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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

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Students in SDSU’s Sage Project and Lemon Grove community members painted a mural on the side of the Lemon Grove Recreation Center. (Credit: City of Lemon Grove) Students in SDSU’s Sage Project and Lemon Grove community members painted a mural on the side of the Lemon Grove Recreation Center. (Credit: City of Lemon Grove)

SDSU's Sage Project Tackles Homelessness in El Centro

Project focused on sustainability and real-world experience for students expands its reach to the Imperial Valley.
By Susanne Clara Bard

Daytime temperatures in El Centro often soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer. But the city has few facilities and social services available to the unhoused.

“For people to be unsheltered and outside in that kind of extreme temperature, it’s potentially life-threatening,” said Cheryl Viegas Walker, former mayor and current member of the El Centro City Council. 

Now, the San Diego State University Sage Project is expanding into the Valley for the first time, teaming up with the City of El Centro to explore effective solutions to the crisis. 

“Homelessness is an urgent global, national and local challenge for public policymakers,” said SDSU Imperial Valley Interim Chief Administrative/Academic Officer and Dean Mark Wheeler. “SDSU Imperial Valley is proud to be partnering with the City of El Centro and the university’s Sage Project to study and help mitigate the difficulties confronting our unsheltered population in El Centro.”

Since 2013, SDSU’s Sage Project has collaborated with local communities to tackle real-world sustainability issues and improve the quality of life in the region. As part of their coursework, participating students have mapped potential contamination hotspots in underserved areas of San Diego County, designed murals in Lemon Grove and reimagined parks in Tijuana.

“We really want to serve Southern California and have an impact on the whole region,” said Sage Project director Jessica Barlow. “The fact that we are finally entering into a partnership with the City of El Centro is super exciting because we are reaching a community that is where one of our satellite campuses is located.” 

SDSU Imperial Valley is currently undergoing an expansion to better serve the needs of local students, adding new classes, tenure-track faculty members and degree programs, as well as spruced-up facilities. The expansion aligns with SDSU’s five-year strategic plan commitments and offers new opportunities for connection between the campus and surrounding communities. 

SDSU Imperial Valley professors initiated the partnership between the Sage Project and City of El Centro leaders in fall 2021. But like all Sage Project communities, the city itself chose the theme.

“Local governments and organizations bring projects to us, things that are high priority for them,” said Barlow. She believes homelessness intersects with sustainability issues in a variety of ways, including social justice, food security and environmental responsibility.

Hands-on for Real-World Value 

Once a city identifies an area of focus, the Sage Project matches the theme with faculty members who are willing to incorporate it into existing SDSU courses.

“Students participating in the class get to do hands-on, real-world projects,” said Barlow. “The work they're doing actually impacts a local community and can lead to real solutions to help improve quality of life in the region.”

Students from more than 35 disciplines as diverse as graphic design and civil engineering have participated in the past.

“The benefit that the cities get is this transdisciplinary approach to solving really challenging issues,” said Barlow. “Engaging hundreds of students on a project from across different disciplines adds a bunch of capacity, but also adds a lot of fresh, creative, innovative ideas for addressing these big challenges.”

This kind of visionary thinking is vital to tackling homelessness in El Centro. “There's a lot of work being done to address homelessness in the City of San Diego, but a lot of that cannot be directly applied to El Centro,” said Barlow.

The El Centro Sage Project is working with three classes this semester. Dominika Bukalova, an assistant professor of public affairs teaches a course called Investigation and Report (PA 497) at SDSU Imperial Valley. She, along with Associate Dean Salvador Espinosa and David Kanaan, chair of the division of professional studies, was instrumental in helping to get the El Centro project off the ground. 

Bukalova’s students are tasked with researching best practices used by local governments to address homelessness in cities with a comparable geographic, socioeconomic and demographic make-up, culminating in a report they will present to city leaders in May. 

“I see this class as a nexus between the students, the community and the university,” Bukalova said. 

The experience will also help prepare students for future leadership careers in the Imperial Valley or other municipalities.

“This class provides a perfect opportunity to get that type of experience to be able to build and hone the competencies that they will need on the job,” said Bukalova.

Preparing Future Leaders

In San Diego, students in professor Shawn Flanigan’s Administration and Public Policy Development (PA 660) class will analyze effective policy tools used by similar cities to address homelessness. And students in assistant professor Lourdes Cueva Chacón’s Writing for Spanish Language and Latino Media (JMS 434) journalism class will create multimedia stories about the history of the homelessness crisis in El Centro and its possible solutions. 

Councilmember Viegas Walker, who also serves on the SDSU Imperial Valley Dean's Advisory Board, believes the Sage Project partnership has the potential to make a transformative impact on her community.

“I can rarely think of a time where I have been more excited about a collaboration with any stakeholder, and I’m really thrilled at the potential for this project,” she said. 

Barlow hopes this semester’s collaboration with El Centro will lead to additional partnerships. 

“I'm hoping to just see it grow so that next year we have this momentum to keep adding more classes at the IV campus and more disciplines and other cities in that region as well,” said Barlow. “We know from our former community partners that the work that our students do actually does get implemented or actually informs the decisions that cities make to make improvements in their community.”

Amid the expansion to Imperial Valley, Sage Project is also continuing its work elsewhere this year. Students from a variety of classes are working with the city of Lemon Grove to help implement its Climate Action Plan.
The project is supported in part by The Contorer Foundation and San Diego Gas & Electric. Other students are working with the San Diego Urban Sustainability Coalition to identify community needs for sustainable and equitable development in southeastern San Diego.