April: Month of Education

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This month’s theme is “education”. Despite being a senior in college with well over 17 years of education under my belt, I struggled to think about what I should write about. Education and community engagement are connected for sure, but how does that affect us? What does that mean for us as citizens as we go into our own communities?

One thing that a few Peer Advisers in our office have been working on for the past two semesters involves educating ourselves about the neighborhoods that our community partners are located in so that we, in turn, can educate students who come into our office about these unique neighborhoods. To be honest, I really hadn’t ever considered doing research about different neighborhoods around the Twin Cities before this project was proposed. I knew the “campus” neighborhood well, but everything else was either “a neighborhood in Minneapolis”, or “somewhere in St. Paul”.

What is the importance of knowing about the population and history of any given community? Well, first of all, it will help you gain your bearings when entering the community. For example, the Cedar-Riverside Community, located on the West Bank near campus, has a history of being home to immigrants from around the world. If you’ve ever walked around the neighborhood, this isn’t surprising to you. The variety of restaurants, small businesses, and languages being spoken in any given place adds to the wealth of what this neighborhood (and the people who live there) have to offer. 52% of the population speaks a language other than English. Just considering the amount of knowledge these diverse groups of people bring to this neighborhood!

I’d like to challenge you to do some research about where you do community work, even if it’s somewhere you’ve lived for years. Taking an asset-based approach to your work is important as you do this. Instead of looking at what a community is lacking, look at the assets it and its people possess. For the example of Cedar-Riverside above, one could look at the median household income of $14,000/year and say “Wow, these people need to be educated so they can learn how to earn more to support themselves. If I volunteer, I can help them with that.” This view of community work is not asset-based, but employs a “savior complex”. Viewing yourself going into a community to single-handedly change what’s happening there can create more harm than good.

Someone with an asset-based view of community work would say, “Look at all these people from all corners of the world. They have a wealth of knowledge and life experiences that I can learn from and that they can use to build up their community. By tutoring adults to learn English, they will be able to share their skills and abilities with those around them, affecting change in the community where they live and work.” I like to think that community work must be collaborative to be successful. By enabling others to have agency and make change in their own communities, they can empower others, enabling sustainable transformations.
What can you do to educate yourself about the neighborhoods and communities where you are working? How can you apply an asset-based view of community work today? Will this change how you view your role as a volunteer or as a member of the community?

-Jenifer

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