Schul Forum 2024: Our Connecting Spaces

A diverse group of people in a circle on a presentation for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute's Schul Forum
Monday, February 5, 2024
Schul Forum Series

On February 1, 2024 more than 175 people attended the 2024 Schul Forum: Our Connecting Spaces where we examined the spaces and places where we connect with one another: our neighborhoods, schools, houses of worship, the places where we work, play, and create.

We asked ourselves: What builds authentic relationships within them? What are the factors that prevent bonds from developing in these areas and, honestly, does it even matter, particularly in terms of the significant challenges that our communities face? Recent research from the Opportunity Insights team, led by Dr. Raj Chetty of Harvard University, suggests it does. 

According to this research, the places where we connect may enable us to build cross-class friendships and networks that ultimately contribute to an improved quality of life and greater economic connectedness. Last fall, through our virtual Schul Conversations, we met at The Intersection of Arts, Culture, and Community and discussed Mixed-Income Communities and Placemaking Initiatives as points of connection, focusing on both the challenges and opportunities for economic prosperity in these areas. Then, in partnership with the Chancellor’s Speaker Series, Dr. Raj Chetty was welcomed to Charlotte on Nov. 14. to extend the regional conversation on economic mobility and the ongoing work to ensure opportunity for all in the Charlotte region. Watch a replay of Chetty's livestream, courtesy of WFAE, here.

Last week, we continued the conversation by taking a closer look at Our Connecting Spaces, asking how those areas enable connection or create barriers to economic connectedness. And we added communities of faith and the education continuum to the exchange. We didn't shy away from what’s in the ground that makes connecting across differences difficult. We also focused on identifying the actions we can take to facilitate relationships and build networks that propel us toward an improved quality of life and economic prosperity for all. We thank all those who attended and lent their voices to the dialogue. 

A recap of the forum along with videos of the keynote panel discussion and other photos and videos will be posted within the next few weeks. Sign up for our newsletter to be notified when the recap and videos are available.

Full schedule and description of the concurrent sessions are below. 

2024 Schul Forum - Schedule

1:00    Opening & Welcome
1:30    Our Connecting Spaces  (concurrent sessions)

  • Arts & Culture
  • Communities of Faith
  • Education Continuum
  • Mixed-Income Communities

3:00    Snacks & Gambrell Faculty Fellows Poster Session 
4:00    Key Note/Facilitated Panel Discussion

5:30    Closing & Gambrell Faculty Fellows Recognition
            Reception honoring Gambrell Faculty Fellows

Concurrent Session Descriptions

Connecting Spaces: Arts and Culture
The Charlotte Region is rich with arts and cultural institutions and opportunities from the vibrant murals of uptown Charlotte to the numerous festivals and creative placemaking across the city and region. Beyond creative expression, these spaces foster relationships across diverse groups. This session will focus on the social and economic impact of the arts and what works to build connections in our arts and culture spaces that have ripple effects beyond the creative endeavor itself.

Panelists and discussion leaders:

Connecting Spaces: Communities of Faith
In Opportunity Insights most recent work on economic connectedness, communities of faith are a common site where people develop friendships across class distinctions. Communities of faith are also a “most segregated hour” where our social separations by race and ethnicity are evident.  This session reflects on the roots of this segregation that continue to inform participation in communities of faith, the way economic connectedness happens (or not) in racially segregated religious spaces, and how religious organizations in a “city of steeples” can be important spaces to access opportunity and move the needle on shared prosperity.

Panelists and discussion leaders:

  • Valerie Cooper, Th.D. – associate professor of Religion and Society and Black Church Studies, Duke Divinity School
  • Greg Jarrell –  author (Our Trespasses)  and co-founder of QC Family Tree
  • Janaka Lewis, Ph.D. – associate professor of English, Director of Women and Gender Studies Program, and Gambrell Faculty Fellow, UNC Charlotte
  • Rabbi Judy Schindler – founding director, The Stan Greenspon Holocaust and Social Justice Education Center
  • Evan Willis, Ph.D. – senior minister, Northeast Seventh Day Adventist Church
  • Urban Institute/urbanCORE staff facilitators – Bridget Anderson and Dr. Michelle Meggs

Connecting Spaces: Education Continuum
Our public and private education institutions are spaces where children, teens, and young adults develop key relationships with their teachers and peers, including friendships and early connections that will  introduce them to new life experiences and possibilities and can contribute to their economic mobility. However, our education spaces often contribute to more separation than connection as racially and economically segregated school environments prevent few consistent opportunities to connect across differences, and even more diverse school settings don’t typically work to actively reduce friending bias (or the tendency to befriend those most like you). At the same time, schools disproportionately made up of students of color or those from families with modest incomes are often stigmatized as“bad” or  “low-performing,” reinforcing the notion that they lack capacity for improvement. This session will examine the challenges of connecting throughout the educational continuum, address issues of agency and pride that might be threatened by such connections,  and identify shorter and longer term ways to create more meaningful, affirming connections across differences in our educational institutions.

Panelists and discussion leaders:

  • Malcolm Butler, Ph.D. – Dean, Cato College of Education, UNC Charlotte
  • Megan Gallagher – principal research associate, Urban Institute (Washington, D.C.)
  • Akeshia Craven-Howell – partner,  strategic advising, Bellwether
  • Adriana Medina, Ph.D. – associate professor of Reading and Elementary Education, Cato College of Education, and Gambrell Faculty Fellow, UNC Charlotte
  • Brittany Murray, Ph.D. – Malcolm O. Partin assistant professor of Educational Studies and Political Science, Davidson College
  • Urban Institute/urbanCORE staff facilitators – Dr. Eric Moore and Toye Watson

Connecting Spaces: Mixed-Income Communities
Mixed-income housing and place-based initiatives are widely considered a best practice in affordable housing development and a key policy tool in efforts to deconcentrate poverty. This restructuring of neighborhoods, often in the place of concentrated affordable or public housing, does not always lead to connections among neighbors and can lead to displacement of a community and its culture. But research suggests it can also create networks that can lead to employment and access to other resources and opportunities. This session will explore what limits and expands connections between groups in the places we call home and community.

Panelists and discussion leaders:

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Again, thank you to all who joined us and we look forward to the next Schul Forum!