What happens when you isolate people by race and class? Every fall Robert Timberlake, adjunct instructor in the College of Engineering, takes 25 students on an experiential journey to uncover the answers to that question. Through his course Decent and Affordable Housing, Timberlake exposes students to inner-city housing conditions and discusses the ethical responsibilities that are inherent in the Judeo-Christian tradition for dealing with poverty. In what he calls “an outdoor lab experience,” students work on Habitat for Humanity homes and garages in impoverished areas of Milwaukee and witness what it is like to live in poor, segregated neighborhoods.
“We as a society have created a perfect storm of the most negative sort,” Timberlake says, highlighting the effects of deplorable inner-city housing in Milwaukee and similar American cities. “More than 30 percent of African-American males will serve time in prison during their lives. That statistic leaps to 58 percent among those who do not finish high school.
“This is what happens when you allow disinvestment in central cities. But we’re making progress one block at a time thanks to Habitat, the city and others who are dedicated to improving the inner city.”
A steel worker’s son, Timberlake grew up in southwestern Ohio. He graduated from the University of Michigan where — as quarterback — he led the Wolverines to a Rose Bowl Championship in 1964. He attended Princeton Seminary and became a Presbyterian minister before spending 18 years in health care administration.
Although Timberlake is not an engineer by trade, Dr. Mike Switzenbaum, chair of the college’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, invited him to teach the course. A longtime Habitat for Humanity volunteer, Timberlake wanted the course to stress experiential learning.
|“Improving housing in poor, inner-city areas is an important strategy as we seek to tip the balance in the right direction.”
“Our students are engaged in a kind of muscular Christianity,” he says. “Working alongside families,
students learn firsthand how difficult it is to get out of poverty. It is a profoundly moving experience.”
Since the course was introduced in 2004, Timberlake’s students have built 11 garages. They also continue to help in the construction of numerous Habitat homes.
“Improving housing in poor, inner-city areas is an important strategy as we seek to tip the balance in the right direction,” Timberlake says. “We’re giving people hope for social mobility.”