Building Community and Conversation: BEAM’s Walking Tour of Olneyville

by Soyoon Kim ‘18
January 31, 2016

Brown Elementary Afterschool Mentoring Program (BEAM) is one of the Swearer Center’s community partnerships. The program aims to help facilitate after-school programming activities and mentorship between students at William D’Abate Elementary School with students at Brown. The school is located in the heart of Olneyville, a neighborhood on the west side of Providence bordering the Woonasquatucket River.

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In past semesters, the focal point of BEAM was directed towards the student end of the relationship: how the Brown student community was working within the program to incite positive social change. This semester, the Community Fellows and BEAM organizers shifted the focus towards the community partnership piece of BEAM’s mission by introducing new avenues by which volunteers could actively contextualize their work and build socially conscious and critical understanding.

Our tours were led by critical members of the D’Abate community: Abe Hernandez, Program Aid and Community Leader in Olneyville, and Dilania Inoa, Program Manager for Elementary and Middle School Programs at the Swearer Center. While walking through the neighborhood, Abe and Dilania introduced students to various community organizations that have helped build and continue to sustain Olneyville through the years.

We learned what inroads Youth Build Providence and the Olneyville Housing Corporation have made on the infrastructural foundations of Olneyville and how relationships between the community and these groups have changed and remained the same throughout the years. We also got a chance to speak to Lorraine Burns, Director of the Olneyville Food Center. She recounted the history behind the Center and how its role has expanded to accommodate for Olneyville’s increase in population.

Rather than a unilateral lecture on the community, the tour created an active dialogue between students and the community leaders, students interacting with and physically occupying community space. Having a dialogue, rather than a one-way conversation, served to ground our volunteers within the community—rather than other the community orienting itself around us. What’s more, we even had the pleasure of running into one of our students from D’Abate at the Riverside Park Playground complex at the end of our tour. Seeing the students interact with what was then a new community for some of our volunteers made this walking tour even more meaningful.

We hope this video gives you a glimpse into how our mission manifested in one of the two tours we conducted in the Fall 2015 semester. We hope that through these tours, our volunteers are able to actively build more complex and nuanced understandings between their positionality as Brown students and the various social, economic, and political underpinnings of the work that they do and the communities they serve.

The walking tour is but a small portion of what BEAM hopes to build on in terms of the community engagement and partnership piece of our mission—but it’s a start nonetheless. We hope that by mindfully building on extant activities and methods, we can maintain an ever-constant hope in the collaborative and productive nature of our partnership between Brown students and the communities we work with.