University of Minnesota
Volunteers offer relief in North Minneapolis neighborhoods damaged by the May 22 tornado.
Photo: courtesy UROC
Reaching out to Northside neighbors
By Rick Moore
The U’s Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center (UROC) is dedicated to university-community engagement and urban problem solving. In the aftermath of the tornado that devastated a large swath of North Minneapolis May 22, the center took on a new role: headquarters for an impromptu disaster relief effort.
"We realized we had both a compelling need and a unique capacity to mobilize UROC as part of coordinated tornado relief on the North Side," says Senior Vice President Robert J. Jones, who has overseen UROC's development over the past five years.
UROC’s role in the collaborative, city-led relief efforts evolved organically—and quickly—in the week following the May 22 tornado, according to executive director Heidi Barajas. Early in the week, UROC began speaking with partner organizations on the North Side to assess needs. “That’s the mission of UROC—to really work in partnership with the community,” Barajas notes.
Urban Homeworks was coordinating a lion’s share of the volunteering efforts, but when that organization reached capacity it was determined that UROC, with its building at Plymouth and Penn avenues just blocks from the heart of the damage, could be a center for an additional wave of volunteers.
Staff then studied the operational model at Urban Homeworks and put it into place at UROC “in very quick order,” says Barajas. And volunteers showed up in force—more than 500, she estimates—for five half-day sessions May 26–28.
UROC’s “Hand to Hand” effort had volunteers going door to door in North Minneapolis to check in with residents, drop off food and household supplies, and provide information about community resources they might access regarding housing, health, and other areas.
As the name of the effort implies, “We wanted to make sure we were touching people right there in the neighborhood,” Barajas says.
Connecting with the community
Since UROC is typically more focused on matters of research and community engagement, this was its first foray into disaster relief. But all seemed to go well, in Barajas’ eyes. She says volunteers were impressed by the organization of the effort. Moreover, they were moved by the community’s own reaction to the disaster.
They were “almost overwhelmed by how positive community members were,” she says. “It really gave them a different vision of what North Minneapolis is.”
Barajas looks back on the undertaking with a great deal of pride—for her UROC staff, the response of volunteers, and the hard work they were willing to do.
And she’s especially satisfied by UROC’s “ability to work with the community and have them see us as a partner in their work.”