Monday, December 16, 2013

Somali Partnerships in Springfield

By Michaela Coughlin
Edited by Lauren Quirici

 I began volunteering on Sundays for Mentors Without Borders, a Somali partnership program based on tutoring Somali refugees in Springfield, after one of my professors mentioned that she was offering extra credit to students who participated. After my first tutoring session, I was hooked. I’ve gone to Springfield to help every weekend since.

Before becoming involved with this program, I had never been exposed to Somali culture or the Somali language, nor had I worked with or even met a Somalian refugee. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I would be a long-term tutor, but I’ve become attached to the students and personally invested in the project’s success. I am working with Uzma Hussain this semester, one of the original developers of the project.

When I started working on this project in early September, my primary goal was to create structured and independent lesson plans for the children, teenagers, and adults who attend the tutoring sessions, as well as to improve the consistency of our students’ attendance. Mid-way through the semester, transportation—a perpetual struggle for our program—became critical, so my goal for the rest of the semester is to organize a safe, reliable, and sustainable method of transportation to get our students to our program’s Sunday location.

I see progress every day. Students are eager to learn and work very hard for the entirety of our three-hour tutoring sessions. In addition to our students, our community partner, the East African Cultural Center, led by Bledel Omar, is dedicated to serving the community. The East African Cultural Center has been very supportive and open-minded about all of our ideas and suggestions. In addition to Bledel Omar, Uzma and I are lucky to have Professor Elliot Fratkin from Smith College.  Professor Fratkin has been incredibly committed to supporting the program and has helped from working through transportation and communication problems to spending his Sundays tutoring with us in Springfield.

We have encountered many obstacles this semester. Some of these challenges were expected, but many were not. Thankfully, we have the support of Alan Bloomgarden as well as the rest of the staff in the CBL office.

As a CBL fellow managing a still-developing program, I have learned leadership skills, patience, and cultural sensitivity. I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to providing our students with quality and effective tutoring, and I take great pride when I see their achievements.

Mentors Without Borders

By Uzma Hussain
Edited by Lauren Quirici

The program that I am working with, Mentors Without Borders, was begun last year by myself and Mahdiya Ahmed.  This project began as a result of a CAUSE project centering around tutoring the Hussein family, a group of Somali refugees. Through them, I learned that there was a larger refugee population in Springfield. After learning this, we started working on forming a project designed to interact with and assist the refugee community in Springfield. This year, I am working on the project alongside another CBL fellow, Michaela Coughlin.The program has two CBL fellows, but we have many more mentors than we did when we started.

This year, one of the main things we wanted to work on was structure. Along with the help of Alan Bloomgarden, we discussed some methods for doing this. One of the steps we took toward establishing a better structure was purchasing workbooks that were recommended to us by Grey House, which also works with ESL students.

I am currently a senior, so I will be working on this project for one more semester. After I graduate, Michaela will take over. Structure and specialized education for each age group is something that I would like to achieve. Not all of the mentees have the same needs, and it’s important that we are able to provide useful resources to them all.

As with anything, especially a project that is relatively new, we do face some challenges. I’ve realized that it’s always important to keep in mind that although we may set goals for a semester or a year, achieving those goals relies on everyone’s full effort. Therefore, it is important to make sure that everyone is on the same page.  A project such as this is always going to be a challenge. Thinking that just because you found a solution to a problem once doesn’t mean that that problem will not arise again. It is also important to be aware of cultural differences. It’s important to be culturally conscious, and to understand that taking on a savior complex can be very problematic and should be avoided.

Mentee retention, and even mentor retention, has been an obstacle for us in the past. It’s always frustrating to encounter problems like this, but it has always been important for me to be able to take a step back and take a look at the whole picture rather than just one pixel of it.

I think above all, it has been important for me to do more than just study and take exams on this campus. This is why I sought to explore the community around me. Through such exploration, I was able to observe a need in the community and then develop this project to address it. In several of my classes we learn about ideas, concepts, and cultures through texts, but it’s a totally different feel when I actually get the chance to interact with the people who represent these cultures, who have these different ideas and concepts.

Every Sunday, I have a battle with my alarm clock in order to get up to get to Springfield. However, when I am able to make a connection with a mentee, or when a mentee understands a concept and gets really excited about it…those are the moments that make everything worthwhile. We work so hard on planning lessons to teach the mentees each Sunday, but more often than not I come back to campus realizing that I have also been taught a lesson.

Gardening the Springfield Community

By Julie Factor
Edited by Lauren Quirici

I am working with Gardening the Community (GTC), a food justice organization in Springfield. It was started in 2002 by Ruby Maddox, a then-resident of Springfield, and now the Associate Director for the Miller-Worley Center for the Environment at Mount Holyoke College, and Betsy Corner, the former social justice coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association. The program recruits and employs neighborhood youth to grow fruits and vegetables on abandoned and vacant lots in Springfield. The food is then sold at local markets and donated to food shelters.

In 2005, Springfield resident Kristen Brennan led GTC in fostering principles of sustainable living through biking produce to markets, using rain buckets to capture rain water for irrigation, and using more “people power” versus gas power to work the land. GTC continues to work with the city to expand the availability of urban garden space and promote urban agriculture.

I chose this project because I am passionate about food justice. During the summers, I work at a natural foods supermarket committed to providing healthy, organic, whole foods to the community. GTC served as an extension of this interest and it incorporates additional elements such as youth leadership development and building healthy, equitable communities through urban agriculture. My main role in the project concerns marketing and publicity. I manage the website, Facebook, and Twitter accounts to ensure that the community is regularly updated about the latest GTC news and upcoming events.

At the beginning of the semester my goal was to revamp the website design and update the content. We had a number of big fundraising events that required a lot of publicity so the website redesign took the backseat, but I will continue to work on it through the next semester. My longer-term goals include finding a more professional platform and format for the website, because it is currently a blog on WordPress.

My project has been coming along nicely. I have established a greater presence on social networks and managed to keep the blog updated regularly. We held our annual Harvest Celebration and Pancake Breakfast in the beginning of November, and the event sold out! I was responsible for keeping the website updated with information about the event and sending e-mail invitations and registration forms to our supporters, and we obviously had a great response. As I mentioned, the fundraisers meant that the more major web updates were put on hold, but I look forward to tackling that later this month once our big fundraising efforts are complete.

I have not run into any major difficulties in accomplishing my goals. It is simply the nature of a nonprofit with a small staff to have to prioritize our tasks, and we are successful in completing those which are most pertinent. We introduced a #GTCSpringfield twitter tag at our pancake breakfast so that our attendees could live-tweet the event and a fair number did so! It is always encouraging when the community members participate and support our new efforts.

I have done a great deal of prioritizing and getting the most immediate tasks done. I usually have to update new material to all of our web platforms before I can update the older existing material. This semester, our fundraisers needed the most attention. I worked on outreach and maintaining an organized spreadsheet of registrants as well as our entire donor database. I have gotten valuable experience working with databases that I didn’t even expect! I am constantly redirecting my approach so that I can focus my energy on those tasks which need to be completed immediately.

One of my larger goals in becoming a CBL Fellow in Springfield was to become more familiar with the community and its needs. I attended Springfield Bound, a number of workshops through GTC, and will attend an Undoing Racism workshop. The more I learn about it, the more concern I have for the city of Springfield, and the closer I feel to the community.

 I don’t get to work with the youth often, but when I do, I really enjoy it. They are mostly high school students working with GTC, and they bring a fresh and entertaining perspective to things. I love seeing other youth who are concerned about food justice issues as much as I am. I also love seeing the encouraging responses we’ve gotten to our fundraising efforts, and being able to enjoy the wonderful events we’ve spent months planning is definitely a bonus. It is only frustrating that change doesn’t happen faster!

We are collaborating on initiatives to bring a grocery store to Springfield, as the city is considered a food desert (a term for an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food), as well as working to develop a plan to make Springfield more accommodating for bicyclists and pedestrians. There is so much work to be done to make Springfield a more sustainable community, and it is a pleasure to be a part of these valuable efforts. 

Empowering Girls in Springfield

By Julia Montiel
Edited by Lauren Quirici

Girls to Women is a mentorship program that was started last April by myself, my friend Jaenelle and a group of five other girls. The group aims to empower young girls of color in the urban areas of Springfield. Girls to Women aims to help the girls achieve leadership, facilitate learning through artistic mediums, and promote self-awareness. I am highly passionate about empowering girls, especially minority girls. I was a part of a program similar to this one in high school, it inspired me to give back what I learned.

I am the co-chair and CBL fellow for this program. We agreed as a group to delegate certain tasks, and I was delegated co-chair/fellow. There are currently 8 mentors, and we are working on recruiting more.
Among my goals for the beginning of the semester were to establish a relationship with a high ranking supervisor in the high school, establish a viable transportation method, recruit mentors and mentees, and organize lesson plans. I am definitely able to see a good amount of progress in terms of transportation, establishing relationships, and recruitment. All of my goals are coming along well.

I plan to work on this project through the spring semester.  We have not started the program yet because we are still recruiting mentors/mentees, but it should be up and running by the spring semester. My long-term goal for this program is to have a great group of young women becoming life-long mentors to the young girls in Springfield.

Some challenges that I have faced have been the issue of transportation to and from Springfield.  The time commitment that is needed for this kind of program has also been a problem, since, as a full-time student, my availability is limited.

So far, I haven’t had to tweak my goals or visions because of the great support that I have on-campus at Mount Holyoke and off-campus in Springfield. Both schools are extremely welcoming and understanding of my vision, and are willing and able to help me achieve my objectives.

I have learned that I need more patience, especially in dealing with the time commitment involved in trying to establish a program from the ground up. It is extremely difficult and time consuming, but I find myself loving what I do even more because of this.

College and Career Readiness at the High School of Commerce

By Dianna Tejada
Edited By Lauren Quirici

My project is a partnership with the High School of Commerce (HSC) in Springfield, Massachusetts, which I created on my own.  As a 2011 graduate of the high school, my experiences there helped me with its creation.  Initially the project was called “The College Access Workshop Series,” but after discussions with the staff that I work with, it was changed to “College and Career Readiness.” 

My role is to be a co-facilitator in the College and Career Readiness course at the HSC.  I will be available to speak about certain relevant topics, such as being a student who attends an institution that does not require standardized testing, and how can I use my experience to help the youth in the course. I am also responsible for creating a full-day event for the community partner wherein students come to Mount Holyoke and attend workshops, mock classes, practice interviews and a campus tour.

My goals in the beginning of the semester were as simple as just getting this program running.  I had been involved last semester with a different community project, so I had to begin from scratch with this partnership. I plan on sticking with the HSC for the full school year (or longer) in order to ensure not only that the HSC attains a 100% college acceptance rate, but that the youth are doing what makes them happy at the end of it all.

It has been a huge adjustment having to change my entire fellowship after I was already established at a different one, but everything with HSC has been going much more smoothly than I ever would have imagined. It was a little difficult getting into the school to begin the partnership from the beginning, but after the community partners realized that my commitment to change was real, they warmed up to the idea that “an outsider” (due to affiliation) would be coming in to help them.

Initially, my fellowship was supposed to involve me creating a curriculum and facilitating workshops on college access for the youth. The workshops would have covered everything from pinpointing what kind of higher educational institution fits an individual’s needs most to figuring out what narrative would be best to represent each student in his or her college essay. After meeting with the community partners, I came to find out that they had already created a course which covers these topics.  This meant that I would have to open my mind to the possibility of working on my project during school and not after school as I had initially planned.

Being aware that I am there to serve them, I decided to go in with my mind open to all of the possibilities that could come out of my proposal. Now, I am working together with HSC staff to figure out what the needs of the students are. We want to find out whether I would be of more help in the classroom, or if I’d be better as a mentor in a more intimate setting, like an after-school program.

I am always frustrated that I don’t have enough time in my schedule to do it all. I would love to spend full days at the HSC and get to know every senior, but being a full-time student means that unfortunately, it’s just not possible.
I do love that this partnership allows me to go back to my foundation and help make it stronger for those who will follow me in working with the HSC. It is an amazing experience and and opportunity, and I am able to watch myself grow through the change I am able to help implement at HSC.

Library/Biblioteca 451 brings education to the people

By Cheryl O’Connell
Edited by Lauren Quirici

Library/Biblioteca 451 is a people’s library founded by myself along with a group of students from Holyoke and Springfield just over a year ago. After attending Holyoke Community College together and being involved in organizing in our community, we decided to make the critical education that we had access to more available to the rest of our community. We placed bookshelves in public spaces such as barber shops, restaurants, and community programs around the area, and provided pop-up libraries, and facilitated teach-ins to learn with our community about social justice issues.

We took the name of the project from the book Farenheit 451. The project started off with just a few people. Over the last year, more volunteers have started working with us. The number of volunteers involved fluctuates, but there's a core group of about seven of us.  The group is structured in a non-hierarchical way, so we all work together and make decisions collectively.  We have made great connections throughout the community and hear often that people stop by our shelves for books.

One goal of mine was to get the project more organized and make our system more efficient. This semester, we were able to organize the warehouse space where books are stored before they are distributed. I also created a blog and set up a partnership with local bookshops for donations.

The biggest challenge for Library/Biblioteca 451 has been finding a way for our project to stay relevant and inclusive. We want people in the community to feel a sense of ownership in what we're doing. We have also had to work on re-evaluating our system of obtaining donations. We get a lot of books through social media, but this hasn't proven to work well for getting Spanish language books. We are currently working to find a new way to accomplish this goal.  We’re hoping to continue to build a stronger relationship with our community where there will be more mutual learning opportunities.

I'm changed by this project all the time. I learn so much from my community about what issues we should be focusing on, how to actively listen, and what it means to build community. I love the literature and the conversations that arise out of sharing in the learning process. It's frustrating for me that I don't have more time to dedicate to 451. Hopefully that will change in the future.

Support for Mothers and Women from Behind the Scenes

By Carolyn Waskeiwicz
Edited By Lauren Quirici

I am working at MotherWoman, a nonprofit organization located in Hadley, Massachusetts that supports and empowers mothers to create positive personal and social change.  Some of the ways that MotherWoman seeks to do this is by building community safety nets, impacting family policy and promoting the leadership and resilience of mothers.

I chose to work with MotherWoman because it is located in my hometown. I wanted to make an impact on women in my community, as well as in the Pioneer Valley.  My goal going into this internship was to make difference for somebody, and I believe I have done that by working behind the scenes and preparing the training sessions which teach facilitators to run support groups, ultimately helping the women who are in need.

MotherWoman is a very small nonprofit organization.  It employs three full-time staff and another three people part-time. There are also six interns from the five college community working with the group.
I am currently doing all the preparations that my supervisors need to run the different training sessions that MotherWoman offers. I often prepare handouts and packets of information which the participants receive at the training sessions. I also wrote and delivered donation letters to local businesses in effort to secure donations of food and supplies for the weekly support groups for mothers. 

My expectations were broad when I went into MotherWoman, and my goals are being met in a different way than I had imagined. I thought I’d be impacting mothers on the ground level, but instead I have been mainly supporting my supervisors in order to allow them to do the ground level support. I am hoping next semester to get out into the field, and to really see what these training sessions are all about.

I have learned that non-profits can be very hectic, and dealing with this has taught me to be more patient and accommodating. I have definitely grown throughout the semester, and have built up my own self-confidence and self-expectation along the way I love knowing that I can come into MotherWoman and have a task put in front of me, and with the skill set they’ve given me, I can quickly and effectively complete it.  I also enjoy the freedom that my supervisors have given me to complete work on my own.  It has been easy to make progress accomplishing my goals because I am supported in so many ways at MotherWoman. That’s what they do, after all. It’s no surprise that they support everyone in the office as well as they do the mothers in their target group.

It is frustrating that MotherWoman struggles to get all the support that they need. The office needs new things, such as a larger printer, to help them grow; but they also need to grow in order to be able to afford things like larger printers.  It’s a struggle. It feels good, however, to know that during my first semester, I have really helped to make the training program a stronger one by supporting my supervisors and helping them to quickly and effectively make decisions and to organize the training materials. I love that everyone at the organization is so passionate about being there, too, and that despite all the challenges, everybody works so hard to get the job done.