CSUN Works to Help Canoga Park Strengthen Its Community Bonds

Color image of Finney leaning against a sign with the words Canoga Park

Recreation and tourism management professor Craig Finney is spearheading the effort in Canoga Park on behalf of CSUN’s Institute for Community Health and Wellbeing. Photo by Lee Choo.

Communities are filled with resources and organizations that address a wide variety of needs. But rarely do these agencies work together to identify gaps, pool expertise or avoid duplication of services.

Hoping to strengthen the bonds in one community, a team of faculty, staff and students at California State University, Northridge has created a new initiative, Neighborhood Partners in Action (NPA), to help build bridges among community-based organizations and stakeholders in Canoga Park by fostering communication and collaboration among themselves and with the university.

“What we are attempting to do is marshal our resources to help a community marshal theirs,” said recreation and tourism management professor Craig Finney, who is spearheading the effort on behalf of CSUN’s Institute for Community Health and Wellbeing. “We’re not claiming to have all the answers because we don’t. We don’t have all the resources they need. But we can be a facilitator.

“Our job is to listen to members of the community, help them to identify what they need and then, if it’s not something that we can help them with at CSUN, we can help them identify other resources in the community or a neighboring community,” Finney said. “We want to be good neighbors. The university is a member of the community. Our faculty, staff and students are all members of the community. We have a responsibility to give back.”

Joan Maltese, executive director of the Child Development Institute (CDI) — a nonprofit provider of relationship-based early intervention and therapeutic services to children and their families that operates an early learning center in Canoga Park — could not say enough about the CSUN initiative in the community. The NPA initiative launched in the fall of 2012, about the same time Maltese and her organization were establishing their Canoga Park facility.

“The synergy of the CSUN initiative just catapulted us to a very different level of being able to provide services to the community,” she said. Teams of CSUN students and faculty helped CDI on a variety of projects, including developing duel-generation learning programs on such topics as a family savings plan and making healthy lifestyle and food choices, and developing family savings plans. They have also assisted in grant-writing development.

“We had a team of five graduate students from CSUN’s accounting department who just blew us away,” said Maltese, who now sits on NPA’s advisory council. “They made us their capstone project and set up grant-writing protocols for us. Not only did they develop an analysis flowchart of how it should work, but they made recommendations on how to work together, created forms for us, did extensive research and made sure we made the right choices when selecting software.

“The work we’re getting from CSUN’s faculty and students isn’t just an academic exercise on the university’s part,” she said. “We in the community are getting professional work, and the students are getting an opportunity to do professional work that can only enhance their careers.”

The NPA initiative has touched all parts of the Canoga Park community, Maltese said, from community-based organizations to businesses. She noted a recent conversation she had with someone at the local chamber of commerce, who praised the work CSUN students were doing with the chamber.

“The impact the university is having on this community is remarkable,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere else. They have actually come into the community and made real relationships. We are going beyond our traditional roles and creating this model where the university and the community can depend on each other. It is a culture, not an academic thing that you can do online or in a classroom. We are working as a team to make a positive impact on the students and the community.”

CSUN Provost Harry Hellenbrand said the relationships between members of Canoga Park and the university are valuable.

“We deeply believe in our partnership with the citizens and institutions of Canoga Park,” Hellenbrand said. “It is that rare thing, a community. We can learn much together.”

When the initiative launched, Finney led a group of CSUN faculty and staff on a series of “listening” sessions with Canoga Park community leaders to find out what was happening in the area and what they needed.

“People have this vision of academics — that we live in this ‘ivory tower’ and when we come out it’s we are going to ‘save you’ because we have all the answers,” Finney said. “The reality is, we don’t have all the answers. But, because we’re a university and we have all these great minds working here, we might know where to find the answers.

“Sometimes the ‘answer’ is simple, like helping find students to work as interns with a local program. Other times, it might involve working with the leadership of a particular community-based organization to design a program to fit a need they see in the community.”

In addition to the work with CDI, the CSUN initiative has assisted with the food bank at the Guadalupe Center, provided literacy assistance to R.U.T.H. YouthBuild, created theater projects with veterans through the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post and offered student and faculty support for a variety of programs at Hart and Canoga Park Elementary Schools and Columbus Middle School.

More importantly, Finney said, the NPA advisory council has deepened the relationship between CSUN and the Canoga Park community by providing a collaborative way to assess the needs in the area and find ways of addressing them.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Finney said.

The Institute for Community Health and Wellbeing was launched in 2009 as collaboration between campus and community affiliations, focused on strengthening individuals and communities through creative partnerships and education. Its efforts include cultivating public and private resources, promoting interdisciplinary and intercommunity partnerships and making campus expertise and resources more readily available in response to regional health and wellbeing needs. NPA is just one of the institute’s university-wide initiatives.