Listen and Learn

September 16, 2013

Jordana Rosenfeld ’17 is participating in the University Community Academic Advising Program (UCAAP), an initiative designed for first year students who want community service and social change work to be a central part of their Brown experience. Here, she reflects on the Institute on Service and Community, UCAAP's pre-orientation program.

Walking behind Elton through Silver Lake, a neighborhood west of College Hill, was a singular experience. He marched confidently through the neighborhood, seeming to know everyone who passed by, sharing a fun fact about each building and bus line we encountered. We passed his mother’s street, the street on which he grew up, and dozens of his friends and acquaintances. His connection to his neighborhood and his investment in the people of Providence was obvious.

Elton was generous enough to donate his time and talents as a tour guide to UCAAP, University Community Academic Advising Program, a pre-orientation program run by the Swearer Center for incoming first-year students with an interest in community service and getting to know Providence.

Elton took us to a nonprofit operating out of Silver Lake that means a great deal to him – Open Doors, an organization that offers a wide variety of services to help people who have been incarcerated successfully transition back into society. Elton, a tirelessly optimistic and focused person, has himself previously been incarcerated, and now uses Open Doors as a platform through which he helps others turn their lives around.

At Open Doors, almost everyone we met told us about a huge legislative victory for formerly incarcerated people in Rhode Island. This summer, the Ban the Box initiative was successful in passing legislation requiring the removal of the box on job applications asking applicants to indicate if they have ever been incarcerated. This was a big deal, everyone explained, because now this question could only be asked later in the hiring process, allowing employers to hear the applicant’s story and their commitment to living a lawful life. Simply moving a question about someone’s criminal past to a later stage of an application process seems like a minor change, but it can have a huge impact on whether or not that person gets hired.

Leaving Open Doors, I was in awe. Throughout the program, UCAAP stressed the importance of listening. You cannot purport to be able to address a community’s challenges without listening to what community members say they need and want, we were told. My visit to Open Doors put the importance of listening in perspective. Few first-years on my tour were aware of the serious challenges facing people trying to reenter society before Elton and Open Doors gave us a chance to listen. Open Doors regularly listens to their clients so they can offer the most impactful services. After the success of Ban the Box, employers in Rhode Island will listen to people with a criminal history before dismissing a potentially qualified applicant sight unseen.

Bussing back to College Hill, my tour group reflected. You can never assume, we concluded – a community’s needs, the quality of a person’s character, your role in the struggle – you have to listen and learn.