UCSD Community Stations

Public Spaces that Educate

Communities and research universities can be meaningful partners to tackle today’s most urgent social and environmental challenges

The UCSD Community Stations are a network of field hubs located in disadvantaged neighborhoods on both sides of the San Diego–Tijuana border, designed for collaborative research, teaching and advocacy among university researchers, school districts, and community-based non profit partners. Each Community Station operates as a civic classroom that is designed, funded, managed and programmed collaboratively between UC San Diego researchers and a community-based non-profit. Together we have transformed vacant and neglected parcels and spaces into new environments for collaborative research, educational programming, cultural production, environmental literacy and climate action. The UCSD Community Stations are “public spaces that educate.”

The UCSD Community Stations blur conventional academic boundaries between research, teaching and service, and enhance UC San Diego’s mission to be a “student-centered, research-focused, service-oriented public university.” The UCSD Community Stations are generously supported by University of California Regent Richard C. Blum, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The UCSD Community Stations network is the first of its kind in US public higher education, providing a rich context for high-impact, immersive global poverty research and practice in close proximity to the campus. As a network, the Community Stations also provide an exceptional laboratory for educational experimentation, mixed-method evaluation and assessment, and for sharing best practices in disadvantaged communities of color across the San Diego-Tijuana border region.

There are currently four UCSD Community Stations operating across the region, each focused on a unique set of urban and environmental issues

The UCSD-EarthLab Community Station is located in the Southeast San Diego neighborhood of Encanto in partnership with the non-profit Groundwork San Diego and the San Diego Unified School District.

Focus: informal K-12 education, environmental literacy and climate action.

The UCSD-Casa Community Station is located in the border neighborhood of San Ysidro, California in partnership with the non-profit Casa Familiar.

Focus: immigration, social housing, air quality and equitable urban development.

The UCSD-Divina Community Station is located in the Laureles Canyon, an informal settlement of 85,000 people at the periphery of Tijuana, in partnership with the nonprofit Colonos del la Divina Providencia.

Focus: poverty, environmental health, informal urbanization, water management and cross-border environmental policy.

The UCSD-Alacrán Community Station is located in the Alacrán Canyon, a precarious settlement and emergency migrant housing site at the periphery of Tijuana, in partnership with the faith-based organization Embajadores de Jesus.

Focus: emergency housing, migration and strategies for social and economic inclusion.

Our Mission

To REACTIVATE the university’s public mission, merging research, teaching and service to improve quality of life in disadvantaged communities across the San Diego–Tijuana border region.

To DEVELOP long-term partnerships between the university and community-based non profits to tackle today’s most pressing social and environmental challenges together.

To EDUCATE a new generation of leaders capable of thinking ethically and collaboratively across disciplines.

To PRODUCE public scholarship in collaboration with communities.

To BUILD and PROGRAM new public spaces that educate, where buildings and spaces themselves operate as pedagogical tools, rendering transparent the social and energy systems they contain.

To ADVANCE experimental forms of education, research, civic participation and economic development.

To INSPIRE faculty across disciplines to do ethical, community-engaged research and practice in diverse, underserved contexts.

To EXPAND experiential learning opportunities, and develop new field-based curricula that place students into actual communities settings.

To MOBILIZE the arts and humanities as tools of civic engagement that increase public knowledge and collective capacity in disadvantaged communities.

To PRODUCE new evidentiary data that can transform public policy.

To SUPPORT communities developing their own neighborhood civic infrastructure and affordable housing.


Localizing the Global

The UCSD Community Stations ‘localize the global’ by mobilizing the resources and capacities of the public research university toward urgent issues close to home. The San Diego–Tijuana border region is a microcosm of the many injustices and deprivations experienced by vulnerable people everywhere. While the Center on Global Justice has many projects abroad, the UCSD Community Stations enable us to intervene more robustly closer to home, where we have the most familiarity and knowledge, long-term community partnerships, the most capacity to act, and are likeliest therefore to have meaningful impact. The Community Stations enable a proximity and immediacy not typically available to researchers and university students in the US, who often travel thousands of miles from campus to engage sites of global poverty. Our students can be doing fieldwork in the morning in an informal Tijuana settlement, and back that same afternoon on campus in San Diego, enabling a unique convergence of theory and practice.

Co-producing Knowledge: A New Model of “Service”

The UCSD Community Stations redefine what it means for a university to “do service” in diverse, underserved communities. Our work is grounded in long-term partnerships of trust and commitment. We reject a vertical conception of charity or “applied research”—where the university is understood as the bearer of knowledge and resources, and the community as a passive recipient or a mere subject of data gathering. Instead we embrace a collaborative, or horizontal, model of engagement, in which university and community relate as partners both contributing knowledges and resources, and actively participating in collaborative research, learning and problem solving.  We co-produce new knowledge, co-produce solutions. Tipping the model from a vertical to a horizontal plane is an ethical move.

Diversity in Situ: A New Model of “Experiential Learning”

The UCSD Community Stations advance a distinctive approach to diversity and cultivating a campus culture of respect and decency. We are committed not only to diversifying campus demographics, and campus culture, which are essential, but also to developing new mechanisms of engagement and partnership between the campus and local underserved communities of color, that exemplify today’s most urgent social challenges. Through experiential learning in these environments, we can train our students how to exercise ethical responsibility in an increasingly diverse social and political world. We cultivate skills of cultural sensitivity and respect, of suspending judgment, listening and collaborating. These are skills that are best learned in situ, exemplifying UCSD’s commitment to experiential learning.


Today’s social challenges are not confined to disciplines, nor can their solutions be. The UCSD Community Stations help students recognize the intersectionality of challenges faced by underserved communities of color—including physical, ecological, social, economic, health, mental health, educational, cultural and urban policy challenges. Student researchers come from majors and minors across the campus—in the social sciences, arts and humanities, the natural and physical sciences, engineering and public health. Working in interdisciplinary teams, they learn to analyze social disparity through multiple lenses, learn to communicate across disciplinary languages, and to collaborate with each other and with our community partners.


The Public Scholars Program

Communities invest time, resources, social capital and knowledges when they collaborate with universities. It is essential that these contributions are validated and compensated. The Public Scholars program provides stipendiary support each academic year to respected community leaders, activists and promotoras who co-teach with us, engage with students, lead workshops and participate in other platforms for sharing their community-based experiences, knowledges and challenges. The Public Scholar also becomes an ambassador for their community inside the campus, helping our Community Stations programming become responsive and accountable to the visions and aspirations of our community partners. Through this “meeting of knowledges” Public Scholars actively participate in transforming the research and education agendas of our public university.

Experiential Learning Opportunities

The Value of Experiential Education

For decades UC San Diego has been committed to expanding experiential learning opportunities, to enrich undergraduate education. This is rooted in a long tradition of research on how people learn—from UC San Diego Cultural Psychologist Mike Cole’s foundational cognitive research on human development, learning and undergraduate instruction, and development of a “community station” model, to Sociologist Bud Mehan’s award-winning design of informal K-12 environmental education in underserved schools, and the launch of the UCSD-Preuss School, committed to this model. This tradition of experiential education thrives across the campus today, from Anthropology to Global Health, from Engineering to Urban Studies and the new Teaching + Learning Commons. All promote “learning by doing” and the enrichment of classroom learning with immersion in real-world challenges.

The Community Stations are committed to a model of experiential learning for undergraduates, and for the K-12 students who participate in our mentorship and environmental literacy programs.

Our internship programs for undergraduates immerse multi-disciplinary student teams in the UCSD Community Stations sites, and train them to analyze societal challenges through intersectional lenses, to communicate across disciplinary languages and knowledges, and to engage in collaborative problem-solving with each other, and with our community partners. Through this experiential model, our students become the civically-engaged, problem-solvers of the future.

Our mentorship and environmental literacy programming for K-12 students is based on The EarthLab Method, designed by UC San Diego Sociologist Bud Mehan, in collaboration with the nonprofit Groundwork San Diego and the San Diego Unified School District. It has become the experiential K-12 educational model adopted across the UCSD Community Stations.

Cultural Strategies

The Value of Experiential Education

Our programs, activities and cultural strategies are inspired by a Latin American history of radical pedagogy associated with Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. In the Community Stations, education is understood as an emancipatory tool, a generative framework for increasing agency and capacity in contested zones and divided communities. In his classic statement, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire said that it was necessary “to know how to want.”[1] In conditions of deprivation, marginalization and injustice, the imagination “is often conditioned by a lack in our concrete reality.” In other words the horizons of expectation are constrained within the limits of experience. Critical pedagogy intends to emancipate the imagination of oppressed and marginalized people, and increase a sense of agency and community capacity. But this was not simply a matter of imposing expert knowledge from the top, of filling empty vessels. Freire saw teaching and learning as a process that unfolds through a dialectical convergence between the common-sense knowledge of communities and the specialized knowledge of educators, incrementally shaped into new knowledge through performance, practices, and critical dialogue.

[1] Paolo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2007.

Cartographies of Coexistence

An expanded visual cognition of place is essential to recognizing interdependencies, and reimagining possible futures for the border region.  In our “Cartographies of coexistence” exercise, youth on both sides of the border draw cognitive maps of the border region. Can a child in Tijuana draw her city’s main attributes, natural and artificial? Can she name and draw the shape and location of mountains, rivers, valleys, mesas, shores, etc.? Can a child in San Diego do the same for San Diego? Can each of them draw their immediate walled territory, and beyond the wall? How do we imagine the larger region, regardless of the political artifact that bisects those geographic features? By drawing and performing the information they draw, their imagination becomes “un-walled”, and they can. They gain consciousness of the meaning and value of their environmental context.

Transgress Technologies

Of course, collaboration and “seeing anew” works best when the border is porous enough for people to move back and forth without danger or difficulty. It is still fairly easy (though time-consuming) for US citizens to cross into Tijuana and back into the United States. But increased militarization of the border wall in recent years has made it difficult and dangerous for residents of Tijuana to cross into the U.S. We have therefore developed a telecommunications platform with Opti-Portable units, that enable virtual transgression. Large monitor-consoles are installed in our Community Station sites, programmed with cameras and conventional web-based technologies like Skype and Google Hangout, that enable virtual cross-border dialogues, workshops, and performances with people who cannot or do not wish to cross the border physically. We also have a mobile trailer that enables nomadic access into otherwise inaccessible sites in the informal settlement in Tijuana.

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