Building Community

Pondering the takeaway of her Chester Community Fellowship this summer, Omene Addeh ’21 cites the importance of fostering community.

“It’s good to know your neighbors, support your friends, and care for your environment,” says the Rubin Scholar from Liberty Township, Ohio, who spent four days a week at the Healthy Start and Nurse-Family Partnership programs of the Foundation for Delaware (Pa.) County.

“Good community relations is really the foundation of sustainable social change.”

That encapsulates this year’s summer fellowship program, run by the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, which connected seven students with community partners, such as the Chester Housing Authority and Chester Eastside, Inc.. The program also offered a mini-course on system change for community development from social justice advocate Edgar Cahn ’56, H’18 and his wife, time banking and system change expert Christine Gray.

At the heart of the program was Cahn’s concept of “co-production,” which he explained to the Class of 2018 in May while receiving an honorary degree.

“All of us try to help people, and all of try to make a difference, and when we do so, we define the person or group who we are helping by their problem or need,” Cahn said. “But that’s just a small percentage of who they are. And the question is: How do we unleash the other 80 or 90 percent of who they are, who are functioning, miraculous human beings?” [Watch him deliver his full remarks.]

Student presents in front of blackboard Jason Gonzalez Villa '19 discusses his experience at Chester Eastside, Inc.

The fellows explored that question this summer by working alongside community partners.

“This isn’t drive-by volunteerism,” says Ashley Henry, program manager for the Lang Center. “The students are really committed to these efforts, making an impact on and learning from the community.”

For Nusaybah Estes ’21, of Louisville, Ky., that meant everything from planting, harvesting, and weeding to running the biweekly farmers market and updating the website of the Ruth Bennett Community Farm.

“Every day is new and exciting,” Estes says, “as the farm is always looking for ways to expand.”

For Yi Wei ’21, of Plainsboro, N.J., it meant going above and beyond her responsibilities at the Chester Education Foundation to help establish a College Resource Center and devise a new volunteer management model to include the Chester community—“its residents, history, and geography,” she says.

For Ainsley Knox ’21, it meant tutoring a sixth-grader and an eighth-grader from the Chester Children’s Chorus in math, helping chorus members with training and junior rehearsals, and walking them to swimming lessons.

“I’ll especially remember the smiles on the students’ faces when they figured out a challenging math problem and wanted to do another or create their own,” says Knox.

This application of College resources to pressing social problems, in a way mutually beneficial to the students and to the community, “is the crux of engaged scholarship,” says Ben Berger, executive director of the Lang Center, who traces the concept back to the efforts of Cahn and his late wife Jean Camper Cahn '57 to make a difference for the disenfranchised.

Berger and Cahn have long discussed their shared work, including the Lang Center’s placing students with Cahn as summer researchers. When Berger learned last year that Cahn was eager to teach further on co-production, he says, “something clicked in my head.”

“We had wanted our summer fellows to have an educational component to their efforts in the community, so this was a tremendous fit,” he adds. “And Edgar was thrilled to do something with us.”

The resulting course defied expectations, says Henry. Cahn and Gray viewed the students as the teachers, facilitating discussion through questions and lifting the students’ own opinions and knowledge.

“They let things unfold organically,” says Henry. “The students end up teaching one another.”

alt text Cahn and Gray fostered a true give and take with the fellows, exchanging perspectives and experiences.

“I loved the energy in the room,” adds Berger. “You could just see the students come alive and become more and more comfortable with one another and Chris and Edgar. I think it’s just been terrific—a real boon for all involved.”

The students relished the chance to see one another at the end of the week and hear about their experiences in the community, says Estes. But the class also provided a framework for their efforts, guiding them to examine situations and communities as systems within systems.

“Our sessions created a space for all of the fellows to reflect collectively on our experiences, as well as think about how the work each of us was doing interfaced with one another’s and with the larger community,” says Anjali Singapur ’21, of Bangalore, India, who interned with ChesPenn Health Services.

Adds Knox: “They highlighted that you can’t just go into a community and try to make change without taking the time to learn about its environment, history, and people.”

Henry and the students made further connections in Chester, volunteering at the eighth annual Juneteenth Festival and attending a community meeting. At the latter, community leaders asked for an asset map with which they could see which partners were doing what types of work in their fields; that became the Fellows’ common project for the year, to include their connections forged in Chester with links and contact info.

“We’ll present the map to the community as a proposal for them to build upon,” says Henry. “More co-production.”  

“The real hope is this is just the beginning,” says Berger, referencing entrepreneur and philanthropist Eugene Lang 38's vision of educating students for citizenship and having them model the behavior they’ll exhibit for the rest of their lives as citizens. Two of the fellows plan to stay involved with their partner organizations this year, and Berger expects the others to integrate lessons they learned into student organizations and groups at Swarthmore.

“These projects are very important to me, and I want to see them through,” says Wei. “Realizing change can happen through me in any area or moment of my life has been very empowering.”

Learn about Swarthmore’s impact on the local and global community at lifechanging.swarthmore.edu.