Finding Voice: Taking Action
Education, Scholarship, and Community Collaboration in Syracuse's Near Westside Neighborhood
When Meghan Taylor Donohue registered for “Advanced Argumentative Writing” for the fall 2010 semester, she thought she was simply knocking off another required subject for her writing major. To her amazement, she was drawn into a yearlong, intensive, community project that transformed her life.
Instead of sitting in a classroom all semester, each week Donohue and her classmates traveled a short distance away from Syracuse University to share life-stories and explore concepts of “home” with residents living in Syracuse’s Near Westside. “As we wrote and listened to each other’s stories, we learned that while everybody has their own idea of home, we still shared many of the same values,” she says.
The class is one of a series of courses taught by Steve Parks, associate professor of writing, and John Burdick, professor of anthropology, that lie at the intersection of education, scholarship, and community collaboration and which have supported efforts by Near Westside residents to come together to work toward common goals through their newly established grass-roots organizations.
“Our goal is to enable our students to see that education has a social dimension,” Parks says. “But the work students do in the community must be tightly integrated into the educational framework. The trick was to create a project that serves the needs of the community but also serves the educational needs of students. Too often service-learning meets the needs of neither, because the projects are not rich enough to help the community and are a tag-on to the educational component.”
The first step was to find out what residents wanted. To do that, Parks and Burdick developed a course (cross listed in anthropology and writing) that required students to learn about community organizing, social change, and ethnographic and qualitative research. Students applied their skills by surveying Near Westside residents and organizing focus groups at St. Lucy’s and Brown Memorial churches and other neighborhood locations. The course was supported with funding from Imagining America, a consortium of colleges and universities that supports public scholarship and practice, which is based at SU.
“We split the neighborhood into quadrants and went door-to-door in teams of two,” says Melissa Raimundo, a senior with a triple major in international relations,
economics, and Spanish, who took the course in spring 2010. “As a group, we did about 80 interviews. It was one of the most influential experiences I have had at SU.”
Raimundo, who was a sophomore at the time, says her experiences on the Near Westside brought to life issues of racial prejudice and social justice she had been reading about in her classes. “We got to see how structural and institutional injustices affect these people,” she says. “You can’t learn everything from a book. What sets you apart is the ability to apply what you learn in a book to reality. The course enabled us to do just that.”
From the Classroom to the Neighborhood
The students’ work was integral to a broader, collaborative effort among the Near Westside residents, the Syracuse Alliance for a New Economy (SANE), and the Office of the Dean of SU’s Hendricks Chapel, which led to the founding in July 2010 of the Near Westside Residents Coalition (WRC) and two related groups—the Police Delegation and the Gifford Street Community Press. The WRC is a culturally diverse, resident-based coalition of individuals and organizations that seeks to listen, give voice to, and represent and advocate for the community. The Police Delegation works to improve understanding between the community and the Syracuse police. The Gifford Street Community Press is dedicated to enabling residents to share and learn from their collective history. The press’s first book, Home: Journeys into the Westside, was published in August 2011; the press will soon publish I Witness: Perspectives on Policing in the Near Westside.
“What I think has been an important innovation here is to have the Gifford Street Community Press, the place for voice, connected to the Westside Residents Coalition (WRC), the place for action,” Burdick says. “The Gifford Street Community Press helps fulfill the mission of the WRC by giving voice to the people of the neighborhood through narrative and story telling.”
In the classroom, students studied the Ganz model of grass-roots organizing, created by Marshall Ganz, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. They then facilitated Ganz workshops for Near Westside residents, in collaboration with Hendricks Chapel Dean Tiffany Steinwert and SANE. The WRC grew out of a series of Ganz workshops held over the summer of 2010; the students’ survey results helped inform the WRC agenda.
“In order to make a change in our community, you have to get involved,” says Cherise Hunter, a WRC member and a youth worker for the Shonnard Street Boys and Girls Club. “The training helped light things up for us. It helped us learn how to network, collaborate, make collective decisions, and delegate tasks to accomplish goals.”
The WRC supported the creation of the Gifford Street Community Press in January 2011 to “produce and showcase artwork, writings, and other meaningful cultural pieces that represent authentic voices from the community.” Graduate students in The College’s Composition and Cultural Rhetoric Program, who were studying literacy, writing, and public voice, participated in a series of organizational meetings to help residents write a mission statement, brainstorm a name for the press, and identify its first projects.
“We worked hard to find the right words for our mission statement and for our name," says board member Mother Earth, who is also a member of the WRC and the Police Delegation. “Gifford Street is the heart of the Near Westside and it’s the street that gets the most negative media attention. We want to give Gifford Street a different perspective. We want to show that a lot of great people live on Gifford Street; people who love their families and community.”
Parks says the ongoing projects are successful because the stakes are real. “The academic components had to be rigorous and excellent,” Parks says. “If the research was bad, it would cause grief for the people in the community. If the students failed to learn how to work with residents, Home would be a failure. It’s a real book, there is a community editorial board providing us direction, and people in the community will read it and benefit from it.”
For Meghan Donohue, who worked on the project the entire 2010-11 academic year, it was about learning to go outside her comfort zone. “The spring semester was a defining one for me,” she says, adding that she plans to go into publishing because of her experiences with the Gifford Street Community Press. “I wasn’t doing the work simply to get a good grade. I was doing something that mattered in the real world. That’s why it was so valuable to me.”