The Possible and the Necessary

Students demonstrate through their scholarship and actions that change in their local communities can and must happen.

After a Girl Talk session at Garey High School, Meredith Abrams '10 and Milan Cook '10 unfolded thirty-nine anonymous notes. They had invited the girls to brainstorm for ten minutes and write down their concerns on the topic: violence. Abrams and Cook thought their responses might be focused on questions of mental abuse. Instead they discovered twenty of the thirty-nine notes indicated personal experience with physical abuse and relationship violence.

“It was very difficult to know that behind the innocent, beautiful faces of these young women were individuals being hit by their fathers, their mothers, their boyfriends,” Abrams said. “The Pitzer in Ontario program provided me with the guidance and support I needed to help give this muted population a voice on these topics.”

Co-founded ten years ago by Pitzer College Dean of Faculty Alan Jones and María de Lourdes Argüelles, now professor of education and Cultural Studies at Claremont Graduate University, the Pitzer in Ontario program creates a space in which to actualize the College's ethos of social responsibility and community engagement. Under the direction of the Center for California Cultural and Social Issues (CCCSI), the program seeks to articulate Pitzer College's vision of uniting social responsibility and academic rigor by having students co-partner with local community members in the production of knowledge. These community partnerships include the Pomona Day Labor Center, Camps Afflerbaugh-Paige, Homework Enrichment & Reading Outreach (HERO) and Prototypes, among many others.

As a component of CCCSI, the Pitzer in Ontario program provides a curricular connection so students engage with communities on an interactive and experiential learning level and also connect this to methods for applied research. As students in the Pitzer in Ontario program's courses, Social Change Practicum, Qualitative Research Methods and Critical Community Studies, Abrams and Cook's work at Pomona's Garey High School represents one of four new partnerships established last fall by CCCSI Interim Director Tessa Hicks and Pitzer in Ontario Director Susan Phillips. The other new partnerships formed include the Division of Juvenile Justice at the Herman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino, Inland Congregations United for Change in San Bernardino and the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice in Riverside.

What students interning with these organizations found is when it comes to digesting large theoretical concepts and the importance of conducting community-based research, the Pitzer in Ontario program's model of learning provided them with the crucial framework for understanding how to best affect positive change within each of the unique communities they worked.

“I think community-based, participatory research is a critically important frontier in traditional research and our students are at the helm of it. It allows them to really get working in communities on intense issues of exploitation, marginalization, racism and sexism, as well as community development, empowerment and rights,” Hicks said. “These are really messy, complex issues that you can't understand from just reading a textbook. You have to interact with people who are different than you, have different ideas than you and participate in an exchange that is both intellectual and also very personal and political.”

“Girl Talk” and Garey High School

After putting up posters all over school, Abrams and Cook recalled how they and the other peer counselors had reserved only a small classroom expecting ten to fifteen girls to participate in the first meeting of Girl Talk. At 3 p.m., however, nearly seventy girls lined up outside the door. “It was completely overwhelming, but probably the most exciting moment for me in the program because it really showed that we were addressing a need and people were responding,” Abrams said.

In listening to the stories the young women at Garey High School shared, Abrams and Cook learned that most of them desperately wanted to create a safe, supportive space for dealing with the intense social issues they faced such as the dating of older men and pressures to have sex. Therefore, for their Social Change Practicum course internship, they attended two weekly peer counseling classes and co-created and led Girl Talk, a weekly after-school program for adolescent females.

Abrams and Cook's supportive roles in each Girl Talk session was to facilitate a candid conversation in which students could share their personal experiences and opinions about such topics as relationships, violence, drugs and sex. In addition, they invited representatives from local, outside support agencies so students knew where to turn for information or help that was not offered in the school.

As Abrams and Cook worked to foster an environment of mutual exchange between themselves and the students, they began to understand more about the enormous challenges these fourteen- to seventeen-year-old girls faced. Abrams determined that her own research must concentrate on identifying why so many young women are involved in what appears to be serious and oftentimes abusive relationships. By interviewing the girls about their relationship experiences, Abrams uncovered the external factors at work that were beyond the control of the individuals involved. Parental attitudes, educational environment and the accepted social values and conduct within the institution all played a critical role in shaping the foundations upon which these young women's relationships were built.

Cook focused her work on the large number of teen pregnancies at Garey, which has the second highest rate in California. Despite this staggering statistic, when Cook asked the girls about the sex education programs offered by the school, they responded that with the exception of “health week,” none existed. Noting that much research shows a positive correlation between the ages that a mother and daughter experience their first pregnancy, Cook recognized the urgent need to break this pattern at Garey. She listened to the girls' feedback and learned through Girl Talk how to begin developing an effective program for educating young women about sex and an overall healthy lifestyle.

“Their dependence on Girl Talk as a source of accurate information on the issues they face blew me out of the water,” Cook said. “We shared a lot of ourselves with the girls and tried to be as open with them as possible instead of shying away from the questions nobody else would answer. My hope is that these girls will become educators themselves and help inform their peers, younger children, and even adults, about the best way for them to cope with a given situation.”

Abrams and Cook observed that once the girls began to voice their concerns and seek guidance during the weekly Girl Talk conversations, the girls' views began to change. They took a step back, looked closely at why things were the way they were. Some ended dangerous relationships and others made progress in grieving and coping with issues of familial abuse. Beyond the personal growth of each of the girls and how this will affect their future encounters, Abrams and Cook noted the importance of the girls seeing how two groups from completely different backgrounds can come together to achieve a common goal.

“These girls and a lot of youth out there are encouraged to talk, talk, talk, but they are never given the resources to take action,” Abrams said. “We sat down and asked them what they hoped to gain from an after-school program and they actually saw their ideas fashioned into a successful final product. I think this experience as a whole has changed their outlook on what they're capable of doing.”

Buddhist Meditation and the Division of Juvenile Justice

While going abroad to immerse oneself in a different culture can be fulfilling, the Pitzer in Ontario program holds that it is equally as worthwhile to look around the corner of one's own neighborhood and get to know another culture's different way of thinking and looking at the world. New Resources student and psychology major Gerald Johnson '10 found himself expanding his knowledge on Buddhist traditions while working with the wards at the Division of Juvenile Justice's (DJJ) Herman G. Stark facility in Chino. For his internship he was invited to help develop a weekly Buddhist meditation group at the facility. The DJJ's Asian population is approximately 2 percent and previously no services had existed for Buddhists or those interested in learning to meditate.

Since the group was newly formed, Johnson and the men initially talked through some conflicting ideas about the direction the sessions should take and decided what Johnson was capable of providing as the group's facilitator. Johnson himself is not a Buddhist and the wards were all from different Buddhist traditions, so their greatest task was to find a level medium for all. Once this was achieved, their sessions generally came to be comprised of a beginning meditation, discussion of a Buddhist concept, open discussionabout their concerns and what Johnson could do for them.

“One ward, Kim, is very curious about God: What do I think about God? Do I pray?,” Johnson said. “We talked about the concept of identity and moving forward and I talked about the Buddhist concept of identity and the difference between being guilty and being unskillful. We went into this rich conversation and for that one moment Kim dropped the wall and showed me who he really is. He is pretty fierce and he is known for being such, but there is still a human being in there.”

Rather than tell them they are wrong and he is right, once Johnson got to know each man and understood what frustrated him, he asked if the ward would like to learn how to deal with a particular issue successfully and shared his knowledge. “Initially they are suspicious of any new people entering and offering solutions,” Johnson noted. “In their world people need to prove themselves, and volunteers are no exception.”

Since his research project focused on collecting the men's individual narratives with the hope of ascertaining the underlying patterns that have formed their world views, Johnson had to work to earn their trust. As the wards spoke of their religious, ethnic and cultural histories, he likewise disclosed the same information and gradually they began to listen to each other.

Having been a volunteer in the Department of Corrections for fifteen years, Johnson is quick to acknowledge he doesn't have a messiah complex and he doesn't believe he is personally going to save any one person's soul. What he did try to do through each of the meditation sessions and while holding personal interviews was to “plant seeds” as he put it.

“I think you stick your hand out and when they take it, they take it. And any time you put your hand out to someone and they take it that's a benefit to the greater good,” Johnson said. “Increasing evidence supports the fact that restorative justice is actually much more beneficial to us as a society than retributive justice. I have a very personal understanding that people who are incarcerated are not necessarily inhuman. I think sometimes no one has ever told them what's right in a respectful way.”

Interracial Youth Violence and Inland Congregations United for Change

One of the tenets of the Pitzer in Ontario program is that students do not just engage in a charity model of change, but rather become actively involved with communities. Students look at how these communities are and can be empowered to address social justice issues and in turn how they fit into this effort. This level of involvement is exactly what attracted Pomona student Sam Hanft '10 to the program. “When I heard about the Pitzer in Ontario program, it sounded unlike anything else offered at other colleges. The extent to which it emphasizes community involvement reaches far beyond any other program,” Hanft said.

Prior to Hanft's arrival as an intern, Inland Congregations United for Change (ICUC) had assembled quantitative research that found, among other things, 78 percent of students surveyed in San Bernardino had experienced violence in their schools and 85 percent of students indicated that programs were needed to address racism. The next step for ICUC was to collect qualitative research and that is where Hanft and Scripps College student Laura Schreiner '09 entered the picture. They were able to take what they learned in their Qualitative Research Methods course and directly apply it at the research site by sitting down with students and talking with them about their individual experiences with violence.

“It wasn't just Laura and I, we were helped by the students involved in ICUC, they were our co-interviewers and we talked about the results together,” Hanft noted. “It really was a partnership. It wasn't just us going in and doing research on these kids in San Bernardino; they were really participants in the research, not just research subjects. We did sample interviews and then came back and flushed out what worked and what didn't and we revised together.”

After speaking with all types of students, Hanft and his coresearchers observed the extent to which students felt alienated by their schools and desired more respect. “Most instances of violence, both between distinct races and with a single race, arise out of the students' desire for respect and dignity amongst a society that largely denies them any validation of their self-worth on account of their race and socioeconomic status,” Hanft said.

As a result, many students have internalized the racism and oppression they suffer on a daily basis and have grown to see themselves as inherently violent. Growing up in the U.S. where the typical path to success is defined as going to school, getting good grades, securing a high-paying job and becoming a conspicuous consumer, these students appear to be channeling their anger and frustration with the impossible nature of achieving this dream at each other and especially at those belonging to a race other than their own.

“It's not enough, however, to simply show students the problem,” Hanft said. “They need tools to achieve change placed into their hands. They need empowerment.” Such tools for change and empowerment may lie in the very conversations Hanft and his coresearchers initiated since these discussions encouraged students to begin recognizing that their current situation doesn't have to remain a fact of life. Once they began talking about the issues, Hanft noted the myriad ideas they had to help improve their communities.

Ideas such as the need for more parks, basketball courts and recreation centers; a need for better school programming that truly engages the student demographic; and after-school activities, especially support groups in which they could voice their concerns and build relationships with students of other races.

Mira Loma Village and the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice

Similar to her fellow students in the Pitzer in Ontario program, Maris Findlay '10, a self-designed major in Urban Studies, strove through her research to ensure that the stories of marginalized citizens were heard. Her internship with the environmental justice group Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) in Riverside had her chronicle the stories of Mira Loma Village residents.

Comprised of 101 homes and surrounded by the 60 freeway, railways and industrial parks, Mira Loma Village (MLV) has the worst air quality in the nation. Its predominantly Latino residents suffer from numerous ailments including chronic bronchitis and asthma. Previously occupied by dairy farms and wineries, community members in MLV have watched as the development of industry mushroomed around them during the last five years. While CCAEJ has prevented the construction of six warehouses since 2006, the community remains completely choked by industry and there is currently a proposal to build an inland port on one of the last pieces of open land.

“I wanted to give a voice to members of this community so their humanity did not become lost in the terrifying quantitative statistics that demonstrate the impacts of pollution on community health,” Findlay said. “My research aimed to convey the information that community members themselves wanted heard, rather than what researchers and scientists viewed as necessary.”

In addition to organizing materials for community meetings and going door-to-door to encourage the participation of residents, Findlay assisted in the compilation of a needs-based survey to determine what MLV believed to be the most critical concerns about their community. Based on her field notes, she identified several recurring themes amongst the accounts shared by the citizens: pollution/traffic, health impacts, politics, struggling economies and a sense of helplessness.

Lilly, a MLV resident who lives on Urbana Street near the intersection of Iberia Street and Etiwanda Avenue, said her community is just “too noisy, too polluted, and the dirt comes in anywhere.” Findlay wrote in her field notes:

“Lilly has lived in MLV for thirty-four years. . . . Her two children, both sons, suffer from mental illness. Aside from this, they both have asthma and experience symptoms at least once a week. . . . Lilly too, has developed allergies, sinus problems and recurring headaches in just the past five or six years. While I sit and speak to Lilly, her youngest son, Ricky, is having problems breathing today and I can hear the strain in his inhalations now that he is right next to me.”

Since their community has become so undesirable, residents have found it nearly impossible to sell their homes and many cannot afford to move elsewhere. According to Findlay, MLV residents are victims of environmental racism who have been systematically excluded from environmental decisions that severely impact their well-being. Community members such as Lilly believe the reason the warehouses were constructed around them was “more or less because it is a Hispanic community” and many powerful community leaders assume this population will not fight back.

Another resident, Sam, stated that “If we were all well informed the world would be a different place,” and that is precisely what Findlay hopes to have accurately exposed by detailing the injustices this population must endure.

Moving Forward

While these students and their internships with four new community partnerships represent only a small sampling of students' efforts in the Pitzer in Ontario program, they are illustrative of the incredible academic and personal investments each student has made toward affecting positive change on a local level. In fact, save for two students (one of whom is studying abroad this spring), all of those involved in internships and research during the Fall semester expressed a heartfelt desire to continue their work. Professors Hicks and Phillips in turn created a new Advanced Research Practicum course that will provide students with a class forum in which to find support and dialog for the issues they encounter as they continue on in another semester of community-based research.

Abrams is currently applying for grants to secure long-term funding for the Girl Talk program at Garey and to establish additional programs for male students. Cook plans to make Girl Talk a nationally accredited after-school program branching out to other schools throughout the U.S., beginning with the Chicagoland area near her home. Johnson hopes to further investigate the wards' personal narratives and any possible links with being children of war or trauma. In conjunction with his fellow ICUC researchers, Hanft is working with students to transform his research into an eight-page report they can share with the local government. Finally, Findlay is continuing to tackle issues of environmental justice by writing policy proposals on the zoning of industry to help ensure that unjust situations such as those found in Mira Loma Village are eliminated.

—Emily Cavalcanti