This post is co-authored by Jacob Stern MPA ‘21 and Matthew Miller MPA ’21 (pictured on the far left, and third from the left respectively).

One rainy Thursday night this past fall, we were sitting at a local restaurant waiting for some other friends to arrive. While we were talking about what we wanted to get out of our SIPA experience, one theme that kept coming up was community engagement and public service. Disappointed and surprised to find there was not already a student organization dedicated to community engagement and public service, after an extended brainstorming session, we decided to start our own.

Thus, SIPA Community Engagement and Resource Volunteers (CERV) was born! We began working with the Office of Student Affairs and quickly grew our membership base to what it is today – over 60 members.

If community engagement and public service is something you are passionate about or if it is a topic that you are looking to learn more about, we encourage you to join us this fall. We have some great programming planned!

What is the goal of SIPA CERV?

SIPA CERV was founded on the principle of promoting a sustainable mutually beneficial relationship between the SIPA community and the Harlem/Morningside neighborhood. It is a neighborhood into which we are welcomed for two years, and we believe it is our responsibility to actively support informed and persistent involvement in public service. Columbia and Harlem have often had a difficult relationship and we strongly believe in promoting and fostering understanding and driving positive change in both communities through volunteerism and service.

How does SIPA CERV do this?

SIPA CERV works closely with the Harlem community, student body and the Office of Student Affairs to understand programming needs. On our daily walk from our homes in Harlem to the university, we were struck by the long lines at the neighborhood food bank and pro bono tax prep center. We quickly sensed an opportunity for SIPA students to get involved in and help the local community. SIPA CERV had found its first partner, Food Bank for NYC.

Last Semester’s Events: Partnership with the FoodBank for NYC

In Winter 2020, through our partnership with FoodBank for NYC, which has multiple locations within a few blocks of SIPA’s campus on 116th Street, we were able to offer the SIPA community multiple avenues to pursue service. We were active participants in both their Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Community Kitchen programs, and found them immensely rewarding. Being able to help a local resident with their taxes and tell them they would be getting a $10,000 refund was precisely the type of collaboration between SIPA and the community that we had intended when we started CERV.

Despite the FoodBank suspending their programs in March due to COVID-19, CERV members volunteered in aggregate 145 hours and returned $161,000 in tax refunds to the local community this semester.  SIPA CERV members stepped up again in times of need and served over 500 meals at the Harlem Food Bank as local restaurants were closing due to COVID-19.  This feat could not have been accomplished without the dedicated SIPA CERV club members.

Why did you join SIPA CERV?

“I was struck by the visible wealth gap and disconnect between the shiny Columbia University buildings and the neighboring Harlem community, where poverty rates are higher than citywide rates. I also see public service as an integral part of a public policy education and SIPA CERV provided a unique opportunity to give back and help connect with the local community.”
Hon (Xing) Wong MPA Candidate ’21 | Energy and Environment Concentration:

“I joined SIPA CERV as a way to both engage with, and contribute to, the local community that has welcomed me as a resident during my time at SIPA. I know how fortunate I am to be able to attend such a top university as Columbia, and I am also acutely aware that there is a lot of need in our community and that so many of our neighbors have not had the same opportunities in life that I have. Joining SIPA CERV provided a really practical way for me to help the community. It’s quite a simple thing for me to take a few hours out of my day to serve meals at the FoodBank, and it’s so rewarding to see how much that can benefit people who might otherwise go hungry. We are taught at SIPA to be leaders in public policy and volunteering through SIPA CERV is a key part of building that foundation.”
Rachel Adeney MPA Candidate ’21 | International Finance and Economic Policy

What’s Next for SIPA CERV?

Next semester, we will continue to partner with the FoodBank for NYC while exploring new ways to engage with the community. Additionally, we see an opportunity for SIPA to be a leader among peer institutions in community engagement, an area that has taken on an enhanced, yet overdue relevance and importance in light of recent events. Our long-term vision is to integrate diverse forms of community engagement into the SIPA curriculum.