick Caito

In the open, sunlit workspace of Trinity College’s new downtown campus at 10 Constitution Plaza, teams assemble in the Liberal Arts Action Lab—an educational partnership between Trinity and Capital Community College that debuted last spring—to discuss some of the biggest challenges facing the city of Hartford and to conduct research to develop possible solutions.

Members of one team look up at a large screen, where Action Lab Director Megan Brown demonstrates how to use geographic information system (GIS) mapping tools to help them investigate the connection between housing conditions and health outcomes in the area known as the North Hartford Promise Zone. Along with Community Solutions, a nonprofit working to end homelessness and the conditions that create it, the students on the team will use GIS data and results from a blight survey to produce interactive maps. The project ultimately will serve as a resource for Community Solutions as it works to garner support and funding while focusing attention on areas that are most in need of resources.

The Action Lab connects faculty members, staff members, and students from Trinity and Capital with community partners, which include neighborhood groups, nonprofits, government agencies, and similar bodies. Not all of the work is done at Constitution Plaza. One team spent several days collecting data at a courthouse; others conducted interviews with Hartford residents in their neighborhoods. Each project addresses an issue of importance to the city.

The broad goals of the Action Lab are to strengthen the city and its role in the region, spark social innovation, and support civic engagement and sustainability. “I think that making research useful is very important, and it helps students when they can see the impact their research is having on the outside world,” says Brown. “While the students are getting exposure to the city, which gets them to care about Hartford in some new ways, they are learning about how to do high-quality research and work with community partners.” The proposals for semester-long projects come directly from the community partners. “We want to work on the projects that are most important to the city,” Brown says. A board of Hartford-area residents reviews the proposals and helps select projects to pursue.

Liberal Arts Action Lab
Action Lab Director Megan Brown works with two students. Photo by Nick Caito

During each semester, students from Trinity and Capital take two courses together at the Action Lab. “One is a research methods course where we talk about how you actually do this kind of engaged research, how you make research useful, how you answer questions about the world and solve problems,” Brown says. “The other course is their Hartford research project, where they are working in their teams, oftentimes directly with their community partners, under my guidance and that of their faculty fellow.”

According to Professor of Educational Studies Jack Dougherty, Trinity’s Action Lab faculty director, Brown is uniquely suited to this work. The recipient of a Ph.D. in geography from the University of Washington in Seattle, an M.A. in public policy from Johns Hopkins University, and a B.A. from Wesleyan University, Brown has taught undergraduate courses in subject areas including social justice and statistics and has collaborated with community and labor organizations in Baltimore and Seattle. “We are so fortunate to have an Action Lab director who has spent equal time working with urban nonprofit organizations and academics,” Dougherty says. “It’s equally rare to find an academic who has cross-cutting experience in teaching research methods as diverse as statistical analysis, oral history interviewing, and GIS mapping.” In addition, Dougherty adds, Brown is adept at listening to the community partners and helping them refine their project ideas.

Students, faculty members, community partners, and visitors attend the Digital Poster Fair. Photo by Nick Caito

The Action Lab already is establishing partnerships outside of the semester-long projects. In the spring, the nonprofit Connecticut Data Collaborative announced that it would begin leasing office space at 10 Constitution Plaza and would work with the Action Lab to continue helping community organizations and governmental agencies use public data to improve their planning and decision-making. The Action Lab and the Connecticut Data Collaborative together have received a 500 Cities Grant funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to research connections between housing conditions and health in local neighborhoods, among other goals involving the use of public health data.

The Action Lab concept was developed by Tim Cresswell, Trinity’s dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs. “The classical origin of liberal arts education in ancient Athens as education for free people of the city—or citizens—was always about the skills needed to operate as citizens,” he says. “In ancient Greece, it may have been to prepare individuals to serve in the military or on a jury. Today, it means working on sticky, real-world problems, such as persistent inequality or climate change. The Liberal Arts Action Lab will help Trinity lead the way in reconnecting liberal arts to real-world problems, both inside and outside of the classroom.”

Trinity Professor of Educational Studies Jack Dougherty, Trinity’s Action Lab faculty director, right, joins Jeff Partridge, center, Capital’s Action Lab faculty director during a February 2018 open house at the Constitution Plaza facility. Photo by Andrew J. Concatelli

Cresswell notes that Capital is an ideal partner for this project, not only because of its proximity to Trinity’s new space downtown. Since its move to Main Street in 2002, Capital has increased its footprint in Hartford communities through a variety of programs, including social work service-learning projects, nursing and health career clinical placements in hospitals, and business apprenticeships with area corporations.

As chair of Capital’s Humanities Department and director of its Hartford Heritage Project—an initiative that uses the city in its curriculum—Jeffrey Partridge has long believed that place-based education and the service learning model embraced by the Action Lab work to everyone’s advantage. “The community organizations get help on researching issues and solving a problem; the students get to apply concepts that they’re learning in the textbook to a real situation and actually impact the community; the colleges, with place-based education, increase student engagement; and whatever community the students end up living in—Hartford or elsewhere—they will have learned the value of contributing and seeing themselves as agents of change,” says Partridge, who serves as Capital’s Action Lab faculty director. “We all win when that happens.”

Students from Trinity and Capital have found that teaming up with peers from the other institution brings new insights to the work. Trinity student Giana Moreno ’20, who worked on the Creative Placemaking project in the spring, says, “In my group, I was able to hone critical thinking skills and learn from individuals who have lived in Hartford for their entire lives. They push and encourage me to think differently about how I provide suggestions and what it means to be a team member.”

Capital student Aulona Zeka, also a member of the Creative Placemaking team, says, “It is interesting and productive to see how everyone thinks about a given topic or project. I believe the setup of the classroom also gives a sense of freedom to speak. We learn from the professor, and we also learn from each other, and what we have to say is equally respected.”

Max Eichner ’20 at poster fair
Max Eichner ’20 speaks about his project, PILOT Messaging. Photo by Nick Caito

Trinity public policy and law major Max Eichner ’20, who spent the spring semester working on the PILOT Messaging project, says he appreciated the level of collaboration among those involved. “Since we’re all working together to solve a problem or address an issue, the Action Lab is more of a professional environment than a traditional college classroom,” he says. One of the strengths of the program, Eichner notes, is how it connects students to people and issues outside of an academic setting. “The work is driven by a purpose, and there are real consequences to everything you do here. That does sound a bit intimidating at first, but it’s a good motivator for people to push themselves outside of their comfort zones,” he says. “The things we do really do impact people’s lives.”

Moreno, a Posse Scholar, hopes the Liberal Arts Action Lab and Trinity’s other community-based programs inspire students to be actively involved in the city, especially around the Summit Street campus. “It is important for students to be a part of the Greater Hartford community,” she says. “If we want a great relationship with Hartford, let’s prove it.”

Eichner adds, “It’s a rewarding experience to let people know that Trinity cares what goes on outside of the campus and cares about the communities that the college is a part of.”

For more information on the Liberal Arts Action Lab, please visit

Completed spring projects

In spring 2018, the inaugural semester of the Liberal Arts Action Lab, 16 students from Capital Community College and Trinity College were divided among five research project teams:

Students learned about the eviction process in Hartford and worked with the Connecticut Fair Housing Center to design and implement a survey project. Students investigated how Hartford residents came to face eviction, their experiences with the eviction process, and the immediate and long-term ramifications of the evictions on their families.
Faculty Fellow: Serena Laws, Trinity
Community Partners: Salmun Kazerounian and Erin Kemple, Connecticut Fair Housing Center

QuestBridge Scholar Garret Forst ’19 and Capital Community College student Lindon James present their project, Mapping NE Hartford Promise Zone, during a Liberal Arts Action Lab Digital Poster Fair in April 2018. Above: Students attend class in the Action Lab. Photo by Nick Caito

Mapping Northeast Hartford Promise Zone
Students learned GIS mapping tools that allowed them to investigate the connection between housing conditions and health outcomes. Working with Community Solutions, students then used GIS data and results from a blight survey to produce interactive maps.
Faculty Fellow: David Tatem, Trinity
Community Partners: Kathy Del Beccaro and Nadia Lugo, Community Solutions International, Inc.

PILOT Messaging
Students learned about an important component of local governance in Hartford: Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT), a program that address the budgetary problems that the City of Hartford faces because a high percentage of the city’s land parcels are owned by government or nonprofit institutions and are therefore not subject to taxation. By producing and testing a variety of messaging products, students studied which messaging strategies are best at convincing non-Hartford residents to support full payment of PILOT funds.
Faculty Fellow: Abigail Fisher Williamson, Trinity
Community Partners: Wildaliz Bermudez and Jason Ortiz, Hartford Court of Common Council; and Erin Boggs, Open Communities Alliance

Creative Placemaking 
Students took a close look at the Nook Farm area of Asylum Hill (which includes the Mark Twain House, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and HartBeat Ensemble’s Carriage House Theater), connecting the historical significance of this site for creative and intellectual pursuits with current studies in “creative placemaking”—development projects that leverage the power of the arts, culture, and creativity to serve a community’s interest while avoiding gentrification. Students created an “asset map” for the neighborhood to help arts organizations leverage the unique strengths of the area.
Faculty Fellow: Tim Cresswell, Trinity

Community Partner: Steven Raider-Ginsburg, HartBeat Ensemble

three students
Ali Odermann ’21, center, and Capital students Clinton Triumph and Tyesha Roderiguez answer questions about their project, Parent Engagement. Photo by Nick Caito

Parent Engagement
Students learned best practices for engaging immigrant and refugee parents on topics related to their children’s education. Working with the Hartford Public Library’s Immigrant Youth Project, students researched current immigration and refugee settlement patterns throughout Hartford and worked with library staff on engaging program participants’ parents and guardians in dialogue around goals and objectives.
Faculty Fellow: Daniela Ragusa, Capital
Community Partner: Nancy Caddigan, Hartford Public Library

Four for the fall

The Liberal Arts Action Lab has enrolled nearly two dozen students from Capital Community College and Trinity College for the fall 2018 semester. All students are meeting together in the “Action Research Methods” course on Monday afternoons and are participating on one of four Hartford research project teams: 

Food Stories
Students are learning about the state-specific policies that shape our food system and completing a digital storytelling project that uses personal narratives—“food stories”—to illustrate the importance of the policies that shape how and what we eat.
Faculty Fellow: Sarah Moon, University of Connecticut
Community Partner: Meg Hourigan, Connecticut Food System Alliance

The homeownership rate in Hartford hovers around 23 percent. Many low-income Hartford residents, especially people of color, have difficulty accessing financing that would allow them to build equity through real estate investment. Students are researching the programs that currently exist to encourage homeownership in the city and investigating the real estate financing landscape to determine what gaps exist to answer this question: How do we develop tools to build equity in real estate for low-wage earners in Hartford, specifically people of color?
Faculty Fellow: Jack Dougherty, Trinity
Community Partner: Jeff Devereux, Breakfast Lunch & Dinner

Students attend class in the Action Lab. Photo by Nick Caito

Opportunity Youth
In Hartford, 6,000 youth between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither in school nor working. In this project, students are learning about the many agencies that serve these youth and working to develop a comprehensive data repository including information from 15–20 organizations that currently do not report data to the Hartford Opportunity Youth Collaborative. In addition to collecting and analyzing data, students are designing a survey to find out how the data can be useful to the many organizations that work with these youth.
Faculty Fellow: Alyson Spurgas, Trinity
Community Partner: Julie Geyer, Capital Workforce Partners

Sustainable Foods
The Hartford Office of Sustainability is interested in promoting local food to Hartford residents. In this project, students are learning about local food sources and comparing the carbon emissions and costs associated with local vs. nonlocal food. Students are creating an index of local food sources and creating marketing materials that promote local food to residents.
Faculty Fellow: Christoph Geiss, Trinity
Community Partner: Shubhada Kambli, Office of Sustainability, City of Hartford