Community Problem Solving: 7 things we learned along the way

We all want our students to be active, engaged citizens, but how do we invite them into issues of equity and civic engagement beyond the walls of the classroom?  As English Language Arts educators who are dedicated to helping our students become advocates for issues of social justice, we have been struggling with this question for years.  To complicate matters, our city was once a flourishing city on the Hudson River, but like many cities up and down the east coast, deindustrialization has left Newburgh with an increasing juvenile incarceration rate, entrenched drug and gang issues, and high poverty levels.  This past October, we sat working in a newly renovated cafe, just blocks away from where two students were shot and killed at a party a week earlier; our conversation turned to the gentrification happening in Newburgh.  

Local businesses, community leaders, and organizations in Newburgh have been working diligently to better our city, and while we wholeheartedly support the needed revitalization efforts, we worry about our students and their families, who might not be able to remain in a city where rents are steadily increasing.  We also fear that efforts to improve the city overlook the interests and voices of the residents who are already here.   We knew we needed to invite our students to learn about the changes our city was experiencing and find a way to insert their voices in the ongoing conversations about the future of Newburgh.  

Global to Local is a service-learning program we started to do just that.  As we work alongside our students to shape the program, we are learning some powerful lessons about community engagement, student voice and real-world learning.  

1. Think Big  As avid travelers ourselves, we know firsthand the power of immersing ourselves in a foreign culture.  We initially began Global to Local with the idea that inviting students to volunteer abroad would help them look at our own city with a new perspective.  We thought that if students could feel empowered to work for change in a foreign country, they could take that momentum back to our city and find ways to become change makers in our own city. We started searching out grant funding that might allow us to set up a partnership for travel because we did not want cost to be a prohibitive factor for our students.

2. Look for a Concrete Outcome Since our overarching goal was community engagement in Newburgh, we didn’t want the work our students did to be a one-shot travel experience. We brainstormed ways to create opportunities for students to use the knowledge, skills and dispositions gained to work for community betterment in our own city upon their return.  After conversations with community members and researching other programs, we came up with Community Impact Projects that would be undertaken by all 12th grade students in their senior year.  The students who were selected to volunteer abroad during the summer before 12th grade would act as project managers for the Community Impact Projects.  By creating this concrete expectation, the program shifted from a ten day commitment in another country to a full year, with the main focus on our city and the changes the students could help facilitate in Newburgh.

3. Let your vision evolve As educators, we were fortunate to secure a Fund for Teachers grant to travel to Ecuador during the summer of 2017 to scout out locations. We spent a few days volunteering through a company that partners individuals with local organizations.  As we painted murals at a local school during summer recess, we realized that we felt isolated from the local community we sought to serve.  Then we were invited to Casa Victoria, a grassroots after-school program serving sixty students in Quito.  We realized that if we partnered directly with this program, our students could work with the young people there, teaching them basic robotics and coding, playing games, and replenishing the small library.  Casa Victoria’s vision was more closely aligned with our objectives, and as we discussed the leap of faith that we would be taking by working with Alicia instead of traveling through an established company, we also realized that she offered a prime example of how citizens can work to change their own community.

4. Invite students to the Planning Table Before we even left for our scouting trip to Ecuador, we met with our entire tenth grade class and invited them to follow our trip on our blog.  They were able to ask questions, see some of the sights, and witness the evolution of the murals we painted.  They were also in a position to advocate for themselves when we came back and laid several program options on the table.  Students were adamant that they wanted to feel like they were making an impact through creating human connections, and they encouraged us to move forward in planning a partnership with Casa Victoria.

5. Let the Community Know Over the past year, we have met with countless local non-profits, hoping to create excitement for the Community Impact Projects, during which we hope to establish smart partnerships to work towards our shared goals.  We have also gotten students out into the community, where they have talked to local business owners, assisted at volunteer events for other organizations like Habitat for Humanity, and spread the word at the farmer’s market. We believe the more they talk publically about their goals, the better they become at articulating why this program will help them become empowered to be agents of change.

6. Remember the Importance of Shared Leadership We try to model for our students how collaboration not only strengthens our ideas, but also makes it possible for us to divide and conquer as we pursue our goals for Global to Local.  Without our collaborative efforts, we would never have established our partnership with FLYTE, who is generously supporting our students’ travel with their amazing non-profit.  Our students will be practicing shared leadership in the fall as well, as they enact their Community Impact Projects, and part of our work leading up to those projects is helping them learn to position themselves as leaders who listen and value the input of others.

7. Persist The process of making this dream a reality hasn’t been simple.  We have written countless grant applications, and waited two years to take our first research trip until we could secure the funding.  We have struggled, at times, to manage the complicated logistics of fundraising for and planning an overseas trip while teaching full time. We know we will have to help our students navigate the roadblocks they will encounter as they take on roles as change agents in our city, but we hope that we serve as role models of persistence and optimism.

As we get ready to board a plane to Ecuador in 5 weeks with our fifteen students and three dedicated colleagues, we are so grateful that so many people and organizations have supported our vision and helped to make our plans a reality for our students.  We hope that a year from now, as our students prepare for a summer of college classes, they are able to envision themselves as change makers and advocates for themselves and our community.  We hope that they see themselves as people who can make the world a better place.

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About christine mccartney

I am a teacher, a wife, a proud aunt, a dog rescuer, a person who has been rescued by my rescued dogs, a hiker, a four time (phew!) cancer survivor, a runner, a tattoo addict, a vegetarian, an advocate, a friend and a happy traveller. Enjoy!
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