Straight to the Heartland: How to Make a Big Difference in a Smaller City

March 7, 2018

In recent years, American universities have opened satellite campuses in exotic places. Yale in Singapore. NYU in Abu Dhabi. Cornell in Qatar. And soon, Brown in … Tulsa?

Why not? says Ken Levit ’87, executive director of the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation, whose driving ambition is to reverse the generational cycle of poverty, focusing on very young children and families. “I thought we ought to be a real magnet for Brown students, given their dynamism and their commitment to social justice and service,” he says.

Conversations on campus during Levit’s 30th reunion last May recently culminated in a fellowship program that, starting next year, will provide paid internships for undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate Brown students in the organizations GKFF invests in or partners with.

The program will provide 50 percent tuition relief for two master of public affairs students who commit to doing their 12-week consultancy in Tulsa, and, after graduation, working for two years in one of the foundation’s partners—be it in city government, early childhood learning, or an artist fellowship. The hope is that the experience will prove “sticky,” as Levit puts it, and the young people will choose to stay.

In addition, the Swearer Center, which is committed to precisely this kind of engaged scholarship, will recruit, train, and place three to five undergraduates in summer internships in Foundation-related organizations. (The Center recently launched the Brown in Washington program.) Any student interested in public policy or philanthropic partnerships and foundations will benefit from the program, according to Jennifer Romano, Swearer’s academic programs consultant. “They’ll get not only hands-on experience, but also learning experiences from mentors who are committed to ensuring their work is positive and meaningful. The staff at the foundation really want to make sure Brown students have a wonderful experience. It’s personal to them. Tulsa’s their home.”

A good fit

While Oklahoma’s second-largest city might seem like a tough sell to coastal millennials, Levit says the idea has merit. “We know that the values of Brown graduates align with what we are trying to achieve here in Tulsa,” Levit says. “Especially after the 2016 presidential election, maybe it’s good for Brown to look inward a little bit—that is, inward into the U.S.” Carrie Nordlund, associate director of the Public Policy Program, agrees. She says the MPA program, whose students hail overwhelmingly from California and the Northeast, welcomes the geographical diversity this fellowship will help attract.

Brown’s mission of “preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation” connects well with the ethos of the Foundation. Focused on creating equal opportunity for all children and addressing poverty as an intergenerational burden, George Kaiser formed the foundation to support early childhood education, social services, civic enhancement projects, and community health initiatives. The evidence-based programs it invests in include Women in Recovery, which provides mental health and substance abuse treatment and employment and family reunification services to incarcerated women. Another is Tulsa Educare, a high-quality early childhood education program that the Foundation helped establish.

The magnitude of the foundation’s resources (about $3.5 billion invested so far), combined with Tulsa’s manageable size mean that the Foundation and its partners can have more of an impact, and faster, than most public-sector efforts in larger cities. “Tulsa is very attractive because of its size and attributes. You can make a difference pretty quickly,” says Levit.

Nordlund and Romano recently traveled to Tulsa, visited the Foundation and several of its partner sites, and saw how the Foundation is literally changing the city landscape—notably through A Gathering Place for Tulsa, a 100-acre area on the Arkansas River that is being transformed into a community park for the city’s diverse population. The $450 million public‐private project is largest gift to a public park in U.S. history and will feature a five-acre Adventure Playground, bike and skate parks, nature trails, a boathouse, spaces for concerts, paddle boats, sports courts, and more – all for free.

“We want to further energize the work that is being done in community building,” says Levit, “by bringing talented curious committed Brown students into the heartland. We want them to fall in love with Tulsa.”

- Sarah C. Baldwin

Full press release the Brown and George Kaiser Family Foundation partnership.

Press coverage:
Tulsa World
Brown Daily Herald