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For AU Students, a Case Study in Social Chance

By David Nakamura
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page C04

The proposed baseball stadium on the Anacostia waterfront has been talked about as a state-of-the-art sports facility, an icon of Washington architecture, a driver of economic development and a drain on public resources.

For those reasons and more, it has become one more thing: subject of a semester-long project for a new class at American University.

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"We're using baseball as a touch point to bring larger issues to life," said Erin Carr, a graduate student in the class, "Communication and Social Change."

This is the first semester for the class, which mixes graduate and undergraduate students to study various forms of communication, including film, public relations and print journalism, said professor Charlene Gilbert.

The idea was to have students work on one project that could bring about social change. When she asked them to select a topic, the students decided that the most relevant issue in the District is what gentrification has meant for housing, schools, health care and jobs in the city.

But how to tackle such a broad and complex topic?

"The larger issue of gentrification was too big for one semester," said Kate Kitch, another graduate student. "We settled on the impact of a new stadium."

During the D.C. Council's contentious debate over public financing of the $535 million stadium project last fall, residents and activists sparred over what impact the ballpark would have on the city. Supporters said the stadium could spur economic development in a neglected part of town; opponents said public money would be better spent on more pressing needs.

"We want to raise this as an issue and make sure there is accountability," Gilbert said. "Part of the resolution of the policy debate in the fall was: We are going to do these things. The students will be part of the effort to be sure the politicians are responsive."

The students named the project, "Operation Home Run: If We Build It, What Will Come?"

They have divided into teams to focus on different areas. One group is recording public service announcements, interviewing residents about housing, schools, health care and jobs. Another is working on a Web site that will provide residents with information about the stadium's progress, impact and potential community benefits and costs. Another is creating brochures and posters.

Two weeks ago, a group went to the proposed ballpark site and interviewed residents and property owners. The students expect to have much of the work done next month, about the time the Nationals will play their April 14 home opener at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

"What struck me when I went with the students to the site was that it's a big money pit. I am concerned about public education -- I have a daughter in the District schools -- and all these resources are going to go to the stadium at this one site. But you can go a mile in any direction and find kids who have not learned to read yet," Gilbert said.

"There will be a lot of hoopla over the stadium," she added. "But we want to focus on the core issues about how does the stadium deliver for the least fortunate of the city."

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