Initiative uses art, language to raise awareness

Ronny Salerno

Sweet Tooth Candies owner Bob Schneider.

Alyson Schoenung, Staff writer

NKU announced a new project partnership with Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement to clean up and bring out potential in a historical, low-income Northern Kentucky neighborhood.
The west side of Newport, Ky. is home to many single family dwellings, some of which are the oldest in the city, dating back to the 1800s. However, the historical value and feel of the neighborhood has been lacking as it has struggled to find a true identity with its combination of industrial and commercial businesses throughout the area.

The area is held together by community ties and through the charm of local shops such as the well-known candy store, Sweet Tooth Candies.

Heading the project is Mark Neikirk, executive director of Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement. The project is called the 505 Initiative, the name derived from the census identification number for the area: 505.

The community, as well as students from NKU, Gateway Technical and Community College and groups of the Brighton Center, a local nonprofit, are collaborating together to carry out the project.  Together, a curriculum has been developed for students to complete a series of hands-on service learning projects aimed solely at the efforts of the 505 Initiative.

The planned projects of the initiative are carried out by students through service learning as a part of their college education.

“Service learning is where a class partners with a nonprofit to accomplish something,” Neikirk explained.

That something in this initiative is to improve the community overall.  To accomplish this, the students and faculty of NKU, as well as those involved from the West Side, will be carrying out these projects through a vast spectrum of ways in the hopes that their work will create a lasting impact on the community.

Neikirk has put together several workshops for faculty members looking to get involved in the project. Through his work and the enthusiasm among faculty, about twenty classes are now taking part in the project.

“We didn’t expect to have so many people involved, so it has really taken off quickly,” Neikirk said.

The project, although still in the beginning stages, has gained a lot of momentum from NKU and the community.

In collaboration with the Brighton Center, events are being held for the community by the students at the center, including an event aimed at Spanish speaking residents of the area to be hosted by an NKU Spanish class.

Photojournalism professor Matt Baker became involved after Neikirk approached him asking if he was interested.

“I thought it was a perfect fit with my photojournalism class,” Baker said. “I’m most excited about the fact that it gets students out into the community.”

Baker has engaged his students in the project by having them research the area through newspaper articles, as well as sending them into the community to capture photographs.

Some of the photographs are going to be on display in the Brighton Center to showcase the students’ work and give insight into the community of the West Side.

One of Baker’s students, Ronny Salerno, a senior photography major, has spent ample time in the community getting to know those who live in it and becoming more aware of the business side of the neighborhood.

“I had no idea there were so many local shops,” Salerno said. He said one of his favorite places to shoot was the local candy shop, Sweet Tooth Candies.

As a photojournalist, Salerno said there is an expected amount of hesitation when going into a new area looking for photos.

“It’s always tough to break that barrier when you’re walking around with a camera and you walk up to someone on their front porch and say ‘Hey i want to take your photo and here’s why,’” he said.

Baker said that the biggest benefit for the community through his photojournalism students’ work is that the community gets the chance to look in the mirror.

“My students are going to tell stories through their photographs about what’s going on there and the community will be able to see these stories that are happening a block away that they weren’t aware of,” Baker said. “Becoming more self-aware is a huge benefit for the community.”

Salerno admitted that he was nervous about going into the area at first.

“At first glance it looks like a very rough, uninviting place,” he said.

He said that he has since changed his mind and really has enjoyed working in the area. Both Neikirk and Baker have advised students to go to the area in groups as a precautionary measure for their safety.

The project has really given students the ability to see beyond the classroom.

“They’re going out to do something that really does matter, rather than in the artificial environment of the classroom,” Baker said of their work.

Although there is no planned completion of the project, Neikirk said they plan to be in the community for the next three years doing service learning projects.

The initiative is a part of the regional collaboration by the Greater Cincinnati Service Learning Network called Project Hope. The 505 Initiative is one of many planned across the region in the coming years.

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