Putting Down New Roots

 Rosa Rada ’17, Interdisciplinary Studies, interned with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Baltimore as the New Roots Gardening Intern.

Rosa Professional PhotoThis past summer I had a full-time AmeriCorps position at the International Rescue Committee: a non-profit that resettles refugees and provides humanitarian relief. I worked at the Baltimore office for their New Roots program where I focused primarily on helping refugees learn about and gain access to healthy nutrition and gardening.

This was the summer where I reached clarity: I found something worth living for. I worked 45+ hours a week, endured a hellish commute to East Baltimore, and involved myself in several other projects that left me considering sleep as highly optional. But the exhaustion was more than worth it because my experience working at the International Rescue Committee was by far the most enriching experience of my life. The health and nutrition tragedies I witnessed in the homes and communities of refugees and the positive effect that gardening and advocacy had on them did new rootsnothing but fuel my passions.

I also have gotten this crazy idea that if I work hard enough and care deeply enough, I can make almost anything happen. I have come to realize that these moments of clarity and empowerment were primarily the results of two things.

First, I pushed myself into an experience where I was naïve, uncomfortable, and unprepared. This forced me to learn and grow quickly. I admit that, when I began, I knew next to nothing about the refugee situation or the cultures of those I was working for.

Second, I was fortunate enough to be in an environment that encouraged me to take ownership over my own projects. For example, I had recognized that there was a large population of refugees in the Arbutus area who were underserved, especially in terms of garden space. I wanted these refugees to experience the benefits of gardening: the improved nutrition, food security, and mental health. I realized that UMBC would be an especially rich place to have such a garden and spent 6 months working with Professor Jill Wrigley to gain approval of this project. This past fall, we piloted the idea by having a Burmese refugee family garden in some of the UMBC community garden plots and engage both formally and informally with Jill’s food systems course. I’m grateful to be leading the project in Jill’s course this semester as well. In this course, students not only study food system issues, but work on real projects with the community to ensure food justice.

gardenHere is my reflection on why I am passionate about my particular project. I can say with absolute excitement that legal counsel has recently approved this project and that, with the hard work and passion of talented students, I have faith that we can make this UMBC New Roots garden a reality.

My excitement about this summer pushed me to seek an exhilarating experience this past winter: I worked on an organic farm in Arizona through the World Wide Workers on Organic Farms program. Going on a solo trip to the other side of the country to live with people who were much different than me was certainly uncomfortable but, as with the IRC experience, I learned an enormous amount about my passions and about life in general.

I plan to continue to immerse myself in similar enriching experiences as well as continue to take exciting classes through the Interdisciplinary Studies major I’m designing. I hope that the knowledge and skills I gain will enable me to address the issues that plague the food system. In many senses, I am privileged to have had such empowering experiences and to be taking courses that I am truly excited about. But at the same time, I am convinced that everyone deserves and has the innate ability to find something that they love—that makes them passionately livid, inspired, and energized—and to take action on it.

Contact the author, Rosa Rada, at rada1@umbc.edu.

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.

Service to Career: Welcoming Refugees

Delana Gregg is the  Associate Director for the Sondheim Public Affairs Scholars Program at UMBC.

20130827_170142I was thrilled to see UMBC junior and Sondheim Public Affairs Scholar Christie Smith profiled in the Owings Mills Patch earlier this month. The article and accompanying video describe Christie’s work this summer with the International Rescue Committee in Baltimore, assisting caseworkers in providing all basic needs and support to newly arrived refugees and ensuring their transition into life in the United States is as smooth as possible. Christie was placed in the internship through the Walter Sondheim Jr. Maryland Nonprofit Leadership Program.

What I appreciate is that Christie has so clearly moved beyond thinking of service as an occasional commitment, or as something she would do while in school butChristie Smith then leave behind. For Christie, work with refugees is a way of building her passion for helping international populations through education into a plan for a career full of contributions to her communities.  A Global Studies and Modern Languages, Linguistics, & Intercultural Communication (Spanish) major, Christie has volunteered since her freshman year through the Shriver Center with the Refugee Youth Project, an after-school program which seeks to improve the lives of refugee youth living in Baltimore. She tutored refugee youth from around the world in English and other subjects while helping them acculturate to their new country. Her service was so impactful that Christie took on a leadership role mentoring the other UMBC volunteers as a sophomore, including raising $5,000 for the organization with an Autumn Gala last fall.

I hope the coming year affords many more students opportunities to build their passion for service into a plan for work and life.

Contact the author, Delana Gregg, at delana1@umbc.edu.