A Week to Listen
Ari is currently thinking about how to effectively work in and relate to communities that are not his own. He is a Community Fellow for Winter Break Projects and plans to double concentrate in History and Portuguese & Brazilian Studies.
We woke up on the floor of a church basement to the strumming of a ukulele. After some coaxing, we crawled out of our sleeping bags and pulled on all the sweaters we could find. In the kitchen we clutched mugs of hot tea and coffee before heading out into the frosty streets of Providence.
Last year I came back to school a week before second semester started to participate in the Winter Break Projects (WBP). During the week, about thirty Brown students divided up into five focus groups that explored public health, refugee resettlement, environmental justice, homelessness, and education in Providence. For five days we criss-crossed the city, meeting with local activists, community organizers, and government officials. At night we cooked, ate, played, and slept in a church on Weybosset Street.
I was in the Refugee Resettlement focus group. On the day that the WBP coordinator woke us up with some ukulele chords, we were planning to learn about the challenges that refugees face when seeking employment in Providence.
Our first destination was a café on Broad Street, where we met with the owner of a granola bar company that hires refugees and helps them acclimate to the American job market. In the afternoon, we toured a small factory on the outskirts of town that also serves as an entry point into the job market for many recently-arrived refugees. Though many people who arrive as refugees were professionals in their home countries, language barriers and unfamiliar workplace environments pose serious obstacles to employment once they reach the United States.
In the evening we gathered again in the church to share a home-cooked meal. Over dinner I got to talk to students in other groups about how the issues they were examining intersected with the experiences of refugees in Providence. These conversations were the bread and butter of my WBP experience, helping me see the connections between various issues and communities.
On the last day of the program, my group met with Omar Bah, the founder of the Refugee Dream Center, a nonprofit that aims to assist refugees after their six months of State Department support ends. Mr. Bah arrived in the US several years ago as a refugee from The Gambia, where he had been tortured for his political journalism. After going through the process of resettlement, he decided to address the shortcomings of the US refugee resettlement policy by starting his own organization. Talking with Mr. Bah helped us see that the people best suited to address a problem are often those who have lived through it.
WBP brought up a lot of questions for us, such as: How do communities identify and address different issues? How does a place or group of people even become defined as a community? How should we as college students interact with Providence, which for most of us is a temporary home? What does it mean to do community work?
These are questions that merit a lifetime of inquiry. Though they may not have clear cut answers, these are vital for anyone seeking to do community work, however they define it. Participating in WBP helped me learn how to approach these questions. When working in a community, especially one that is not your own, the first thing you must do is listen. After listening, you can ask how you can help.