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This Penn professor wants nonprofits to knock on academia’s door

Fernando Chang-Muy. November 11, 2016 Category: FeatureFeaturedMediumPeople
Academia often gets a bad rap. Think “Ivory Tower” and “silos.” But as Fernando Chang-Muy sees it, great things can happen when academia and policymakers cross those party lines.

Chang-Muy is a professor in both the University of Pennsylvania’s law school and its school of social policy and practice, where he teaches nonprofit management and immigration and refugee law — topics that hit close to home for someone who was born in Cuba and immigrated to the United States as a kid.

“I guess this is an example of the personal influencing the professional,” said the perpetually cheery Chang-Muy, who seems to laugh when he speaks, even about cross-sector collaboration.

While growing up in Miami, Chang-Muy served as translator between his parents and their immigration lawyer. The experience compelled him to become a lawyer, too, and he first came to Philadelphia through a Congressional fellowship that placed him at Community Legal Services, the nonprofit that offers free legal help to low-income Philadelphians. There, he helped women file protection orders against their abusers and Salvadorians, Nicaraguans and Guatemalans apply for asylum. He later worked in asylum policy at the international level at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"If you're going to end up working in policy at the city, state or federal level, I think it helps if you are actually in the trenches."
Fernando Chang-Muy

Nowadays, he’s doing a different kind of translating than he did in his youth: between nonprofits, policy and academia. The intersection of the three is clear, he said.

“If you’re going to end up [working] in policy at the city, state or federal level, I think it helps if you are actually in the trenches,” Chang-Muy said. “How could you possibly develop regulations or legislation on how to protect women who are survivors of domestic violence if you never work in a domestic violence organization?”

But that groundwork won’t get done by sitting in a classroom talking with peers. That’s why Chang-Muy makes it a point to get his students working in the real world by partnering with nonprofits and policymakers that serve the marginalized populations they study in class.

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For instance, his students can reach out to City Council members and ask if they need research done on, say, the pros and cons of Philadelphia being a sanctuary city. And students in his refugee law class travel to York County to interview jailed asylum seekers on behalf of the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center, then make recommendations to the nonprofit about their cases.

Chang-Muy considers this type of collaboration a win-win-win.

“It’s good for the student who has never been to a prison, it’s good for the nonprofit that gets the benefit of the work product, and it’s good for the person in jail, who, because of my students’ energetic and great work and research, ends up getting out of jail and getting asylum and living a full, productive life and integrating themselves into society,” he said.

Academia can’t bridge this gap alone, though. Nonprofits and policymakers need to reach out, too.

“Those organizations need to knock on the door of the departments that are aligned with what they do,” he said.

So what’s his message for nonprofit and mission leaders? Find an academic with a field of research that mirrors your work and do something together.

Nationalities Service Center, for example, should call professors at Widener, Rutgers, Penn and Drexel law schools and ask teachers if they teach immigration law, Chang-Muy said. If they do, great — send the kids over.

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