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Doing community work “the right way” has roots at Clark

Melissa Walsh, M.A. ’09, embraces a people-first approach
Headshot of Melissa Walsh
Melissa Walsh, M.A. ’09

Melissa Walsh ’09 has connected early childhood educators with library resources, helped create professional development opportunities for home daycare providers, and run youth programs and summer camps. And that was all before entering the Community Development and Planning master’s program at Clark.

“I worked in the community for a few years and felt like I needed to get the technical training that comes with a degree in community development and planning,” Walsh says. She spent two years commuting to Clark from Providence, where she held various positions guiding youth programs for the YMCA. “I was able to still work part-time in the community and go to school, which was fantastic for me,” she says. “Route 146 and I were good friends. I’m surprised I didn’t get more speeding tickets.”

Walsh says she loved the mix of classroom theory and real-world experiences that characterized her discussions with faculty-practitioners and her fellow degree candidates in the program. “I feel like there was a real sense of camaraderie, with the classroom being the safe space to come together and make sense of what was happening in your practitioner world,” Walsh says.

Honoring people’s lived experience

After earning her degree, Walsh became the Director of Community Development at the YMCA of Greater Providence and then the Director of Community Engagement with The Neighborhood Developers in Chelsea, Massachusetts. “My experience and relationships got me in the door at the Y,” Walsh says, “but it was my degree that allowed me to build skills through professional development and evolve the work I was doing. With The Neighborhood Developers, I did participatory planning processes in both Revere and Chelsea, which was fantastic. All of that work was only possible because I had my degree in community development and planning from Clark.”

Walsh describes the CDP program as a thinking and training ground. “The professors are there because they believe in doing community development the right way,” she says, “and they’re working to help students become practitioners who will do the same.” Walsh believes the “right way” means building more resilient and equitable urban communities by confronting social and economic injustice. She embraces a people-first approach, which she traces back to her studies at Clark. “We were always mindful of a community’s history,” she says. “The program encouraged a way of honoring people’s lived experiences, which often means working in a trauma-informed way. I think Clark’s ahead of their time with that people-first approach.”

Equipped to pivot her career

After focusing the bulk of her career on community engagement within the context of community development, Walsh is now deepening her technical skills as a senior consultant with Triad Associates. Her work involves advising municipalities on how to manage and implement their community development grant funds and supporting them on their reporting and plan submissions to HUD. “This is much more of a backroom position,” she says, noting that it fits her current life as a mom with two young children. “Running public meetings is not really what I can do right now,” she says with a laugh.

If you had talked with Walsh about the administrative side of community development when she was a student at Clark, she would have told you she’d never do it. Thanks to the CDP program, she was nevertheless prepared. “It’s interesting how careers evolve and what works for you at different points,” she says.

She recalls her days at Clark with great affection. “If I could be in the CDP program forever, I would,” she says. “Those spaces and those discussions were so amazing.”