Through a series of tours, Gephardt Institute Community Engagement Faculty Fellow Professor Bob Hansman reveals the complexities of St. Louis to faculty, staff, and students.
Ask many of the students involved in Gephardt programs and other community-oriented work what or who first inspired them on campus and you’ll see a pattern in their stories: “Well, it all started when I went on one of Prof. Hansman’s tours,” or, “I took Professor Hansman’s course,” or “I heard a presentation by Professor Hansman.”
These students are talking about Bob Hansman, associate professor of architecture in the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, and one of two inaugural Gephardt Institute Community Engagement Faculty Fellows. He’s also the unofficial ambassador laureate to the St. Louis community for WashU students, faculty, and staff. He has spurred countless members of the campus to deepen their engagement with the St. Louis community, through his bus tours and his Community Building course.
“As a senior in high school, my friends from St. Louis would warn me, ‘Don’t go North of Delmar and East of Skinker,” said senior anthropology major Amanda Harris. “During the Leadership Through Service program, Professor Bob Hansman took us on a tour to North and East St. Louis and turned our fears into compassion.”
The tours awaken students to the complexities of the city by illustrating a series of inflection points that have brought St. Louis to where it is today. “Students think they’re going to see tourist ‘hot spots,’ or inversely, that we’re going to visit Ferguson,” Professor Hansman says. “They think they’re going to see buildings and landmarks and talk about facts and dates, and we do that, but the present is just backdrop for the issues we talk about, whether that’s the historic friction between St. Louis and the state of Missouri, disappearing black communities, or health disparities. That’s why I call these tours ‘Understanding What We See.’ It’s the context that’s the key.”
Beyond the historical context in the tours, Professor Hansman asks participants, whether they are a student or faculty group, to take issues of poverty and race in St. Louis out of isolation and learn to understand communities with very different experiences of history.
“A sub-theme in our tours is how we learn to talk to each other if our bodies of knowledge don’t intersect,” Professor Hansman says. “Our perceptions grow out of our knowledge and if we don’t know anything about the folks protesting on the North side, you might think ‘Ferguson must be about the police.’ You don’t understand why people are as upset as they are or have the viewpoint they do because you don’t see what they see. It’s not personal; it’s systemic. I try to help people understand where each of us is in the system.”
This fall, Professor Hansman was appointed a Gephardt Institute Community Engagement Faculty Fellow. In this post, he connects the WashU campus to the community. The tours are now available on demand for courses and groups at WashU. The tours have become a “mission” for Professor Hansman. “I’ve had students stop me and say “This is what I was expecting from my college education.” And he uses the opportunity to encourage participants not to shy away from engaging in the community.
“We talk about how to avoid this extreme pendulum with being in communities. On one extreme you have people who just do what they want in the community and they’re rude in people’s homes. On the other you have those who think they must be a horrible intrusion. Both approaches condescend to the community and the result is the same: nothing happens. The alternative to this pendulum is a real, person-to-person conversation. The fact is WashU has resources that others can benefit from and we have to find a way to share them.”
Professor Hansman’s tours are offered to classes across the university and groups of faculty, staff, and students through the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement. Find out more and see our available spring dates.
Read more about Professor Hansman’s tours in the WashU Record.