Eradicating Stereotypes: Initiatives for Culturally Aware Leaders
As last month’s YMR articles suggest, Community-based Research (CBR) has become recognized as a powerful strategy to engage students in hands-on research projects in service of non-profit community agencies or community groups. However, under-addressed in the CBR literature is what students need for participation in productive, collaborative, and meaningful community-based research partnerships.
This article advocates for programs to assist college students, teens, community partners and adult allies to become active and informed citizens (in view of their career goals) by being more culturally aware of stereotypes and institutionalized racism. In addition, this article suggests ways media can inspire projects such as Professor Beth Paul’s. Musician Petula Clark’s song “Downtown” spurred Paul’s desire for student civic development through a community-engaged learning initiative that breaks down racial and class stereotypes and motivates activism for social justice.
Youth media professionals invested in work with an anti-oppression focus might consider ways to bridge with programs such as the Trenton Youth Community-based Research Corps at The College of New Jersey, which collaborates—side-by-side—with community partners using anti-racist approaches for teen empowerment.
Petula Clark croons in her classic rendition of Downtown, “And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you. Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand to guide them along … So go downtown, things’ll be great when you’re downtown – don’t wait a minute more, downtown – everything’s waiting for you.” This classic sixties tune celebrates the wonders of urban life—in the face of the realities of urban economic decline and the societal disparagement of poor inner-city life. Downtown takes a wide-eyed look at the hard realities of inner-city poverty while appreciating the assets and strengths of its residents. We have so much to learn from this balanced perspective; indeed, the ability to appreciate strength while working to empower is critical to accomplish social change and social justice.
These powerful lyrics inspired a community-campus collaborative course entitled, Downtown: Inner City Youth and Families that serves as the foundation for a three-semester community-based research (CBR) program, The Trenton Youth Community-based Research Corps (TYCRC) offered at The College of New Jersey. TYCRC developed out of my interest in engaging undergraduate students in research that would help non-profit community organizations make a difference in the lives of children—particularly those living in poverty—in Trenton, New Jersey, a neighboring city to our suburban campus.
CBR includes students and faculty collaborating with community organizations to address a specific problem identified by the community organization. In recent years, students have: designed primary research projects to provide information for decision-making, completed planning and implementation tasks necessary to develop programs, and conducted program evaluations. This work involves a powerful partnership between community and college where students work side-by-side with leaders of organizations to address community problems in a developmental learning process.
Leaders of these organizations participate in the classroom with students, creating a community unique to academia. These partners come from non-profit agencies that often lack resources to hire external researchers to conduct community needs and assessment (or to study the effectiveness of their programs). Such research is increasingly necessary for the economic survival of non-profit community-based organizations, not to mention for developing maximally-effective programs and services. All partners are both teachers and learners. Community partners (which may include youth media professionals) are respected as experts in working with the target community and issues at the focus of the community and of the social service agency mission.
In creating the course Downtown, I sought to link students not only with community partners, but directly to the community itself. In doing so, students needed to think critically about identity, race, class, and sex while being exposed to inner city life. A reality at most universities, the majority of students involved in TYCRC have had little to no exposure to the realities of inner-city children and families living in poverty. While many have had well-intentioned community service experiences, the students were frequently sheltered from up-close exposure to the hard realities of social injustice and rarely engaged in meaningful reflection to deepen their understanding. Thus, initial exposure to these realities and awareness of the mission and strategies of community organizations is necessary.
Indeed, the course Downtown has become a humbling experience for students, replacing their stereotypes of inner-city residents as dysfunctional and helpless with open-eyed awareness of these individuals’ strengths and the formidable challenges with which they must cope minute-by-minute.
Learning across Difference
In the Downtown course, students learn in situ about pressing inner-city issues. In class sessions held in Trenton, they get to know many Trenton citizens; they learn through observation, interaction, and testimonials about Trenton youth and families; they learn about numerous social service agencies—including their economic pressures; and they develop familiarity with and comfort in traveling to Trenton.
Students discuss urban youth issues and the role of research and social service agencies with local professionals. Students meet weekly for team-building activities and interactive exercises that challenge stereotypes and build awareness of privilege and prejudice. Conversations evolve into discussions of dynamics of privilege and social status and ways in which stereotypes sometimes seem to hold a “kernel of truth” but can be challenged and eroded. Making an effort to get to know individuals by identifying common interests but also appreciating individuality is a powerful strategy for weakening the prejudicial power of stereotypes.
Overall, the mission of Downtown is to have college students and community partners work together on several goals. Specifically, students focus on:
• Analyzing factors that contribute to youth issues in inner city communities such as child neglect and abuse, early substance use and abuse, gang involvement and violence and larger factors such as poverty, prejudice, privilege and power;
• Deconstructing simplistic ‘pat’ theories and homogenized beliefs by using different perspectives and sources of information in order to understand societal functions of simplistic, external stereotypes and assumptions;
• Creating supportive spaces to share observations, collaborate, and work with teens and community partners;
• Providing exposure to and stimulating awareness of the complex lives of inner-city youth and families, particularly those who live in poverty;
• Viewing real-life urban complexities (needs and assets) through multiple lenses, including disciplinary and community-based perspectives;
• Building cultural competency skills necessary for working with and on behalf of inner-city youth and families;
• Developing an understanding of social services and gaining comfort interacting with community professionals and gaining familiarity with and comfort in traveling around Trenton;
• Engaging fully in a collaborative CBR partnership upon course completion.
In order to reach these objectives students complete several assignments during the course of their experience. The capstone assignment in the course is a community agency-sponsored “Issue Investigation” that includes: a study of hopelessness among contemporary urban youth, curriculum development for a new life skills and mentoring program for urban teenage girls, and/or ways to stimulate healthy peer relationships among urban youth.
We give students a taste for doing something “real”—with importance, relevance, and impact. For most of the students, this is the first time they will create something that is seen by eyes other than a teacher or professor for the sole purpose of assessment. As one student explains, “I feel like I’m part of something real, something meaningful.” The students surprise themselves with the quality and depth of their work and have a great sense of pride in their final product.
Youth to Youth Relationships
Some of the most powerful and insightful experiences are when college students interact personally with Trenton youth, as part of the course objective. Mid semester, students attend Trenton Teens Talk youth forums on pressing youth issues (e.g., youth violence, challenges to healthy relationships, gang involvement) where nearly 100 Trenton youth from the local public high school, alternative high school, YouthBuild site, and youth detention center come together.
Each TYCRC student joins one of the small groups at the forum and gets to know the teens as real people (rather than as a stereotyped abstract category). The college students’ participation in youth forums, which coincides with the course as a result of collaboration between academia and community organizations, is a turning point in Downtown, stimulating movement from exposure to growing understanding. As one student remarked:
“I think inner-city youth should be listened to more closely. They should have a seat at the table when parents and teachers are deciding what’s good for them. They need to be nurtured more. Trenton kids are a promising group of individuals that have a wealth of untapped potential. I want to be involved in healing their pain and mind so they can feel encouraged and hopeful about their future.”
Assessment & Reflections
From 2003 – 2005, 80 individuals participated in the TCOC; 57% were non-students and 43% were TCNJ TYCRC students. Half of the participants were non-Hispanic Caucasians (there were more Caucasian TCNJ students than non-student participants); 31% were African-American, 11% Hispanic, 2% Asian, and 3% described themselves as multiethnic. Participants ranged in age from 19 to 59 years.
All TYCRC students reflected on how wide their eyes had been opened in TCOC and Downtown. One student remarked: “Since I had never been exposed to the many issues facing children in inner cities before, it was a very eye-opening experience for me. The most positive result for me personally was that not only did I become aware of these issues, but I also came in contact with many people who made me feel that I could contribute significantly to these issues.”
For many of the students, reflections on the new realities to which they were exposed led to a deepened understanding of life experiences and communities different from their own. One student observed, “It really has helped me to realize that there’s so much more to people than they might convey by their first appearance.”
Another student realized, “I learned so much about the issues facing children in Trenton and inner cities. I value social context more than I have in the past and better understand the reasons that youth make some of the ‘decisions’ that they do. Many times, in order to survive, there aren’t many other options.”
I have also come to appreciate the transformative power of Downtown for students who have grown up in urban environments and who are very familiar with the challenging realities of inner-city life. Luis, a student who grew up in Trenton, described his experience in Downtown:
“I joined TYCRC because someone has to help kids in Trenton! It’s a tough place, you know. And kids, they just give up. I got out. But I can’t just walk away, but I don’t know what to do. I began to think maybe there really isn’t any hope. Being in the Downtown course really opened my eyes. I started thinking about what is really going on in Trenton and what could actually make a difference. Talking with kids in the forums – I heard them in a different way. I guess even I was buying into the “loser theories” about us. I started thinking more about what is going on outside the kids and how kids took that in. But then I thought that maybe we need to reach inside and put that on the outside. What I saw is that even one person could make a difference. I could do that.”
As result of this course, student’s change their perceptions of inner-city youth. Consider this pre- to post-course reflection:
Pre-Downtown: “I don’t really know enough about inner-city youth to even begin to answer this question. I know they usually end up in gangs, and get into drugs and violence. Most have no focus and no goals in mind.”
Post-Downtown: “I think inner-city youth cannot control the environment they were born in and thus have to face many hardships that suburban youth never see. I think inner-city youth may need an extra push in the right direction sometimes because their environment is so harsh. I don’t think that all inner-city families are abusive or consist of one parent, however, there are definitely more problems in the inner city that could put stress on familial relations. I think most inner-city youth are talented and can contribute greatly to society.”
A key aim of our work is to stimulate advocacy efforts on behalf of children. A very broad sense of advocacy is promoted, including such actions as interacting one-on-one with youth, registering concern about a youth issue with a local leader or state politician, serving as a youth advocate, or committing to advance a cause through activism or community leadership. One student explained:
“This course opened my eyes to the prevailing situations that affect today’s youth. [It] helped me to see the many organizations that are in place and are out there fighting to save today’s youth. It also opened my eyes to the limitations of such programs due to a lack of funding or people to join in on the work in progress. I’ve come to understand that every little bit helps. I can make a difference.”
Another student’s reflection at the end of her TYCRC experience:
“I shocked myself to the ultimate when I took control of things that I never thought I was good at. Being put under pressure, knowing that what I have done will help real people, made me work 1,000 times harder than I ever have. It made what I was doing worthwhile. When given a chance to do CBR and to work in the community, your whole world view is readjusted and renewed. It has impacted my future because now I know what I am capable of and what is important to me—to the world.”
All community partner participants were asked four times during the program to respond to reflective prompts about “the experience of being in a class that is a mix of college students and community members.” Responses were overwhelmingly positive.
One community participant commented:
“I think that this is a great combination because you get to know all aspects and views of the community and create ties and relationships/friendships with many that you wouldn’t otherwise communicate on any level. I have no problem working or being a part of a group that has students and community members. It makes me feel knowledgeable to the students.”
This course has demonstrated the value of college students’ collaboration with community partners to identify issues and needs of inner city communities. Building competency skills for working with, and behalf of, inner city youth and their families is the key to our approach. We have learned that this partnership is most effective when students are provided the resources and space to fully understand the cultural context(s) in which they are working. Adults, participants, and potential university partners supporting youth media should make time, resources and space to reflect on inner city and race-related issues to make their partnerships with youth that much stronger.
Petula Clark foreshadowed this magic in her prescient Downtown lyrics: “Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city; Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty. How can you lose? … Downtown—you’re gonna be all right now.”
An academic example of anti-racist approaches for inner-city teen empowerment that youth media professionals can learn from.