From the Holyoke dam to the kitchen table: Voices from the first annual Community Engagement Expo
For the past three years, Kayleigh O’Keeffe ’12 has devoted two afternoons a week to El Arco Iris, an after-school tutoring and mentoring program in Holyoke. She’s developed lasting friendships with youth and feels a strong connection to the city. As a biology major, however, she felt that she didn’t have many chances to enrich her relationship to Holyoke academically, as many of the community-based learning courses engaging with Holyoke were in the humanities, not the sciences. When she was presented with an open-ended research project in an environmental studies course on gender, O’Keeffe knew it was a perfect opportunity to connect her academic life with her community engagement in Holyoke. O’Keeffe was able to craft a study looking at the impact of Holyoke’s industrial history— specifically, the construction of the Holyoke dam— on the daily lives of women in the nineteenth century. This spring, she’ll continue her research in a special topics course that looks at women’s daily life in Holyoke today, a city that’s now highly de-industrialized. What is the moral of the story for O’Keeffe? You don’t have to be in an explicitly community-based learning course to actually do community-based learning. Hear O'Keeffe's story in her own words:
O’Keeffe shared this story as part of the Center for Community Engagement’s first-ever Expo this September, and she hopes other students will be inspired to create their own academically engaged experiences, regardless of their chosen majors. The Expo, a more interactive spin-off of the former Opportunities Fair, was an evening to introduce students to tangible and diverse possibilities for community engagement through tabling, soapboxes, and a bit of storytelling. Student and community groups set up tables throughout the Keefe Campus Center, offering passers-by more than just a simple plug for their organization. Each group had one or more “action items” at the table: something a student could do, in that moment, to get involved. The Social Innovation Leadership Team, for example, gave visitors a chance to practice the art of promotion by offering a free SILT t-shirt to anyone willing to make a pitch for a new idea.
Throughout the evening, visitors paused to hear compelling soapbox lectures from students, alumni, community members, and faculty. Alumnae Destry Sibley ’09 shared that her work as a student activist at Amherst “directly informs” the work she does now as a community organizer in the north end of Springfield, the poorest census-tracked community in the state. Mike Hayes, principal of Amherst Regional Middle School, explained that the vision behind the Vela Scholars tutoring program is all about “re-creating the kitchen table,” where students can access one-on-one support and mentoring after school. Senior Kate Berry ’12 reflected on how her summer internship at the National Human Trafficking Resource Center in Washington, D.C. gave valuable real-life context for her currently in-development political science thesis on human trafficking. “It’s one thing to research something in Frost Library every night. This summer, I was able to take an academic interest and make it an on-the-ground experience.” Professor of English Barry O’Connell offered a biting critique of the current public school reforms, arguing that true reform “takes time, and it will not respond to single solutions.” Hear Professor O'Connell's full soapbox lecture here:
In sharing their stories, the soapbox speakers offered personal examples of community engagement to visiting students hoping to get involved— rounding out an energetic evening full of potential. Perhaps next year, one of this year’s visitors will give a soapbox speech of their own.