Tuesday, October 25, 2011

SPARK the Truth & Wheelock College

In an organization that is amidst its 5th year of existence, one can only imagine the effort that goes into a day as a non-profit worker. At SPARK the Truth we seek to ignite social action amongst Boston students, and create environments that foster our living philosophy of UBUNTU. Ubuntu is a word from the Bantu language of South Africa that gives light to a way of living; it simply means “I am because you are”.
Being placed in an environment where this is a guiding principal it is our sole mission as workers that all of our actions reflect a communal thought process. One large component of communal interconnectedness is the presence of a support system. But what’s a support system without people? SPARK thought about this years back when they applied for a MACC/VISTA. The organization knew they needed a backbone for its growing membership but obtained little to no fiscal foundation that would permit a full time employee to support the organization. With that said, every time I walk in my office I am reminded that my position is not for me but rather to sustain a message that has to spread. This means that my role here is important to me but vital for our community.

When I attended SPARK the Truth’s first Board meeting, I was overwhelmed with much anxiety and questioned if I would even be good enough for the task at hand. My thoughts began to clutter my mind and before I knew it I was walking into the meeting. Upon my entrance a young women quickly sprouted from her seat and exclaimed “You must be the New MACC/VISTA!” I was enthralled by her excitement and every negative thought quickly vanished. It was at this moment that I realized the significance of my role and the importance of belonging in an organization that truly needs your time, talent and input!

At our first board meeting I wasted no time and began to help with strategic planning for the New Year. I was so comforted by the warmness of the founders, advisory board members and my new supervisor. They have all made things begin to click for me, I have thought a lot about “doing service” as an AmeriCorps VISTA member and I have realized that I am suppose to be doing this, I am suppose to be at SPARK, because SPARK is serving the world. I recognize that my role as a vista helps sustain UBUNTU, and there is no better solution to a problem than filling organizations with individuals who want to work, serve and change their communities.
I cannot offer a specific story but I can convey a feeling that has evolved in me over the last month. I presume this is something that my fellow MACC/VISTA’s have experienced. I encourage us all to remember our stories, but most importantly for us to capture the feeling of knowing you’re doing what is right!

We are doing what’s right, we are making progress and we are growing.

- Brittany Wheaton
MACC AmeriCorps *VISTA at Wheelock College

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Rebuilding After the Tornado - Rose Delorme

My impact story is one, which will continue even after I write this blog. My impact story involves the South End Community of Springfield and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, more specifically the Student Bridges agency.

After the tornado went through Springfield, MA, it left devastating impacts on the community of Springfield. There were many homes destroyed and many lives left upside down. The South End community is one of the tornados victims. The place we will focus on for the story is the South End Community Center. The community center was a hub for all community events. It housed one of Student Bridges 4-H after school programs; it was where all the community youth came to play basketball. The community center was a safe haven a place where families knew their children could go to escape the dangerous streets of Springfield. After the tornado the building was condemned. No longer could the children play basketball and no longer was there a safe place to go in the afternoons after school.

As I entered my MACC Americorps *VISTA year I was faced with a new project: get a large scale project going to help get the South End Community Center back on its feet. How could I possibly do this I thought? What is it specifically that the South End community center needs in order to get back on their feet? After meeting with some of our community partners I learned that the center lost all of its computer equipment as well as all their gym equipment, it was all stolen after the tornado left the building without a roof. Yet, the community center was swamped with work and could not find time to set aside to focus on raising funds to get these items back. While in the Bridges office we brainstormed fundraising ideas and came up with having a basketball tournament. In many ways this was a metaphorical way of bringing the community back on its feet doing the one thing they love the most, playing basketball.

I sent out an email to every person I knew from Amherst, Springfield, Holyoke and even Boston. I immediately got rapid responses back of people offering services to get this event rolling. The most powerful and inspirational phone call came from the Umass men’s basketball coach. Brian Kellogg is the Umass basketball coach. He is a Springfield native himself. On a sunny day as I was sitting in the office I get a phone call and the voice on the other end stunned me. It said, “Hello, this is coach Kellogg can I speak to Rose Delorme please?” I was breathless. Often times we turn certain people in our communities into superheroes and we can never imagine them as agents of change. However, Coach Kellogg went from just the Umass basketball coach to me into a Springfield native looking to get his community back on his feet.

My impact story doesn’t have a resolution yet because the event date has been pushed back to April in order to allow for more successful planning. However, my story speaks to an impact story that will span over the entire year. We will be having monthly meetings to plan out every detail of the event. Our fundraising goal is 10,000 dollars. I know we set it high but does community engagement really have a price tag?

-Rose Delorme
MACC VISTA with Student Bridges, UMASS Amherst

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Where Bus Routes Lead - Kelleyanne Curley

“Keep walking down Maple, turn left on Appleton, then right on Nick Cosmos Way; after three blocks, the building will be on your right.”

I spent my day compiling directions like these to locations I do not intend to visit. This may seem futile, useless, redundant even? Now, if you knew where these directions were leading you, and how, you might understand their value, and how I was able to sustain interest in the seemingly mundane activities of my Monday.

Before you can even begin traveling these streets, you must get on a bus. Many of us are guilty of taking buses for granted, if we even use them at all. I myself, take a free bus to my office every day. With my headphones and novel, it becomes easy to forget that I am on a bus, let alone think of their history. I know that buses have been segregated, that their design once ironically ignored wheels significant to those using wheelchairs and strollers. Transportation was a restricted privilege. People have fought for the mere right to ride the bus, to make them accessible and inclusive, it seems easy to overlook, easy to forget that buses bring us to places that, otherwise, we might not be able to get to.

My most common experience with buses has always been related to school. That is where they usually bring me - home to school, school to home. This bus that I am talking about, the one that brings you to Maple Street has the unique pleasure of bringing people from one school to another. This is the pilot year of a bus route that travels back and forth from the five colleges in the Pioneer Valley to various schools and social service agencies in the city of Holyoke. This specific route brings you to the Holyoke Boys and Girls Club and well as to Girls Inc, both organizations founded to improve the lives of young students by providing college-positive messages and giving them the space to realize and develop their skills.

Like the fight to ride the bus, there is a fight in Holyoke to equalize accessibility and get people places. In a city with one of the highest drop-out rates in Massachusetts, it is easy to look at community though a lens of needs and limitations, or maybe to not see it at all, but the people that I have been working with refuse to be restricted by negativity. We reject the idea there is a finite quantity of resources and there are “needy” individuals uses these resources without any contribution. The problem of accessibility is usually hidden behind the assumption that problems are linked to individuals and not the systems that are influencing them. We see this problem as one we can solve together with the assets of the colleges and the city of Holyoke. In the past month, I have found myself sitting with a table of VISTAs, former VISTAs, campus community-based learning coordinators and community partners working to get this bus route running. Our programs seek not just to lower the drop-out rate, but to get students into college. We are working to make education accessible and inclusive, and the buses are integral to that process.

Western Massachusetts is a geographic region full of resources, many of which are held at the institutions of higher education. The students at these institutions are limited in that they cannot easily leave the bubble of the college they attend. The people of the community are limited in that it is nearly impossible to travel the relatively short distance to a college environment. Both are limited by resources and people that are just far enough to be out of reach. Through this bus route, we are able to extend those resources to our neighbors. In return, we meet highly qualified students and community members and learn about what is going on around us. All of this done through a simple (though complexly configured) bus route that will remind us that buses and people can bring us to places that, otherwise, we might not be able to get to.

-Kelleyanne Curley

Friday, September 23, 2011

ACES Early College Awareness Program (Access, Confidence, Education, Success)

The goal of the ACES program is to help fifth and sixth grade students at the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School become more aware of the opportunities a college education offers, understand financial aid and scholarships, and learn about the importance of planning ahead and developing good habits for future success. The program also aims to give Lasell College student mentors leadership experience, encourage social responsibility, and facilitate exploration of possible careers working with youth.

The ACES program was originally created through a partnership between Lasell College’s Center for Community-Based Learning (CCBL) and the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School. After building a relationship between the two institutions through several years of success with the America Reads and America Counts tutoring programs, Professor Sharyn Lowenstein, Director of the CCBL, and Jessica Dugan, Director of Development and Partnerships at Boston Renaissance, decided to implement a much needed early college awareness program.

Over the past 4 years ACES has proven to be an extremely successful program and has continued to grow. During the 2010- 2011 academic year over 200 fifth and sixth grade students were able to receive an in-class college lesson and attend a field trip to the Lasell college campus. During their visits, the students had the chance to attend educational activities that included: visiting college courses, campus tours, eating in the cafeteria, speaking on the Lasell College radio station and interacting with college students in different ways. 15 BRCPS students also received additional college lessons during their afterschool program, while 15 other students returned to campus for a Shadow Day with a college student. Attending BRCPS’s College Night also afforded Lasell College students an opportunity to showcase their work.

Through the success of the partnership with BRCPS, the AmeriCorps VISTA continued to expand the program to new partnerships with the Boston Boys and Girls Club and Science Club for Girls. These groups also came to the Lasell campus for their own campus visits geared to their own specific needs. The Lasell College mentors all had very positive feedback about their experience working with the youth. Because of this, the awareness around campus about the program has also spread. In the past year the program had over 60 Lasell College students volunteer a total of almost 350 hours of service through the program. 17 Lasell courses hosted the students in their classrooms, and 6 student clubs hosted activities.

During this upcoming academic year the estimated number of BRCPS students has increased to 250 students for a total of 5 Campus Visits in the fall. The VISTA has already had multiple conversations with other partners who are interested in pursuing more campus visits for their programs. Some of the goals for the ACES program over this academic year are to increase the involvement of other offices around campus, strengthen training and reflections for a more consistent volunteer group of students, create a more standard ACES curriculum to use for planning additional visits, and model for other institutions.

Ginelle Gaulin-Mckenzie
Macc AmeriCorps VISTA at Lasell College

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Community: It's All About Relationships

Hi Everyone! I am sorry that this is my first post since October – where has the time gone? Suffice it to say, blogging went to the back burner due to the infinite things going on at MassArt. But I am back with another thought provoking entry, so grab your coffee or tea and indulge your eyes.

About two months ago I met with the manager of a local Mission Hill business who immigrated to Boston from Somalia fifteen years ago. I was there to talk about his experiences with several MassArt exhibits that hung in his coffeehouse, but the conversation quickly shifted to a much more meaningful dialogue around civic engagement and an academic institution’s role confronting public needs. In short, he recalled a neighborhood clean-up drive comprised of “hundreds” of students from a major university in the area. The manager explained the students (and even faculty) were clueless about Mission Hill and the most important aspect of change – relationship building.

There is a major trend in higher education to invest millions of dollars into civic engagement initiatives and collaborations. That is, many institutions typically coordinate programs wherein throngs of students, faculty, and staff members travel en masse to “high risk” neighborhoods and partake in a multiplicity of programs that usually aim to provide services for disadvantaged citizens. This work is noble for a myriad of reasons, but ultimately these agents of change have little knowledge on the fundamentals of community or what a community actually needs, as evidenced in my discussion with the coffeehouse manager; rather, colleges need and seek quantifiable data for funders and grant proposals so, for the most part, the term “civic engagement” translates into nothing more than a numbers game. If aggressive action is not the right ingredient to building community, than what is? There is no easy answer to that question, but based on my experiences working with the Mission Hill and lower Roxbury neighborhoods, I can say that relationships are a big part of the solution.

MassArt wrote a MACC AmeriCorps*VISTA grant so that the office I work in could build and cultivate relationships in the neighborhoods closest to the college. The Center for Art and Community Partnerships believes that MassArt can exercise better stewardship of place when strong, reciprocal relationships exist. So, I have spent the past few months doing exactly that – meeting with community organization leaders, public school principals, and community activists to talk about resources that can be reciprocally shared between neighborhood organizations and MassArt. So, for example, when I met with the executive director of the Tobin Community Center, we not only talked about the needs of the Tobin and ways the MassArt community can align their community work to help address those needs, but we also discussed how the Tobin’s patrons (mainly youth and teens) can come to MassArt and learn and share from our cohort of artists. In this fashion, MassArt students are going out into the community with an understanding they will learn just as much from the people they plan to help. In other words, a sustainable relationship defines and is at the helm of their community-based work, not just a mere timesheet showing how many hours they spent on a project.

My work will be shifting into another related direction once the new year commences. The next step is to take what I learned and help develop the foundation work for MassArt’s upcoming ArtMobile, which I will share more with you about in January’s blog post. How’s that for a tease?

As this year quickly comes to an end, I feel pleased with what I have accomplished vis-à-vis building community relations in such a short time. I’ve learned so much about the idiosyncrasies of Mission Hill’s people, places, and things, that I somehow feel like I am now part of the neighborhood. Above all, I am most happy seeing the college community rolling up their sleeves and learning about acute need in neighborhoods of vast adversity alongside those who need assistance most. This, to me, is the true meaning of being a civically engaged human being.

I want to remind everyone that MassArt's galleries are free and open to the public. Many of the exhibits in the galleries are works from world renowned artists so they are definitely worth your time. You can see the schedules, hours, etc. here: MassArt Galleries

I wish you all a safe and joyous holiday season filled with peace, love, and happiness.


MACC AmeriCorps*VISTA serving at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Non-Traditional Outreach

Hello from BU! I, like Aaron, must begin with an apology that I neglected my blogging duties for as obscenely long as I have, but here we are at last.

In the last two months, I have been visiting as many of Boston’s public schools as I have been able to, generally for events like back-to-school open houses and Parent Council meetings, to present the Scholarship for Parents to families who might be ready to return to school. I must express my awe and gratitude to staff and faculty at those schools, who have been so welcoming and supportive of BU’s outreach, and have provided me really positive space to have conversations with Boston families. I attended the Parent University fall kick-off over the weekend, which is a great program that BPS Office of Family & Student Engagement stages for BPS parents. The Fall Session was a series of workshops at Northeastern University designed to foster parent engagement and involvement; in addition to parents, many of the attendees were BPS staff that I have had the chance to work with this fall, and it was such a pleasure to reconnect with members of what I found to be such a warm and dedicated community. As the start-of-year push fades (September and October have been crazy-busy), Parent University was serendipitously timed to offer space to reconnect with schools that I have rapport with and can now move forward with deeper/more meaningful outreach.

I want to spend a little time discussing Parent University itself, because it is an interesting springboard to address non-traditional education. BPS’s Parent University is a series of classes taught at different district schools designed to give parents tools to take a more active roles in their children’s education, which dovetails so neatly with my goals as a *VISTA. I titled this post “Non-Traditional Outreach,” which is a joke that I use (not often to laughs, but I find it funny) to refer to my job: I do non-traditional outreach for non-traditional students. The language “non-traditional” is so revealing in that it represents that adults continuing education are so under-represented in discussions about college access and success, yet parents and parent involvement plays such a central role in college success. The reason underserved youths so often struggle with degree attainment is that they start the “college game” later, and that is often because college is not discussed at home like it will be if their parents have attended college. Programs that empower parents to talk to their children about college perform the most vital function of college success, which is augmenting the academic expectation. More immediately than pushing parents to hold their children accountable for higher education, adults who earn degrees have more confidence and earning potential, and are thus better equipped to support their families and communities. Parents are in this way the locus of change, and yet they are relegated to supporting roles in the college access discussion, and because there is no institutional expectation, the problem is creating the expectation that non-traditional students are exactly as vital to the conversation as 18-24 year olds.

Now that I have that out of the way, I can set down my pom-poms and think strategically about how to institutionalize this fairly new scholarship within the community itself. I am the third *VISTA at BU to work on Scholarship for Parents, and I am so fortunate to have followed behind two *VISTAs who worked so hard to make the Scholarship visible in the community and create institutional memory within the Metropolitan College. What I see as my challenge is to develop the content of my outreach, and to strengthen MET’s relationship to the community. In the end, this comes down to the relationships we have with community members, and how we foster mutual accountability. Legitimacy emerges as we realize the stake we have in each other, how the community fabric is dependent on that mutualism. Where the word “non-traditional” comes in is the nature of this relationship we have with Boston adults, which until two years ago did not legitimately exist. There have been no institutional avenues to compel working adults who are just trying to keep the wheels on the family wagon that college is prerequisite to family and community health. Now that I have developed a lay of the land, my job is to foster strong ties in the community and institutionalize the college standard.

Until next time,

Aaron Villere
Boston University Metropolitan College

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

More than my imagination

I suppose I’ll start this blog out with an apology, I kind of got busy, uninterested and decided that blogging in September would not happen. September was pretty wild. I spent a number of days loathing over tasks and repetitively reconsidering the realities of my program, Serving Our Communities. In all of my mental searching, I still found no real explanation that provided me with the key to unlocking my basic question, “how is this building capacity, and how will it manage without me?”

During our *VISTA/Supervisor gathering at Amherst College, my supervisor Meghan, and I were able to finally make a long overdue connection. At the beginning of my post, she had several obligations, so I went two and a half weeks without her. Within that time, I had already created a few connections and had formed my own opinion of BHCC and of some of the people within it. Meghan is the face of the Community Engagement Office, it is here from her creation and she birthed it three years ago. What I have concluded in regards to this office is a lack of structure, a lack of connections/partnerships, and a true misunderstanding of what this office is and does. So during the *VISTA/supervisor meeting, Meghan revealed a number of her barriers and ideas, and how these items have affected the progress of the office. Although I see the potential in Serving Our Communities, I would much rather focus on planning, foundation building and organizing the office, so that it is able to productively provide its services and resources as naturally as possible for students, faculty, staff and community partners.

I imagined that this conversation would move us to the next stage of planning, but it simply cracked the door, as I don’t feel that a significant move towards sharing responsibility was made. As a result, I have decided that I must begin to self initiate, make changes when I see that they are necessary, do a little cleaning up around the edges, noticed or not. As for Serving Our Communities, I have a jolly group of students, all of them spread pretty far across the Boston and North of Boston area… we’ll see how it works out. For now, I plan to develop two stylistic forms of the program. One will be for a curriculum based course, the other for a student run organization. In these fashions, SOC will likely work best. I have a lot more that I must update the world on, but for now, I’ll organize my thoughts and share them another time. To all the world there is a responsibility and that is to leave this place better than you encountered it. Thanks for tuning in.

A@ron C