When you’re pursuing solutions to complex urban challenges, working in silos can become the antithesis of success.
There is power in joining forces, and that co-production of knowledge is what’s driving a new sustainability and equity mission at Georgia State University College of Law.
The college is part of a $500,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to create a new research center and transform the way urban communities tackle critical challenges.
“Generally speaking, we have a lot of students who are concerned about an ‘uncertain future’ for the places they grew up in,” said John Marshall, associate law professor and co-director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Metropolitan Growth at the College of Law. Marshall is also part of the leadership team at the newly created Center for Urban Transformations.
The center’s initiatives include a fellowship that engages students in transdisciplinary research and problem-solving, as well as real-world exposure to pressing concerns, such as climate change and gentrification.
“If we do bring the tools together, we can get some creative, thoughtful, insightful solutions,” Marshall said.
Approximately nine students are included in the first cohort, with three – Abayomi Jones, Will Collins and Alex Muir – being from the College of Law. Each receives a $4,100 stipend.
With a prior career as a doctor, the transdisciplinary nature of the program stood out to Jones.
“I think it’s important to me to learn how to work with other people, how to extract knowledge from other people, how to share knowledge with other people,” said Jones, who is partnered with the Center for Community Progress.
Additionally, she added, Marshall’s involvement was key. “I trust him as a professor. I think he has the perspective of the law student of how they fit in the larger world and community and society, which aligns with my way of thinking.”
As an urban research institution, Georgia State is well-positioned to offer this type of program and to impact communities typically maligned and underrepresented.
Marshall said the program integrates the kind of learning missing from traditional professional degree programs. It’s part of what attracted Collins, who considered a dual degree previously.
“Even though I decided against a dual degree, I still relish in the opportunity to participate in new programs that would seemingly only occur at a school like Georgia State,” he said.
He is paired with One Hundred Miles, a Georgia nonprofit focused on protecting coastal communities, environment, and ecosystems. His work has centered on neighborhood vitality and community protection.
“That area of Georgia and its surroundings, like Sea Island and St. Simons Island, have become extremely attractive areas for wealthy remote workers in the post-pandemic era.
“Waves of people moving in and buying up property has been causing a push for luxury development, property tax hikes, and the other processes that lead to people being economically forced from the area.”
Similar to Collins, Muir’s background in community organizing meant she was not only interested in law, but in raising the voices of those drowned out by circumstance – and land use changes led by wealthy developers.
“These institutions and systems are just not ideal, to say the least,” said Muir, who is partnered with the Vulnerable Communities Initiatives. “That is what drove me to law school.”
Muir saw first-hand how some planning leaders do not necessarily consider “the long-term impacts that are so hard to quantify.” When vulnerable communities are overlooked, the people residing in them stand to lose homes and history.
“To have standing, one way, is to have nothing to lose,” she adds. “But if you have nothing to lose, if you’re already disenfranchised and marginalized well how do you show you have an injury that gives you standing?”
Participating in the new Urban Transformations Fellowship is helping Muir build a bridge between her prior knowledge and the kind of lawyer she wants to be – one who champions a more equitable future for everyone.
Marshall is hoping the program extends beyond year three. Witnessing how the students from various disciplines come together to frame problems and pitch solutions, has been great to see, he explained.
Although they don’t solve all the problems, Marshall added, the new program “gets their nose under the tent of what the world would look like or can look like in being a lawyer who is doing the work of promoting urban sustainability.”
Other schools participating in the new GSU effort include the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies (where principal investigator David Iwaniec is a professor), the College of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Public Health.
-Written by Joy Woodson