Learning from Practical Work Against Social Inequality

 Jodi Kelber-Kaye is Associate Director of UMBC’s Honors College.

Kelber_Kaye_JodiLast spring, I taught an Honors seminar entitled Race, Poverty and Gender in Baltimore. Students often joke that my courses are depressing because, frankly, there isn’t much that isn’t depressing about social inequality! But with funding from a BreakingGround grant, I designed this course to be different: empowering as well as enlightening.

I wanted the students to engage with Baltimore in a meaningful way, and to witness how nonprofit organizations function to support, empower, and care for Baltimoreans. Yet I also felt that just witnessing (in our case, with all students cycling through key volunteer opportunities) wasn’t enough; I wanted the nonprofits to benefit from the students, and I wanted the students to experience themselves making an impact in an organization (and therefore on the people these organizations serve) beyond short spurts of volunteering.

So I formed three teams of students, all diverse in majors and hobbies/talents, who were then assigned to complete specific projects that the organizations created to help them more effectively reach their goals. Students worked either for Moveable Feast (MF) or for the Baltimore City Community College’s (BCCC) Refugee Youth Project (RYP). All students were also required to volunteer in three different roles that would put them in closer contact to the work of these organizations and with the community members they serve.

mf_header_logoTwo groups worked with Moveable Feast.   One group assisted researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to write a scientific white paper on the medical benefits of nutritious home meal delivery, so that Moveable Feast could provide evidence-based claims when applying for grant support.The second group working with Moveable Feast helped create a implementation plan for Moveable Feast’s new venture as an approved food provider through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which offers nutrition assistance to eligible, low-income individuals and families.

The third group worked with Refugee Youth Project to create a mentoring program for refugee high school students in Baltimore who are 4-year college ready.  UMBC students will mentor the refugee students and guide them through the college application process.  Currently, UMBC’s Shriver Center and RYP have applied for funding for an Americorps VISTA volunteer who will work as the liaison for the college mentoring program, and, if funding is awarded, UMBC will be beginning this program in Fall 2015.

My goals for the students were for them to connect the historical and current issues around disparities that they were reading about to the ways real working organizations seek to reduce those disparities. By completing their longer-term projects, they were able to see how they could contribute in their own unique ways to making social change, as well as appreciate how this work gets done.

In their ongoing reflections, students consistently remarked on how their real-world applications strengthened and deepened both their understanding of the social construction of difference and unequal access and their interest in continuing to contribute in some way to serving communities in their lives. In fact, a few students have become more deeply involved in both of these organizations and engage in ongoing work for them.

For me, my greatest joy as their professor was seeing the students become excited about their projects and feeling like they could contribute in a real way to addressing some of the conditions that lead to the inequalities that they were studying. Many students feel paralyzed when learning about historical and current structures of inequality and so to put them in direct and ongoing contact with people “on the ground,” was indispensable to moving from paralysis into action.

Contact the author, Jodi Kelber-Kaye, at jodik@umbc.edu.


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