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The Community Engagement Center (CEC) was formed in 1997 by faculty, staff, students, and community members to utilize community and university assets to meet community identified needs. Formally called the Policy Center, then Community Learning and Public Service, now the Community Engagement Center. CEC's long history serving New Mexico communities began in the 1990s with long-term immersion experiences for faculty and students at the community level.

It was in the mid-1990s that the Institute for Educational and Community Leadership (IECL) gave shape to the future of CEC. This year long institute would bring together community leaders, institutional leaders, students, and youth to research, reflect, listen to community, study, and dialogue about educational inequities. ICEL participants from the South Broadway and Kirtland neighborhoods spoke of the gang violence plaguing their communities. Through research, community dialogue and reflection, the group came to see the need for safe spaces, caring adults and constructive activities to help address this community identified need. This Highlander-like experience gave shape to the UNM Service Corps, a collective of 100 university age students from Central New Mexico Community College and the University of New Mexico.

Currently, the Leadership for Equity Institute within CEC, in the tradition of Highlander and IECL, continues the PRAXIS model of knowledge, action and reflection from an anti-racism lens. Looking at undoing racism as key to institutional and systemic change for addressing health, education, and economic inequities. Strategically recruited to be racially diverse and from New Mexico, the UNM Service Corps represent the communities they serve. From its beginnings as a small pilot project, CEC programming has grown to impact more than 40 underserved communities and neighborhoods statewide with approximately 900 UNM Service Corps alumni.