By Dakota Damschroder
While many of Emerson’s service learning courses provide hands-on experience that stimulates both civic engagement and critical consciousness, Action for Community Transformation (ACT) is a co-curricular course built around a multi-day, immersive community service program. The Office of Service Learning and Community Action’s (SLCA) Alternative Spring Break (ASB) Program, now in its twelfth iteration, offers students the opportunity to serve and learn in communities across the country.
This year, nine students and three advisors will serve at the El Paso, USA/Juárez, Mexico border, working with community partners to offer direct support to immigrant communities.
“The SLCA ran the El Paso Program in 2013, and it was a remarkable success on many fronts. However, after participating in six ASBs, I noticed that the students needed more training pre-and post-program,” said instructor Suzanne Hinton, Director of the Office of Service Learning and Community Action. “They needed a class to equip them for the pre-program fundraising and post-program homecoming and report-out activities.”
Hinton decided to combine her ACT course with ASB. Student participants meet weekly in the months prior to spring break to learn about specific social justice issues, develop leadership strategies, and examine what community-based organizing looks like. They also learn how to employ their arts and communications skills so that, upon return to campus, they can share their stories and the stories of those whom they meet while engaging in the host community.
By incorporating a semester of training into the ASB Program, not only do participants acquire leadership skills, they also learn about on-campus resources as they form relationships with various staff and faculty members who collaborate with the SLCA to develop ACT workshops. Robert Amelio, Director of Diversity Education and Human Relations, and Claudia Castañeda, Senior Scholar-In-Residence in the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, presented a Power and Privilege workshop. Melanie Matson, Director, and Greta Spoering, Survivor Advocate, from the Office of Violence Prevention and Response, delivered a workshop on Power-Based Interpersonal Violence in order to prepare students for some of the stories people in El Paso may share with them. They also demonstrated self-care techniques, such as bubble-blowing.
“Blowing bubbles is an activity that gives people something to focus on outside of themselves, yet invites people to slow down, take deep breaths using their diaphragm, and to extend their out breath — all of which are things that help to slow down the body’s nervous system and relax,” said Spoering.
Part of the leadership training is also dedicated to raising funds for the program, which averages about $1,300 per participant. Students are trained in traditional forms of fundraising like letter-writing campaigns, as well as in online crowdfunding through USEED, a platform designed specifically for use by institutions of higher education. The ACT students develop their USEED website by posting videos in which they share their personal commitments to the social issues addressed by their project.
“They can leverage their social networks and powerful storytelling to win new donors and increase participation,” said Ashley Tarbet, ASB logistics coordinator and Administrative Associate for the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research.
The Office of Development and Alumni Relations asked the SLCA to fundraise for ASB by piloting the USEED platform for Emerson in 2014.
“We knew it would be a great deal of work to be one of the first groups nationwide to use USEED, but the work paid off: ASB raised $10,000 in thirty days, and the College was able to grow its first-time donor base,” said Hinton. Since then, several other Emerson student organizations have conducted successful fundraisers through the College’s membership in USEED.
While in El Paso, students will meet, engage with, and learn from migrant farm workers living on only dollars a day and residents of the colonias, neighborhoods along the US/Mexico border that lack many basic necessities such as potable water and sewage systems. They will visit local refugee and detention centers, as well as a short-term shelter for women from both sides of the border. Participants will hear from experts on human trafficking, health care at the border, and economic and political policies that impact immigration. They will also tour parts of the border itself and visit the Border Patrol Museum. The El Paso team will provide services to community members, including cooking and serving meals, sorting clothing donations, and working with local teens to intake new library books for residents of the colonias. Upon their return, students will showcase the work done during ASB.
The hope of the SLCA is that every participant leaves the program with an appreciation of service and the desire and tools to make change. UNITE (Understanding National Immigration Through Education), one of Emerson’s newly recognized student organizations, grew out of the 2013 El Paso ASB Program, and is an example of the power of service learning education.
“It’s about taking the idea of service learning to heart,” said Sarah Rocha (Journalism ’15), an El Paso Student Program Leader. “We hope to not only help out as much as we can in El Paso, but to carry that knowledge, our observations, and our experiences back to Boston to help our Emerson community understand the issues of immigration better.”