Coalition works to prevent "town & gown" conflicts

East Lansing, MI – For the last 10 years, the Community Relations Coalition has worked to bring Michigan State University students and their neighbors together. The idea is that better relationships between students and the full-time East Lansing residents they live around will prevent town-and-gown problems.

Activities for this academic year begin in earnest with a couple of CRC-sponsored block parties this week.

WKAR's Scott Pohl spoke with CRC Intern Coordinator Olivia Seifert about how these events can head off disputes between residents and students.

AUDIO: SCOTT POHL: "Let's begin with a brief description of what the Community Relations Coalition is all about: its purpose, who runs it."

OLIVIA SEIFERT: "The Community Relations Coalition is a non-profit organization that's been around for about ten years, and it's made up of members from the city of East Lansing, from MSU, and from the community, so a lot of stakeholders. We have a board as well as a core leadership team that forms the basis of the Community Relations Coalition, and then we do a lot of programming to help build community between students and long-term residents. So, the members of the Community Relations Coalition are kind of a standing group of stakeholders from the city, from MSU, from the community, but then we do a lot of events to try to bring in broader members of the community that may or may not involved throughout the year."

SP: "Talk about the events that are beginning to get underway that are along the lines of being a block party, where people are invited to get together, not just MSU students but the people who they live and work near, perhaps, in the city. What's the message there, and how do they work out?"

OS: "Sure. Every year we block parties that are ice cream socials towards the beginning of the academic year, so students have moved in to their residences off campus, and long-term residents are starting to meet their student neighbors, so the ice cream socials are just an informal opportunity for students and long-term residents to come together in a setting where they can just learn each other's name, learn who their neighbors are, and start to meet each other and learn more about each other. So, we have two ice cream socials coming up on the 15th and the 16th of September. We're excited about the event on the 15th especially because the President (of MSU) will be in attendance, so we're really excited and hoping for a large turnout for that event in particular, but these are really just an informal chance to kind of kick off the year and get folks talking, and then that sets the stage for a lot of the events that come later during the year."

SP: "As you look back over the last few years of holding these events, what have they accomplished in your mind? Do people really tell you that they achieve what you hope they do achieve?"

OS: "One of the biggest benefits of these types of events is that by building relationships right at the start of the year, getting folks to know one another, folks become a lot more personal. They know the students, they know who they are, so it becomes a lot more proactive. So, instead of reacting to a negative situation that a neighbor and a student might have, they know each other. So, people tend to deal with conflict a lot better, or disagreements, varying interests when they actually know the other person, so that's really one of the big goals is to help be proactive about building relationships so that folks talk to one another about the different lifestyles that they lead, what it means to them to have a nice neighborhood, their community, so it really starts to set the stage for that relationship building."

SP: "Would you say that campus police and East Lansing police feel that this has had a beneficial impact on student relations with full-time residents of the city?"

OS: "Absolutely. We have a lot of involvement from the police with the Community Relations Coalition. Chief Wibert has been very involved with the CRC, and so he participates in a lot of our initiatives, and he's expressed that in his time here, he's seen relations kind of change from some real negative points in East Lansing's history to a lot of improvement, especially over the past ten years. We actually just saw some statistics about Fall Welcome and how things went for opening weekend, and the numbers are looking really good compared to maybe eight to ten years ago, and he attributes a lot of that to the positive relationships that are being built between students and residents."

SP: "The CRC has a website now that's designed to get information to students about where to turn for transportation and trash pickup and all the things that go into living in East Lansing. Tell me more about that."

OS: "Yes, the CRC's website is, and if you're going to that website, on the main page, you'll see the Spartan Big List, which is a new initiative replacing something folks might be familiar with from the past few years, the welcome bags that we used to distribute at the beginning of the year, so we're trying to be more environmentally friendly and also providing the opportunity to add or change information throughout the year. The Spartan Big List is really a portal or a collection of links to resources, so, in the past, students might have had to look in a number of different places for information about parking or where to drop off their recycling. But, now, they can get to the Spartan Big List and get links to all those resources from one location."

SP: "One final question has to do with the rest of the academic year, once we get past these block parties and other events that might be coming up in the next few weeks. What goes on in November, December, January, and on into the end of the academic year?"

OS: "The CRC has eight interns. These are undergraduate students that live in neighborhoods surrounding campus that work for Community Relations Coalition, and really, they're the ones that do a lot of the bulk of event planning and programming. So, the start of the year, we have our block parties; we also have a couple of neighborhood cleanups coming up, on September 19th and October 3rd, after some big home football games. And, then, really what happens is the interns start to get to know their neighbors, and they start to come up with ideas for events throughout the year. So, we'll be actually talking about a couple of event proposals that the interns have put together, and those can be anything from we've had in the past knitting clubs, we've had book clubs, or we've had coat drives, big events. So, the interns will start to get to know their neighbors, and hopefully learn the culture and the personality of their neighborhood, and come up with ideas for events that make sense for the folks living in those neighborhoods."

SP: "All right. Thank you very much."

OS: "Thank you."