Policy and History in York, Pennsylvania

On a May night in downtown York, Pennsylvania, two blocks from city hall, I sat quietly as seven of my York College undergraduates expounded to politicians and community leaders on the histories of poverty in our community and of policy responses that had in years past attempted (and often failed) to meaningfully alleviate this deep-rooted problem.   Speaking for 90 minutes on subtopics they had selected themselves and researched over the course of a semester, these students together unfolded several key facets of the history of poverty policy in York.   The audience responded with rapt attention, as student research informed and energized attendees, including the city’s mayor, the city council president, the local constituent services director for the area’s U. S. Representative, and the CEO of York County’s official Community Action Agency.   After concluding their prepared remarks, students handled difficult, thought-provoking audience questions with comfort and skill.  Each student stood a little taller later that night as they mingled with local policymakers and college faculty.  In the process, they celebrated their hard work—work that might tangibly contribute to a community in which they now felt increasingly invested.

The group had traveled quite a distance from our first class meeting in January.  At the outset, the students had little idea where they would direct their energies and widely varying experiences with history research, policy analysis, and local community engagement.  Guiding these students from that starting point to the final briefing event was perhaps the most demanding and most fulfilling teaching experience of my nine years at York College of Pennsylvania.  In this new “Policy and History in York” course, modeled on the National History Center’s congressional briefings, I challenged students to conduct the research necessary to become experts on the local history of policies that concern our community.  They then would have to work as a team to build and present a shared briefing for local decision makers.

I conceived of this course for two main reasons. The first was in response to the all too ubiquitous questioning, including (especially) in higher education itself, of the relevance of historical research.  Here was a course in which students would show peers, faculty, and the broader community how historical research could be brought to bear to contextualize current challenges.

Welcome to York sign (Public Domain)

Another impetus was York College’s growing commitment to integrating student learning with community engagement. York College of Pennsylvania’s main campus sits a mile and a half south of its new downtown Center for Community Engagement, with most academic and residential buildings just over the city line on the former grounds of a suburban country club. For many years, York College, and the majority of its student body, had been deeply disconnected from the nearby urban center.  The small deindustrialized city, like many such places, holds great promise and great challenges. A majority-minority community with a poverty rate thrice the national average, York City still confronts the ongoing legacies of a difficult history of racism and disinvestment so familiar in rust belt communities. But York’s diversity, community spirit, and public and philanthropic support are encouraging important revitalization and community-building efforts, including many tied to understanding and facing York’s past.  I want, and I want my students, to be part of that process, and I was fortunate to be able to draw upon the resources and energies of the college’s aforementioned community engagement center and affiliated Arthur J. Glatfelter Institute for Public Policy, both of which embody a recently revised college mission to embrace community partnerships.

To best pursue these learning outcomes, I designed my new course entirely around the historical policy briefing as the final product (unlike some examples elsewhere in which the policy briefing concept has been built into existing courses). The course is cross-listed in political science (which was facilitated by my multidisciplinary Department of History and Political Science) and attracted a mix of junior and senior history and political science majors, plus a couple others.  The class was quite rigorous, and its format was unfamiliar for all involved, and so the group settled at seven students who participated in the final briefing.  This small class size ultimately offered opportunity, since even though it reduced the range of material the group’s research could cover, it became feasible for all seven students to publicly present their own original research.

But back in January, students had little notion of what to expect.  They began learning the local history of York through a series of short journal articles published by the historical society.  They then explored policy challenges facing York today by hearing from community stakeholders representing local institutions like the YWCA, NAACP, County Planning Commission, Pennsylvania Immigrant Resource Center, and others.  Ultimately most impactful for a majority of the class was a presentation from the CEO of the York Community Progress Council, the War on Poverty-era Community Action Program that remains the central federal poverty-fighting agency in the county.  After hearing her presentation and deliberating as a group, the students voted to focus on the local history of policies designed to address poverty.  Then each student set about defining an area of individual research that excited him or her, including analyses of: the long history of the county almshouse, the local politics of national minimum wage policy, housing discrimination, the history of community welfare organizations like the United Way and the Community Action Programs initiated under the War on Poverty, educational inequalities, the local course of deindustrialization, and a sophisticated statistical breakdown of the demographics and geography of poverty within specific census tracts over the last half century. 

Conducting such research was often challenging.  Many students initially gravitated towards more readily accessible national source material.  But through a combination of individual students’ dedication and regular coaching from me and each other, students identified an array of locally relevant primary sources including archival sources at the York History Center’s library and at the York County Archives, repositories of local organizational records, published books, census data, archived webpages recording policy stances of prominent local politicians, congressional sources documenting the actions of York County’s federal representatives, and especially historical York newspaper sources.  In doing so, each student pieced together an extended research paper from which they would draw in crafting an original presentation. 

Over the course of a month the students and I, working as a team, revised seven fifteen-minute presentations into a focused, cohesive hour-long briefing in which each student would speak for six to ten minutes.  This was an arduous and sometimes tense process, as students rehearsed full presentations three times in front their peers, with three rounds of substantial revisions.  When the evening of the briefing arrived, students were eager and anxious, but their preparation shone through and each rose to the challenge to offer their best work yet.  The result was the tremendous success described above. One student reflected a few days later that the stakeholders’ enthusiastic response, including numerous requests for copies of the presentation slides, confirmed that the students had achieved their goals in researching, packaging, and disseminating relevant history for local policy leaders. 

This course was an invaluable learning experience that I look forward to repeating.  Though it was certainly more work to execute than a standard upper-level history course, I received immense support from my institution, and especially from the college’s Center for Community Engagement and its Dean, Dominic DelliCarpini (the Naylor Endowed Professor of Writing Studies) who provided financial resources, physical space, critical guidance, and help connecting with local policymakers, NGO directors, businesspeople, educators, and philanthropists.  Dr. DelliCarpini also helped advocate for a one-course reduction (which I must thank Provost Laura Niesen de Abruna for supporting) from my normal four-course teaching load to help me navigate the many logistical demands that teaching this course imposed.  I would be very happy to communicate with faculty who are interested in developing or adapting similar courses at other institutions that will support this kind of student-led history-research-based community engagement. 

I couldn’t be a stronger proponent of the history and policy education program.  It stimulated my creativity as a teacher, historian, and active participant in my community, and I know it was just as meaningful for my students.

Dr. Corey M. Brooks, Associate Professor of History at York College of Pennsylvania, is the author of Liberty Power: Antislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American PoliticsHe taught “Policy and History in York” in the spring 2019 semester.