Bonner Community Fellow Bilal Lafta '20 Excited to Work with Beat the Streets

Bonner Fellow reflects on building new partnerships
by Sophie Kasakove
September 18, 2017

This year, Swearer Center students are working in partnership with more than 90 community organizations. Some of these organizations have been community partners of the Swearer Center for years, others for just weeks. Bonner Community Fellow Bilal Lafta '20 is working on building a relationship between Swearer and Beat the Streets, an organization that works to bring after-school wrestling programs into middle schools across the state. He talks here about why Beat the Streets' work is so important and some of the exciting possibilities of the new partnership.

Q: How have you been involved with the Swearer Center since you got to Brown?

A: Since I’ve been on campus I’ve been very involved with Swearer Center as a Bonner Community Fellow. For my first year I was partnered with English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). ESOL developed out of the Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative in order to provide English lessons to adult immigrants in the Olneyville community. So my task was to twice a week teach English to adult immigrants. The project is something that’s really close to my heart because when I was 10 and moved to the U.S, neither I nor my parents knew English, so I would come home from school and teach my parents the words I had learned. So I was very passionate about the organization. I came in on the first day and taught a level one class—that means the students don’t speak a single word of English. I used a lot of different means to teach, sometimes on a white board sometimes acting, sometimes drawing (which was terrible). It was so cool to see them start without knowing a single word and then by the end to see them having a whole conversation. It helped a lot to get feedback from the students regularly throughout the semester.

Over this past summer, I was an iProv Fellow, where I was partnered with the Governor’s Office of Innovation. I worked as their data analyst on an initiative called CS For RI, which is part of the Obama administration’s CS for All initiative. The goal is to provide CS education to every student in the state of Rhode Island. Rhode Island is leading the nation in that initiative and we currently are offering CS to the majority of elementary, middle and high school students. My task was to constantly monitor the progress that they were making. I worked closely with Department of Education, I got to meet Governor Gina Raimondo, and I was also learning a lot about data analysis and data visualization. I worked on different ways to promote the CS for RI initiative as it expands. By the end of the year we’ll be in every school in Rhode Island.

Q: What organization are you working with this year?

A: This year, and for the remainder of my time at Brown, I’ll be working with Beat the Streets. The Providence chapter was founded by a Brown alum named Billy Waterson, who I worked with at the Office of Innovation over the summer. Beat the streets is currently in 9 middle schools, offering after-school wrestling practice. My job is to work on Development Day, a once-a-week program which is focused on academic development for the wrestlers. What I often found in talking to the middle schoolers at Beat the Streets, was that going to wrestling matches every single day after school helped them build discipline and the way they look at school and their education and dramatically improved. Their attendance rate improved, their grades. But Beat the Streets has yet to take an academic focus. So hopefully with this program every Friday, we can provide academic support and guidance going through middle school and high school -- staying in touch with students and making sure that we’re reporting the drastic improvements of students in their academic performance.

Q: This is the first year Brown students will be working with Beat the Streets in any official way. What has it been like to start developing that relationship?

A: It’s very exciting because Beat the Streets is a great organization in the community founded but so far it hasn’t been built in with Brown, other than the founder being a Brown alum and many of the Brown wrestlers would volunteer a couple times a week. However there’s no formal structure, so what I’m looking to do is establish Beat the Streets as a student organization recognized by SAO as well as to foster the relationship between Beat the Streets as a community partner. My vision is to build an infrastructure that can continue even after I leave Brown, so I’m hoping that that would be a big team of volunteers from Brown that would work either as wrestling coaches or as development day instructors.

Q: What do you think is unique about the Beat the Streets program?

A: What’s so special about it is that Beat the Streets takes an approach to Providence public schools that looks specifically at students that are at risk and provides them with something that can build a discipline, perseverance, and achievement, that students can use to approach their schooling from a different angle. To be part of the program you need to gradually show academic improvement, so the program is really trying to connect academics to something the students love — wrestling. At its core it’s building confidence in students and getting them to see a connection between their success in their academics and in wrestling.