How can college students help heal the gap between their school and its town?

A very thoughtful friend posted on Facebook about the huge social divide between her college and the town where it is located, seeking advice on how to improve the state of things. I unintentionally ended up writing a bit of a novel in response, and I thought I’d share it here incase it might be useful for anyone else. I’ve removed the name of the school and the town to make it more about the general situation, rather than the specific place.

I wrote it as a Facebook comment, so please forgive the even-more-informal-than-usual style. Names are references to other folks in the thread.

Here goes:

I think Matt hit the nail on the head: Making friends is a big deal. Getting to know someone in the community, and them getting to know you, is a huge thing. You don’t necessarily have to be besties, just get to know each other on some level. It really does make a difference.

On an individual level, I’d say get out there and start meeting people in the community. Go to where they are.

A huge part of the battle is just showing up. In our North Side/McKee efforts, it has blown minds when young shiny Wash U or South Side types show up and want to know what they can do to help us. Even just the interested presence of people listening and caring does make a difference. I realize in this case it’s a specific battle rather than a more general situation, but it does feel like we are invisible and a lot of people who claim to care never appear, and… yeah, just seeing people here and knowing that people care that we exist is huge. So often, people teeter on the brink of fear, of worrying they will do the wrong thing or feeling overwhelmed by the hugeness of the problem/gap, and they let that keep them from showing up. But when folks don’t show up, we have no way of knowing that they are sitting there thinking about us and meaning well. You’ve gotta come to the table.

Going by yourself or with just 1 friend is the way to roll. Safety’s important in certain situations, but if there are just 1-2 of you it’s a lot easier to start conversations. Too many people and you become a self-contained pod.

Where to go is up to you: a bar, a neighborhood meeting, an art opening, a governmental meeting, somewhere social. I think volunteering can be good, if you show up outside of the context of your school. Volunteering is always helpful, but as others have pointed out, the traditional college day of service model can be pretty hierarchical. Its core assumption involves the students being superior to the community members…. not that the work isn’t needed! Here in the neighborhood we do really love it when a huge phalanx of university kids shows up and helps, it makes a HUGE difference, but one isolated day is not the foundation for a feeling that they care about us in some sort of long-term way. It’s not bad, it’s just the limits of that mode of interaction. Like Meredith wrote, pitching in totally outside of the context of school, where everyone but you and your pal are non-[school]ites and it’s [town] people in charge/setting priorities, is the way to go. It tells people you care about them besides just when you “have to.”

I use my camera a lot as an excuse to talk with people about their business, church, etc. It gives a reason for my presence, allows me to ask questions, etc. Of course, having a camera is also a socially hierarchical gesture, but if you’re sensitive and always ask permission before shooting, it can be a good jumping off point. And “I’ll bring you by some prints of my favorite shots” is a great excuse for following up on a good conversation. Plus, almost everyone likes a nice portrait of themselves, their pet, their Christmas decor, their business, etc.

Some forays will be fruitful, some won’t, and many will be uneventful. Stick with it. Despite being an StL city native and having spent big chunks of my childhood in North City, as a geeky white girl I’ll always be a bit of an outsider here…. And in my outsiderly role, having curiously wandered in many a door…. Sometimes you have a good conversation, sometimes it’s a dud, and sometimes you end up talking about race and class into the wee hours and doing shots with the owner of the bar until you throw up. It’s not gonna happen unless you show up.

Where the distrust runs deep, sometimes it will take time and sometimes people might not want you there, and that is their right. I don’t know if that applies to your situation, but it certainly applies in St. Louis. And I guess I’m also thinking of my future home of Detroit, which is the subject of enough attention right now that some natives are getting downright angry at the decay tourists, who come and go. Yeah, I’d say that’s one difference to keep in mind besides class differences: They’re in it for the long haul and you’re just visiting for a few years. That’s no one’s fault and it’s not irreconcilable, but understand that it flavors your presence to locals. Anyway, back on track….

Once you start getting to know individuals and the broader community better yourself, you can start helping other [school] friends dive in here and there. Take people with you to events. Invite people to places they wouldn’t go otherwise. It doesn’t have to be a big, conspicuous thing of WE ARE GOING TO GO MEET THE COMMUNITY NOW and in fact probably shouldn’t be–more of a “hey, let’s go check out this neat place or hit up this fun event” is best.

And when you talk with people, they will have ideas about how [school] can do better by the community. They know better than anyone. Listen to what people need, and if you hear themes emerging or there’s one thing that really stands out as a change you in particular are interested in, go for it. Make it happen. (I love this, so much easier said than done, bwahahahaha….)

On the institutional level, I really don’t know the specifics, but perhaps the school could find some way of encouraging people to respectfully explore the community on their own. Perhaps the school could approach leaders in the community–I’m thinking people somewhere between mayor and block captain–about what some of the community’s greatest needs and frustrations are, and identify some of the school’s greatest resources, and see how those things could be sustainably combined in a way that helps. Again, the traditional volunteerism/charity model is one to steer away from as much as possible–people as individuals and as communities are always best served when they are treated as equals and as fellow stakeholders, and when their dignity is preserved. And heck, the college could probably do more to include the community in a lot of extant programs and events it does. Being a North Sider and an inner city resident, well… Traditional white progressive/arts types often put on events feeling that they are universally interesting and then are surprised when “the community” doesn’t show up and they’ve got a homogenous room, BUT when you’re dealing with a community that has been historically disenfranchised and excluded, if you don’t explicitly let us know that we are invited and that the proceedings will be relevant to us, we’re likely to assume otherwise and stay home. I realize I’m putting most of the onus on the school and students here, but in situations like this it’s up to those who have traditionally held higher social standing and power to act.

And yeah, I’m sure particularly at [school], people are worried about being judged as art weirdoes or the like by the community. Your average Midwesterner may not share your views on all things political, but there are a lot of things about the stereotypical liberal arts college liberalism that I personally don’t agree with myself. And just because you might not vote the same, doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot in common. There are plenty of other topics to talk about. Being strongly political, dressing in an artsy manner, things like that…. It may be the most conspicuous layer of difference to you, but it’s probably just one more layer of difference of many to the person you’re talking with. And heck, sometimes being a little goofy helps. When I dyed my hair NEON fuschia on a whim a couple of summers ago, I worried terribly afterwards that I’d done something that would make it a challenge for me to continue getting around North City on foot, camera in hand. Not so: the pink hair actually became a great conversation starter, and it seemed to signal to most people who saw me walking that I knew what I was doing, because I’d be a fool to go some of the places I did looking like that if I *didn’t* know where I was! So you never know.


I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on the matter, readers.

Published in: on October 25, 2009 at 9:55 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I finally felt most at home in Ithaca after starting work part time at a store off campus. Prior to that experience, I was somewhat oblivious to the chasm separating town and gown. Breaking free of monotony and intentionally seeking alternative contexts is essential to discovering something new.

  2. I really appreciate some of the points you make on unspoken social hierarchy. There are so many college age people that just don’t have a good understanding of this. It’s not their fault per say (as the average traditional college student will have led a slightly sheltered on-campus life).

    The point is, you should never be dressed as if you’re headed to a dance club and arrive at a north side community meeting in your new BMW. You will have disassociated yourself with the community and the cause long before you walk in the front door. It’s as if you were holding a sign that reads “I come from a different world. Additionally, I am better than you”.

    • On the other hand, if you really do drive a Mercedes every day, and that is who you are, we dig it. A really expensive lawyer showed up at a north side community meeting a few weeks back to listen and talk about eminent domain issues. He drove the big black shiny car, he wore the expensive trousers and the Rolex. He sat on an overturned bucket in a backyard and gave a seminar on eminent domain process and procedure to the neighbors. We even tried to get the crazy lady to turn down her radio, but she didn’t, and he just orated right on through. I’m a big advocate of “Come as you are”. And Claire is right, the most important word is “come”.

  3. The SLSO is holding a Bloggers’ Night this Friday, Oct. 30 at 8pm. Performing the same show that’s going to Carnegie Hall next week. If you can make it you get two tickets, two drink tickets, and all I ask is that you post a blog about your concert experience, send me the link and I put it up on the slso blog.

    Let me know if you can come.

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