Professor named regional winner for 'Rethinking Urban Poverty'

April 03, 2008

University Park, Pa. -- With a poverty rate exceeding 22 percent and a legacy of unsuccessful funding initiatives, West Philadelphia needed a radically different approach to solve some of its major community problems. Lakshman Yapa, professor of geography in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State, decided to investigate whether it was possible to improve the quality of life in this community, knowing new jobs and more money may not be a factor. The result was Rethinking Urban Poverty: the Philadelphia Field Project, a unique service learning course that has generated more than 60 student-run projects addressing critical needs in areas as diverse as credit cooperatives, transportation and nutrition.

For his efforts, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) and the Outreach Scholarship Partnership recently awarded Yapa the northeast region's 2008 C. Peter Magrath Engagement Award for his work with Rethinking Urban Poverty: the Philadelphia Field Project.

"Obviously I am very happy about winning the award. I think the recognition for this project, Rethinking Urban Poverty, is important for several reasons," Yapa said. "First, our project acknowledged the importance of the community-university partnership in the conduct of research and production of new knowledge. To me working in a community is not just about outreach and service, it was also a story about how the university itself can be profoundly changed through that contact. In this particular project the community actually influenced and changed the way my students and I viewed and understood questions of poverty," he said.

"Second, in a more general way, awards such as these help promote a curricula of civic engagement and encourage younger faculty to undertake such scholarship," Yapa added.

Since 1998, Penn State students involved in the Rethinking Urban Poverty project lived and worked in a low-income neighborhood of Philadelphia. By engaging in dialogue and creating partnerships with local community organizations, students identified the links between poverty and community development, and, through their research, became a resource for the community. Students moved away from the standard poverty discourse and focused instead on quality of life by employing the three community-identified needs of health, dignity and community. Through the project, they undertook research activities to improve health though diet, nutrition, exercise, urban gardens, community supported agriculture and education for preventive health care, targeting specific challenges such as Type II diabetes, atherosclerosis and hypertension.

Engaging and improving the lives of the citizens of the Commonwealth are key components of Penn State's mission. "Yapa is one of our many shining stars," said Penn State President Graham B. Spanier. "His work exemplifies the University's long-standing legacy of engagement."

"This is a wonderful recognition for the great work of Dr. Yapa and his students," added Craig Weidemann, vice president of Outreach. "His Philadelphia Field Project is a great example of the impact of engaged scholarship and the power of universities in working with communities to address critical societal issues and learning from each other in the process."

The Magrath Award recognizes outreach and engagement partnerships that exemplify the description of engaged institutions found in the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities report, Returning to Our Roots: The Engaged Institution. Yapa, along with other regional winners, will advance to the national competition and will compete for the C. Peter Magrath/W.K. Kellogg Community Engagement Award.

Visit for more information on the Philadelphia Field Project. To see a video of Yapa and his students in action, visit online.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 29, 2013