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Forging Unique Town-Gown Ties

By Eric Sean Weld

When Carol T. Christ arrived in Northampton last summer to assume her new post as Smith College president, she had near the top of her list of priorities a commitment to forge positive, successful relations between the college and its host community.

“I’m very interested in pursuing the issues of community relations here,” she said after a few weeks on the job. “I want to build even better communication with the city of Northampton.”

Since then, Christ has led the college in following through on that commitment with a range of town-gown initiatives, proposals and events as well as in the positive, symbiotic working relationship she has formed with Northampton Mayor Clare Higgins.

The Day of Service is one of the first and most visible projects to have emerged from that commitment. An idea proposed by Eve Forbes, associate director of gift planning in advancement, and embraced by the president, the Day of Service encourages each of Smith’s 1,200 employees to take one paid day off during the year to devote to service in the community, with an emphasis on volunteering for nonprofit organizations.

“The Day of Service is one way in which we’re trying to engage with the community,” notes Christ.

Some of the volunteer activities in which Smith employees have participated for their day off include a group project to join Habitat-for-Humanity in constructing a home for a low-income family, serving food to homeless citizens, helping clean local homeless facilities and delivering meals to people unable to leave their homes.

From March 29 through April 6, the college held a Week of Service, coordinated by the Service Organizations of Smith (S.O.S.), in which Smith community members volunteered for several local service programs.

Other college-community programs are in the initial stages, says Christ, including possible partnerships with local hospitals and schools. The college is also working on various contributions to Northampton’s year-long 350th anniversary celebration scheduled for 2004.

Meanwhile, Smith students have also become more involved in the community. Engineering students will soon assist the Northampton Department of Public Works in measuring storm water runoff as mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency, for example. Several students work with the education department to regularly staff local after-school programs. Many students volunteer for community service through S.O.S.

Part of the heightened cooperation between the college and its host community can be attributed to the successful relationship between Christ and Higgins. Since they first met last summer, early in Christ’s tenure, their working relationship has developed into regular interaction and cooperation, each participating in the events and activities of the other’s respective community.

Christ, like her predecessors at Smith, has a seat on the board of the Academy of Music and has attended most of its meetings. She also participates on the board of the Clarke School for the Deaf. Christ suggested in January that four Smith students study the Academy of Music as part of their Leadership Program project, to determine ways in which the theater could enhance its growth and future operation.

Higgins has had a presence on campus more prominent than most Northampton mayors, having addressed the college at the spring convocation; she invited Christ to join her in emceeing this year’s Silver Chord Bowl a cappella fest, which took place at John M. Greene Hall in February; she served as a judge for the Rally Day Banner Contest, also in February; and she participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the opening of the Brown Fine Arts Center in April. Earlier this month, she became the first mayor to host the college’s board of trustees at a city reception in their honor.

“I have enormous respect for the mayor,” says Christ. “I’m very happy she’s a part of our community. We just keep talking.”

“What I’ve really enjoyed about Carol is her engagement and interest in all levels of the community,” Higgins explains. “It’s been great to have that kind of energy. I think she’s very enjoyable. She’s very open.”

Higgins and Christ meet once a month to discuss ways in which the college and city can cooperate to their mutual benefit. “The health of the college and the health of the city are intertwined,” comments Higgins. “The college enriches the cultural life of the city, the people it pulls here to visit, teach, perform, lecture. At the same time, Northampton is an attractive host community for Smith.”

The college-community cooperation is also a practical consideration, says Christ. Because of the college’s size and mid-city location, Smith is sometimes at the forefront of local zoning and housing issues and benefits from a positive relationship with city leaders. And as a high-profile employer of many local and area residents, Smith has direct interest in contributing to the health of the community.

But most important, Christ insists Smith simply has an ethical obligation, as a longtime member of the community, to be a positive presence and to contribute to the success of Northampton and its surrounding towns.

“I believe we should all be responsible citizens within our host communities,” she says. “It’s important to demonstrate that Smith is a responsible citizen of Northampton.”

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