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Unity Project awaits next StudCo strategy

Trent, Hale build toward Earth Week, assume more autonomy during past year

After building its autonomy throughout the past year, the University Unity Project kicked off its capstone event of 2010 last week: Earth Week. As Student Council decides its next strategy for the project, however, its success beyond this academic year may still be up in the air.

Humble beginnings\nThe University Unity Project was introduced in fall 2008 by then-Council President Matt Schrimper as part of his campaign promise to revolutionize student engagement and bring the community together under a common goal or theme that would change from year to year. Several programs, from the Lighten Up campaign to the FreeRide program, were established under the Unity Project's inaugural theme of "Charlottesville: Beyond Our Grounds, Within Our Community."

Initially, the Unity Project was an ad hoc committee within Council and thus accrued funds just like other standing committees within Council, Schrimper said, adding that Council's role in the Unity Project's infancy was key. Council also reached out to class councils and the University Programs Council for assistance and input about how to lead the initiative and recruit new members - marking one of the first times those three entities collaborated to such an extent, Schrimper said.

Soon after the project was created, then-Unity Project Chair Rob Atkinson was selected through an open application and interview process before leading the project to independence from Council, Schrimper said.

When the next University-wide elections rolled around in the spring, students selected a new theme through a referendum: environmental sustainability and awareness. But along with the new theme came new leadership on Council - and change for the Unity Project.

New leadership\nOnce former Council President John Nelson's administration took office in spring 2009, the executive committee evaluated the efforts made during the project's first year.

"We knew it had to be out of Student Council's hands - it had to be truly collaborative and the leadership had to be outside of Student Council," said Ben Chrisinger, former Council chief of cabinet.\nRather than appointing a leader for the Unity Project, Council mobilized individuals from various organizations across Grounds to elect the project's new leaders in the fall, said Nikhil Panda, former Council vice president of administration. These leaders would determine the project's direction for the year.

"We did want the Unity Project to be much more independent from Student Council than in previous years," Panda said. "

"We'd give them constructive feedback. But I think they maintained a solid level of autonomy the whole year."

Fresh perspective\nFourth-year College student Garrett Trent and second-year College student Sheffield Hale were selected as the projet's co-chairs in September 2009. As their goal for the year, they decided to channel the project's efforts toward Earth Week.

"The first thing we decided we needed to do was to establish a network and establish connections," Trent said. "That's what we did and we made a lot of appointments to meet people face to face."\nHale and Trent visited the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill last semester to meet with current and former Earth Week organizers. They then met with student leaders in sustainability at the University, faculty members, administrators and groups such as the President's Committee on Sustainability.

The project then launched its major recruitment effort in early February with an open interest meeting.

"The first step was building the networks and going out to the individuals and groups and in terms of unifying," Trent said. "We decided that the mission of Earth Week and the net we had cast was so broad that it wasn't going to be something that just as an independent organization we'd be able to put on, but it would be the showcase of various interests."

Trent and Hale also met with Andrew Greene, sustainability planner at the Office of the Architect, and Engineering Prof. Paxton Marshall. Greene was available both to help the co-chairs develop the concept and to provide them with additional contacts to help bring their ideas into fruition.

"Part of the challenges they had in terms of unity was that they didn't want to make this [solely] a sustainability project," Greene said. "They wanted to reach all areas of the population - not just a segment."

The project's leaders created an organizational body for this purpose, Hale said.

"We created an outreach committee that consisted of 10 or 11 students, an outreach chair and different subgroups for different categories for outreach," Hale said, noting that those categories included schools outside the College, the City of Charlottesville, Greek organizations, contracted independent organizations and first-year students. "We used those groups to reach out, and they'd go to meet with different CIOs and first-years and try to find ways to get them involved, if not for planning an event for their group, at least in getting the word out."

Unlike last year, though, there was no University-wide referendum to determine a new Unity Project theme.

Amid criticism\nBut even as the project gained autonomy, some old perceptions lingered.

"I think a lot of people were holding Student Council accountable for the Unity Project because again, it was something that was initiated under Matt and then continued under John," Chrisinger said. "In terms of the decisions that were made and the organizational strategy, it was an entirely hands-off approach from the Student Council point of view and entirely in the hands of the co-chairs and the other organizations."

Chrisinger noted that Council's hands-off approach gave the Unity Project free rein, which enabled the chairs to take ownership and launch a successful Earth Week at the University.

"I think part of its success this year was because Student Council didn't play a big role," Chrisinger said. "Student Council really wasn't running the show - it was individuals that were stepping up the plate and individual organizations that were seeing how sustainability fit into their missions."

Chrisinger added that the Unity Project's biggest critics probably did not realize the extent of planning and hard work that goes into instrumenting such a large endeavor.

"When I was a first- or second-year, sustainability at the University was disjoint," Chrisinger said. "I think there's a lot more collaboration now than there was a few years ago, but I certainly recognize how difficult it can be to navigate all these different groups from different schools with different missions. They took a lot of time doing that, but in the end, it paid off."

The bigger picture\nTrent acknowledged, however, that there are some challenges integral to the Unity Project.

"We understand that the two of us cannot direct the future of the Unity Project," Trent said. "It needs to be something that's much more of an inclusive effort, but for me personally, I think that there needs to be a central message and a central goal."

The project inevitably encountered challenges during the year, given that the chairs had limited time after being elected in the middle of the fall, Trent said, but its members succeeded in integrating seemingly dissimilar groups on Grounds. As a result, the initiative has some budding potential, he said.

"I think it's exciting now that we have this network that includes the CIOs directly related to environmental sustainability - but also music groups and arts groups and faith groups and service groups - what can become of these connections," Trent said. "I think that we definitely have laid the groundwork for something that can grow."

Overall, Marshall said this year's efforts were consistent with the project's core mission, even if the ultimate goal of unity remains difficult to achieve.

"It's hard to say that anything can unify something as big and diverse as the University, but I think that certainly it drew together many existing strands and activities of the University into a unified Earth Week activity," Marshall said.

Beyond the horizon \nThe Unity Project now awaits current Council President Colin Hood, who hopes to preserve the essence and founding ideals of the project in the most efficient manner possible.

Hood's current plan is to gather a task force - which will include the current project co-chairs and Vice President of Administration Jen Bristol - to discuss the project more specifically.

Whether the project's efforts can be successful in achieving unity, however, is still a matter of opinion.

"In terms of unifying, that will remain to be seen," Trent said. "We've pretty have much connected these organizations through being involved in Earth Week and through getting to know each other at various meetings, but it's gong to be exciting what future collaboration happens through that and how Earth Week will become more unified in the future"

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