Adryan Flores- Compassion and Active Citizenship

OCE Student Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

It’s hard to think of a better example of an active citizen than Adryan Flores. He is humble and funny, but he is serious about social justice. He always looks for opportunities to serve, whether in big or small ways, understanding that both are equally important. Among other activities, he has worked with Circle K, Campus Kitchens, the Office of Community Engagement, and Catholic Campus Ministry. If there is a need he will look to fill it, because of his genuine compassion for everyone.

Office of Community Engagement: How are you involved in community engagement at William & Mary?

Adryan Flores: During my time at William and Mary, I have done service with Circle K, Campus Kitchens, and Office of Community Engagement. But most of the service I have done has been through participation in Catholic Campus Ministry’s Social Justice Ministry doing various community service projects such as giving food assistance to those in need, doing clothing and food drives, helping with the FISH organization’s costume sale, walking in the March for Life, running a homeless shelter for a night in Newport News, planning a service retreat to Chippokes State Park, and going on service trips to Richmond, Savannah GA, and Hurley VA.

OCE: How has this work contributed to community needs?

AF: The work I have been a part of has contributed to the community needs directly through supporting those in need with food, shelter, and clothing and indirectly through supporting organizations that help to support those in need.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?

AF: Active citizenship means building relationships with those around me. Active citizenship means understanding my neighbor’s struggles, fears, hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. By understanding and knowing those around me, the act of service community engagement naturally follows. There can be no community without relationships, and no service without knowing our neighbors.

OCE: How has your experience working in the community affected your educational career at William & Mary?

AF: My experience working in the community has provided meaning and motivation towards my educational career. Understanding that using the knowledge and credibility we gain through education can be used to help those in need in the future motivates me to continue in my educational career.

OCE: How do you plan to use what you’ve learned as an engaged citizen beyond William & Mary?

AF: I will always carry a social consciousness that I gained through being an active citizen at William and Mary with me after I graduate and for the rest of my life. I will continue to be cognizant of the needs of those around me, especially those who have the least, and continue to work towards a better community. No matter what I end up doing professionally, I will try to continue to develop relationships with those around me to help create a more unified community that works and lives to help each other.

OCE: What is the most memorable or striking moment you experienced during your engagement work?

AF: One of the more memorable moments I experienced was when I was in Savannah Georgia and we were working for Old Savannah City Mission, an organization that helped the homeless and the recently incarcerated. We were working in the back storeroom helping sort donated linens to sell in their thrift shop when Mrs. Stiles, one of the general managers burst into the room and excitedly told us that they had just received a large grant. What stood out to me however was that all of the excitement she had wasn’t because of the money, or that they were going to use it to do something nice for herself, but that finally, after waiting for so long, they could get a new dishwasher. I had seen other acts of selflessness before but for some reason this particular moment with Mrs. Stiles made it clear to me that this was someone who dedicating every ounce of her being towards helping those who came to Old Savannah in a true spirit of selflessness.

Let’s talk about the border- Part V

This is Part V of a series about some of the challenges for Latino immigrants in the United States, and this post talks about the H-2A law and worker exploitation.

The Migrant Labor System

Estimates of the percentages of farmworkers who labor without documentation range from 50-70 percent. In past legislative debates, agricultural companies have actually worked against immigration policies that would facilitate workers being hired with documentation- because it would regulate the way that they would treat their workers and drive up their own production costs. Claims of their own financial difficulties are undercut by the statistic that “Between 1997 and 2007, the agriculture industry enjoyed a nearly 80 percent average annual increase in corporate profits…Over the same period, the average real wage of a farm worker remained stagnant.”

The H-2A program has been some of the most influential agricultural immigration policy over the last few decades.  It is extremely common for employers to knowingly hire workers without documentation; however, the H-2A program is another, more officially “legal” route to a cheap labor pool.

The process begins in the home communities of the workers. The employers send H-2A recruiters, who promise hard work but high wages and a better life. Coupled with the popular perception of the United States as the “land of opportunity,” their promises can be hard to resist. However, these promises are not free- the workers must pay significant costs to obtain this passage to a new country, including paying for a visa, costs of transportation, and for the employment itself. Already, before they have begun earning any money, they owe money to the people who hire them.

When these workers arrive in the United States, they are greeted with low (or stolen) wages. They even can be subjected to forced labor- or, the real and ugly word, slavery. This system of “debt bondage” that H-2A promotes facilitates their captivity. When the workers arrive, they generally live in “housing” (I use that term loosely) provided by their employers, for which they are charged. According to antislavery.org, “Deductions are made from their wages for transport, accommodation, food, work equipment, and supposed tax and social security payments. Weekly wages are sporadic and in many instances workers are left with no pay.” So they build up more and more debt over time, which they are forced to try to continue to work off.

H-2A workers themselves are in a very unique legal situation. They can only work for a limited time with the employer who brought them to the United States. At any moment, the employer may choose to terminate their employment, resulting in their deportation. As one of the provisions of the H-2A law, the employers are not required to pay Social Security or unemployment taxes for H-2A workers.

H-2A workers are preferred over legal permanent residents because of the exploitation that employers are able to perpetrate. There have been cases in which legal permanent residents have been fired for the explicit reason that they must legally be paid higher wages, as well as the prohibition from forcing them to work such extensive hours.

The system also leaves room for exploitation in the requirement for employers to reimburse the workers for transportation costs from their home countries after they have worked for half of a season. However, the employers often choose to fire the workers just before this point, so they do not have to pay. This leaves workers not only without the cost of their travels, but without jobs as well.

The treatment of the workers themselves can betray slavery- conditions as well. They may be compelled to work in the hot sun, and around dangerous chemicals (especially pesticides), for 10-12 hours at a time. Exposure to these toxic chemicals can also include nicotine absorbed through the skin- and many of the people exposed to this are children. Workers often suffer dizziness, rashes, and headaches, or vomiting— or cancer, neurological disorders, birth defects, and death as a result. There have even been accounts of workers being sprayed down directly with DDT. Housing conditions can include trailers, barracks, dilapidated homes, or any combination of the above. Their common feature is overcrowding and lack of sanitation. Workers can be watched by armed guards to prevent escape, and told that if they attempt to advocate for themselves, either they or their families will suffer the consequences. Workers may be physically tortured with techniques such as whipping, and many women suffer sexual assault.

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In the last portion of this series, Part VI, I’ll offer some of my final thoughts and some of the ways that you can choose to become involved.

Let’s talk about the border- Part IV

This is Part IV of a series about some of the challenges for Latino immigrants in the United States, and this post talks about some of the historical roots of the system through the Bracero Program.

The Bracero Program

So what role does the United States play in motivating people to come? I’ve touched on some of the factors, such as the economic role of NAFTA. But there are deep historical roots for the today’s migration patterns. One of the strongest historical precedents is the Bracero Program. Although by no means the only avenue for migrants when they come to the United States, because of this historical precendent, farm work is a very common one.

As World War II began, the United States lost the labor force of the able bodied young men who went to war. Many of them would otherwise have served as farm labor, and in 1942, to ensure that there would be more enough workers, the United States and Mexican governments created the Bracero program. Years of war coupled with poor harvests made the program more attractive to the campesinos. The United States found the prospect of a labor force that they would not be required to pay high wages to appealing.

However, because of an earlier failed attempt at a Bracero Program from 1917 to 1921, in which the migrants encountered excessive discrimination and low wages, the Mexican government pushed for certain provisions in the program, including that the United States would pay for the journey to and from Mexico, and that the workers would be required to have the same pay as United States workers.

Around 1947, farmers began to see ways to acquire labor cheaply. They began to recruit workers without documentation, and this way were able to avoid the costs of both transportation and standardized wages. Initially, the United States government was friendlier to workers in this situation- if they were discovered, they would be taken to the border and issued documents to legally initiate them into the Bracero program. However, the Bracero program was far from equitable- for example, many workers had portions of their wages held and never returned to them.

However, around 1951, the government began to see more and more farmers working around the law to cut costs. Initially, the plan was to place the burden of guilt on employers, so as to stem the exploitation. However, because of the strong lobbying power of the farmers, a different future took shape. The resulting bill that Congress passed was called PL-78, or the Mexican Farm Labor Program. This bill called for a strong penalty for “harboring” individuals without documentation, including deeming it a felony, and punishment with $2,000 fines and 5 year prison sentences. However, it was still completely permissible to employ an individual without documentation.

The influx of workers without documentation continued into the early 1950s. Some of the military- like nature of Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) practices that can be seen today may be partially due to the early appointment of a former general as its director. He implemented “Operation Wetback” in 1954, in which over a million Mexicans were deported. To try to save the flailing Bracero program, the US Department of labor decreased the requirements for fair treatment for workers. However, this did not work, and only served to worsen conditions for workers.

So these events put the pieces in place for the system we have today. Although the Bracero Program officially ended in 1964, employers had long before become dependent on the steady and cheaper labor force that it ultimately enabled. In reality, the PL-78 bill, by effectively legalizing the lack of regulation in employment practices for farmers, decreased any pressure to pay workers fair wages and contributed strongly to the demise of any semblance of fair treatment for workers.

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This was Part IV of the article, and next time I’ll talk about the H-2A law and the exploitation of workers.

Chandra Chea- Keeping People First

OCE Student Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

Senior Chandra Chea definitely knows what it is to serve. With leadership roles in organizations such as Students Helping Honduras and the Williamsburg Engagement Head Start Program, among others, she what is to innovate. However, she never loses sight of people, who are at the heart of engagement for her.  Here, she shares her reflections on some of her experiences, and what connecting with others means to her.

At William and Mary, I am currently involved with the Office of Community Engagement and have had the opportunity to lead a group of students to Williamsburg Head Start weekly to volunteer with the children over this past year. Head Start teachers work diligently with parents to make sure their students do not fall behind before they start their education as kindergartners. In a packed classroom of students ranging from three to five, the teacher and teacher assistant are unable to provide individualized attention to each child. Through the collaborative program with William and Mary, volunteers offer extra assistance, helping to create a more productive classroom. The work that William and Mary students do in the classrooms helps to fill the gaps by giving support to the teachers.

I also promote community engagement through my involvement as a trip leader with the organization Students Helping Honduras (SHH), which focuses on combating the rampant gang violence in Honduras through providing children with access to education. Each year, students travel to El Progreso, Honduras to help build schools and learn about the culture. While in Honduras, students work alongside people in the community and learn the importance of sweat equity.  On campus, we raise funds for schools in various communities across Honduras and increase awareness about the link between poverty, violence, and education while also stressing the importance of global collaboration and service. Spending time with Head Start and SHH has given me a greater understanding of what it means to be an active citizen. To me, active citizenship means taking these opportunities to experience a different side of life and using them to inspire you to ask questions and make a change for the better.

 

During my time with SHH, I was able to spend time with Shin Fujiyama, the founder of the organization, during my trip and I was exposed to importance of cultural literacy and the struggles of international aid and fundraising. What I learned during my trip has inspired me to raise awareness and get other students involved in the issues that plague Honduras. My work with Head Start pushed me to question the education system in the United States, and has given me a glimpse of the effects of poverty on childhood education. These organizations have sparked my interest in education and given me a chance to explore passions outside of my major. By collaborating with other William and Mary students, I saw the strength in working with people who are passionate about the same issues.

Moving forward after graduation, I hope to surround myself with individuals that display the same qualities I saw in my peers at William and Mary and spend my life working in a field that is filled with passion and enthusiasm for creating change. My time traveling and serving communities have been filled with amazing experiences that have changed me and given me memories that I will cherish. The most memorable moment for me happened recently in a Head Start classroom. I was sitting with a young boy working on an art project for Mother’s Day and he was told to sign his name at the bottom. He whispered to me that he did not know how to write his name and asked me to write it for him. Instead, I worked on each letter with him until he was able to write it himself. After a few tries he wrote his name fully on his artwork and a look of joy spread across his face. He turned to me and asked if he had done it correctly, and when I nodded he screamed with excitement. He ran to his teacher and told her the good news and smiled wide as she put a sticker on him. While a seemingly small accomplishment, he had learned how to do something that he had given up on. Service, to me, is about these small moments.

 

Anna Wong- Humility and Compassion

OCE Student Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

With her infectious smile and upbeat personality, it’s obvious when you meet Anna Wong that she is a kind person. However, when you get to know her, you begin to understand this junior’s deep compassion for others and how many ways she seeks to engage with them.  Her efforts include working with Campus Kitchens, the Center for Veterans Engagement, H.O.P.E, and Literacy for Life, among others.  She was kind enough to answer some questions for us about what community engagement means to her.

Office of Community Engagement: How are you involved in community engagement at William & Mary?

Anna Wong: I first got involved in W&M community engagement through the Campus Kitchen, initially as a volunteer and later as the Public Relations Chair on the exec board. I also have volunteered for the Center for Veterans Engagement. I am currently a tutor at Literacy for Life, which is located at the School of Education. I have participated in two study-abroad programs in the business school, in which I studied social entrepreneurship (grassroots community organization) and conducted community assessments in the Dominican Republic and Cuba.

OCE: How has this work contributed to community needs?

AW: My work with the Campus Kitchen addressed food insecurity and food waste in Williamsburg. With the Center for Veterans Engagement, I helped further their mission of offering creative arts opportunities platforms to veterans in the community. At Literacy for Life, I help with their mission of improving lives by teaching adults literacy skills necessary for self-sufficiency, better health, and meaningful participation in society. The social entrepreneurship programs I participated in gave me a powerful new perspective to approaching community change, and during the trips, my classmates and I formed professional relationships with social change-makers in the Dominican Republic and Cuba.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?

AW: To me, active citizenship means understanding/seeking an understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that a community faces, and then applying our innate gifts or learned skills to make a positive difference. Active citizenship means both appreciating the freedoms and privileges we may have in society and also recognizing injustices and inequalities that exist. Active citizenship is not so much a log of volunteer hours, but rather an attitude—an attitude comprised of humility, determination, and responsibility.

OCE: How has your experience working in the community affected your educational career at William & Mary?

My experience working in the community has affected my educational path at William & Mary pretty significantly. I delved into learning more about food insecurity when I was Public Relations chair for the Campus Kitchen. The more I read about food insecurity, the more I understood how inextricable it is from socioeconomic inequality in the U.S. There are many approaches to fighting socioeconomic inequalities in America, but in my reading, there is one “sweet spot” that confronts both food insecurity and its underlying causes: that sweet spot occurs in schools. In a nutshell, that’s how I realized I wanted to become a teacher. My experiences in community engagement had also helped me realize that I prefer work on a micro-scale; for instance, I feel that my skills-set helps individuals share their stories (e.g. through the Center for Veterans Engagement). I was so excited when my volunteer work culminated in a Eureka moment, which has led me to choose an English major and Psychology minor. With my education, I hope to work in an urban school, make a meaningful connection with my students, and fight the education gap in this country.

OCE: How do you plan to use what you’ve learned as an engaged citizen beyond William & Mary?

AW: Beyond William & Mary, I plan to bring the attitude I’ve learned as an engaged citizen to all my future students (provided that my dream of being a high school/middle school English teacher comes true). This attitude encompasses a sense of humility and determination. The humility comes from realizing that you don’t go into community engagement to change or help people—you go into it to help people help themselves. The humility also comes from realizing that you don’t know a lot—you have to keep an open mind and learn to empathize with people, if you want to be a positive change in the community. The determination comes from realizing that nobody can take your good will away from you. The determination comes from embracing who you are and what you have to offer the world, because it’s not a competition to be the best or the most special—it’s a team game, and as long as you’re trying hard, you’ll always be a part.

OCE: What is the most memorable or striking moment you experienced during your engagement work?

AW: I can’t choose! I’m going to cheat and name several… One of the most memorable moments I experienced during my engagement work was the Center for Veterans Engagement showcase this past spring. I met Sam Pressler, the president of the Center, before he was the president of the Center—before the Center even existed. He was giving a presentation about the Veterans Writing Project, which he had just brought to William & Mary, at the Active Citizens Conference in 2014. A year later, he had invited me to help plan the Center for Veterans Engagement Annual Showcase. It was an extremely moving experience to hear what the veterans brought to life in writing, music, and comedy. Furthermore, it was striking to have met Sam through William & Mary community engagement: he’s one of the most hardworking, intense, and good-hearted people I know, and his leadership has inspired me profoundly.

Let’s talk about the border- Part III

This is Part III of a series I’m doing about the challenges that Latino immigrants can face. In this post, I talk about border patrol and Operation Streamline.

Border Patrol

The United States Border Patrol has strategies for breaking down migrants both physically and mentally. Migrants are often captured through a process called “dusting” in which border patrol finds migrants traveling in a group and uses a helicopter to raise dust to impair their ability to see. They then scatter the group and select a few members to catch, leaving the rest alone, which makes them more likely to die lost in the desert. Border patrol also often vandalizes food and water that relief organizations may provide on the migrant trails.

When they take them to their facilities, the migrants routinely suffer from overcrowding- for example, children may be lined up head to foot in sleeping quarters, and given only a blanket. Border patrol agents often subject the migrants to temperatures of extreme hot or cold.  They play migracorridos,  songs about dying in the desert, loudly for continuous extended periods. They also are notorious for denying necessary medical care.  Migrants may be forced to stay awake for extended periods. They routinely confiscate and often do not return migrants belongings, which can include anything from food to money important legal documentation, such as birth certificates. They deny migrants food and water, and statistically children are more likely to be denied water than adults, even when they are dehydrated.

Children are especially vulnerable to abuse. For example, there was a report of an eleven year old girl whose nose and throat began to bleed in custody, and when she requested medical treatment, the agents slammed the metal door in her face. The children may be called terms such as “dogs” or “whores.” There have been many reports of physical abuse, such as waking up child migrants in the night and kicking them over and over.

When the migrants are deported, it is common practice to separate families, through a practice called “lateral repatriation.” Migrants are often repatriated without any sort of food, money, or identification to a place distant from where they came from, without any way of returning home. Women and children are often dropped off in these places at night, placing them at higher risk of being harmed by criminals.

Operation Streamline

Begun in 2005 under the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, this is a legal practice in which illegal entry and illegal re-entry into the United States is treated as a criminal offense.  People are tried for it in court in large groups of up to 80 at a time, and are typically appointed a public defender who also may be also representing a dozen other people at once. It is common practice for defendants to be chained during these proceedings. They are instructed to answer “sí” that they understand their charges, and then are given a waiver to sign stating that they accept the lack of trial and converting their charge “from a misdemeanor to a felony.” The majority of those captured under operation streamline are housed in private jails during their sentences, which can be very profitable. This can raise concerns about potential the potential financial motivations for this system.

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In the next section of this series, I’ll cover some about the bracero program and how it laid the ground work for the system today.

Let’s talk about the border- Part II

This is Part II of a series I’m writing about some of the challenges for Latino immigrants in the United States, and this post talks about who may choose to immigrate and why, and some of the difficulties of the journey itself.

Who Comes

A wide range of people cross the border, but in general for different reasons. Often times fathers  leave to support their families for the promise to earn a higher income. Machismo culture can place pressure on men to cross the border as a proof of manhood and rite of passage of sorts. Leaving to support one’s family can be seen as a sign of responsibility.  Often this decision is made in the face of extreme poverty. People who are indigenous often endure discrimination and suffer this poverty the most- for example, the people of Chiapas, a region in the south of Mexico that is responsible for the production of many raw materials important in the Mexican economy. However, since the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), in the early 1990’s, conditions have steadily gotten worse in many areas. One of the many negative effects of this agreement was to drive down the price of United States corn that was exported to Mexico, leaving the small farms (often run by people who were indigenous) unable to compete. With the loss of their farms and livelihoods, many farmers have sought work elsewhere, especially the United States.

Another effect of NAFTA has been the explosion of maquiladoras along the US- Mexico border. Largely owned by American companies, these factories are famous for their low wages and hazardous working conditions. For example, many of the products manufactured produce radioactive waste as a byproduct, causing elevated rates of cancer and other diseases. Another horrific consequence is the increased rate of the anencephaly, a condition in which a baby is born without a full brain.  Largely staffed by women, these employees routinely encounter sexual abuse from their employers and can be fired for pregnancy. However, these conditions can flourish because NAFTA created a zone along the border where there are lower levels of regulation and tax benefits for American companies to manufacture products. This has also promoted the creation of a border culture in which people routinely cross back and forth between the United Stated and Mexico as a matter of course.

Sometimes the mother and father make the decision to come to the United Stated together, and leave the children behind with other relatives or friends to care for them while the parents support them from afar. The thought process behind this can be that the money will go farther in one’s native country, and so although there is separation, the parents can allow the children to build a better life for themselves in the land they left behind. However, for many reasons, the parents may decide later on to bring the children to the United States. This can be a very stressful and even terrifying experience, because the parents cannot accompany their children on the journey. They must rely on coyotes, who if they are unethical,  may physically or sexually abuse their children, abandon them, or hold them for ransom.

There has been a huge increase in the number of children who have been crossing the border, much of the reason being the rise of violence in Latin America, largely related to drug cartels. (These cartels rely heavily on income and arms from the United States). There is often strong recruitment pressure on the children to join the cartels, who may use them as soldiers against an institutionalized army. If the children refuse, they or their families may face horrible repercussions. So many choose to leave, and might even make the journey without help from a parent or guardian. The children may also be stopped by border patrol, which to be honest isn’t much better, and may lead to a worse fate for them.

Violence has been historically been a strong motivator for migration. This past century was one of widespread genocide in Latin America, largely fueled by CIA engineered coups.  For example, hundreds of thousands of indigenous Mayans were horrifically and systematically killed in Guatemala in the 1980s, which drove many to seek refuge elsewhere, including the United States, which then in turn rejected them. The economic and cultural devastation that this genocide wrought still affects the country today, and has in many ways enabled the growth of the drug cartels that drive so many to try to escape.

What is the journey like?

The journey to the United States has never been an easy one. It is probably impossible to be honest for me to convey just how tortuous and inhumane the conditions really are. However, US policy changes in the early 2000’s made it even more so. In an attempt to “deter” migrants from crossing to the United States, the border patrol began heavily patrolling all but the most dangerous migration routes. These remaining routes are largely in the desert, where migrants must cross on foot through blinding heat.  This is very painful, and unsurprisingly, death by heatstroke is extremely common. Sometimes, migrants cross by riding La Bestia, or on top of a train. Obviously, this is extremely hazardous, and the risk of death or serious injury is very high.  In towns such as Pima County, Arizona, the number of deaths has spiked so drastically in recent years that the medical examiner had to construct a second cooler just to store the bodies, and organizations such as the Colibri Center are dedicated to identifying the remains of the dead. These include men, women, and children.

There are organizations such as No More Deaths that are dedicated to offering some level of relief to the migrants as they cross, granting them temporary shelter, water, and food. Many are religious in nature, offering migrants a spiritual refuge as well.

Let’s talk about the border…

Immigration is a touchy subject, no doubt about it. Just the word brings up many thoughts, feelings, and emotions in everyone. Most people have an automatic response to the topic, and can have good intentions behind their opinion. However, there is also a really high level of mystery and misinformation surrounding the United States immigration and border patrol systems. In my personal opinion, if there were a higher level of transparency in these programs, and more widespread knowledge about the systems that support them, many people would have a much more understanding attitude toward the struggles of immigrants.

I can’t cover all of the issues surrounding migration in one post- or ten. I was a Hispanic Studies minor in college, so I don’t feel as qualified to speak on the immigration processes and policies of every culture in relation to the United States.  But I will try to outline some challenges of the journey that Latino migrants in the United States must endure in their attempts to better their lives.

Part I: Why Immigrate

I think that there can exist a perception that people who come to the United States are just trying to take an easy way out. But when you ask why people come to the United States, I think a good first step is to ask why would you leave your own home? What would be enough motivation?

Would a 50% reduction in income be enough? How about 90%? How about not knowing where your next meal might come from? Would you leave if you lost your livelihood, or your home?

How much violence would it take? Would you leave if someone marked your home with graffiti? How about if someone vandalized your car? What if your kids were being recruited into gangs? What would you do if someone threatened your family with death or torture unless you paid them?

What if you had to endure these circumstances, but you’ve always heard stories of a distant but supposedly accessible place where life is better? Where you hear that if you work hard you can make a lot of money, keep your children safe, and create for yourself the life that you’ve always wanted? Sure, you might have to break a few laws to get there, but when it can cost 5,000-7,500 dollars to have a lawyer assist you in the process of obtaining a green card, and the wait time to legally immigrate can range from 15- 20 years or more, that might not seem so important.  Realistically, would the confusing legal processes of some far away land matter more than the empty stomachs of your children?

These can be some of the choices people face when they leave their home. The decision to leave is typically gut-wrenching and painful, often meaning breaks with extended or even immediate family and leaving the only home that one has ever known. Leaving can often mean paying costs ranging from several hundred  to thousands of dollars to hire a coyote, a guide to facilitate crossing the border. Coyotes can be reputable and treat their clients well, or they can kidnap family members and extort money in exchange for the possibility of their freedom.

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Next time I’ll start getting into different people who may choose to immigrate and why, and what difficulties the journey entails.

A New Approach in Solutions for Homelessness

First off, hello! My name is Laura Stephens, and I’ll be working at the William and Mary Office of Community Engagement this summer. I’m a (really, as in like a month ago) recent graduate of the college. I had an awesome time in undergrad, and I’m really happy that I get to extend my time with the College a few months longer!

I’ll be blogging once a week this summer about issues related to community engagement. I could connect with a social issue, an awesome project that the OCE Office or William and Mary Students are involved in, or whatever strikes my fancy that day.

So for my first blog, I figured I’d start off with talking about an issue that I think is really important and often neglected: homelessness, and what some really creative people are doing about it.

I can’t imagine how difficult it is to be homeless. Different circumstances can bring a person to this place, including loss of income, physical or mental illness, personal tragedy, or just plain bad luck. Regardless of how they get there, people who are homeless often have to deal with extreme cold or heat without shelter, lack of sanitation, lack of food, lack of health care, and lack of social capital (such as contacts or paperwork, or even a cell phone), to improve their situation. On top of everything else, they often encounter the stigma or blind eye that society turns on them for their circumstances.

The causes of homelessness are deep-rooted and complex and I don’t pretend to have a full understanding of them. However, I can say that the stereotype that people who are homeless don’t seek employment is untrue, at least in my experience. I’ve met people who are homeless who are also employed, but their income just isn’t sufficient to provide them with shelter. It’s a blog post for another day to get into that, but I think it definitely says a lot about how society is structured.

I think the most important thing to remember though, when one considers this issue is that the people involved are human. Elvis Summers thinks so too. A California native, he made headlines a couple of months ago when he began innovating a new approach to providing shelter.

It all started when he began to form a friendship with a woman in his neighborhood, Irene “Smokie” McGhee.  After the death of her husband 10 years prior, she had lost her home since she couldn’t pay the mortgage any more.  It started to really bother Summers when he realized her situation, because as he put it, “She’s a human being, 60 years old, a mother, grandmother, sleeping in the dirt. It’s just not right,” he said.”

So he came up with a creative new idea, based on the housing first approach, the idea that before the other issues in one’s life can be resolved, a person must first have shelter. He created a small house that is 3.5 X 8 feet in size, and cost him less than $500 to create. It has insulation, a door, and a key. But most importantly, it provides McGhee with a place that she can go to be safer and more sheltered, and the dignity that comes with that. Because he built the home with wheels, the LAPD allow the home with the regulation that it needs to be moved every 72 hours.

Summers’ idea is taking off. People are beginning to realize how this approach to homelessness could be a practical and creative way to provide more people with shelter. He’s created an organization, called “Tiny House Huge Purpose” with a GoFundMe campaign to go with it, and is working with local contractors, organizations, and volunteers to create more of these homes. He is working on involving recipients of the homes in their construction and potentially paying them to do so, which would provide them with at least temporary employment and greater agency in their circumstances.

His idea isn’t perfect; one homelessness advocate Mark Redmond, while admiring the concept, has mentioned that the homes don’t have any kind of plumbing. He’s also cautioned that if this isn’t done correctly, it could create shanty town communities instead of long term solutions.

So this isn’t a fool-proof plan. But I personally do think it is a good one. I think that it could be a great first step to a longer term solution. I think it could at least provide a safer place to rest at night, and an insulated place to go for people who contend with extreme cold. (Although I think providing a space heater could make it even better).  I don’t think that the goal should be to live in one of these homes forever, but I think it could be a good first step.

So because we’re from William and Mary, our natural next question is, “What can I do?” Well, an obvious first idea is to consider donating to the GoFundMe page. A next step would be to consider what you can do in your local community. Here in Williamsburg, there are lots of awesome organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Housing Partnerships, Avalon, and Greater Williamsburg Outreach Mission, to name a few. You can stand with people who are homeless when they face discrimination. But most of all, if you encounter someone who is homeless, as long as you feel safe, you can try to engage with them.

Instead of seeing stereotypes, you can take the time to hear their individual story. How did they get there? What are their wants and needs? Are they a veteran still carrying the scars of war, whether physical or mental? Are they contending with illness? Have they suffered from violence or discrimination? But more than that, what makes them funny? What are their favorite foods? What are their pet peeves? Who do they love? Like all of us, people who are homeless are so much more than the sum of their tragedies.

One of my favorite quotes by the amazing Mother Teresa is “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.” When someone contends with homelessness, they may suffer all of these things, and they are human like anyone else. Treating someone who is homeless with dignity and love can be the first step in alleviating this suffering, and beginning to truly connect as friends.

Akshay Deverakonda: Growing Environmental Sustainability

by Jessica Edington

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This biology and environmental science and policy major has had his feet firmly planted in work for environmental sustainability and justice since he came to W&M. His leadership has grown along with his involvement, as he involves others in service and research about the environment, working little by little for a healthier planet and people who are more connected to nature.

Office of Community Engagement: How are you involved in community engagement at William & Mary?

Akshay Deverakonda: So through [the] Sharpe [Scholars’ Program], I heard about Branch Out, William & Mary’s Alternative Breaks organization. I went on a national trip to Lynchburg during my Spring Break freshman year, and afterward, I really liked the experience and that inspired me to keep being involved in Branch Out, and since then I’ve been a regional site leader.

Aside from that I’m also in I-Faith, which is an inter-faith club at William and Mary. We’re trying to foster an inter-faith culture and build connections between people of different religious backgrounds, or lack thereof, on campus.

OCE: How has this work contributed to community needs?
AD: I think that, with my work with Branch Out, I like to focus on environmental alternative break opportunities, to allow people to contribute in an hands-on way to the environment and the community at the same time. I think it definitely fulfills a community need, because it’s one thing to hear a piece of information in class– like it’s one thing to hear in a class about how littering is bad– but it’s quite another thing entirely to actually be out there in the field picking up trash for a day. It helps you definitely learn in a way that classroom instruction can sort of do. But I think it compliments instruction in the class. I think the action and education parts of being an active citizen definitely go together because of that.

And with I-Faith, I would say we fulfill a community need, because prior it its establishment– it’s a relatively new group, I think it was only founded in 2010 or 2009– but prior to its establishment, there was no sustained student involvement to bring people of different backgrounds and faiths and views together on campus. And we’ve seen a big change in that respect in the past couple years. We’ve organized our own service trips that are actually based off of Branch Out’s model. And we’ve had people of different backgrounds participate, and some great conversations and great service resulting from that. We’ve also been organizing a campus-wide conference just to bring in outside experts. That’s really our main outreach at the end of the year. But it definitely opens a conversations space for people in the community.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?
AD: For me, I think, it’s helped me be a bit more mindful in my conduct every day. Certainly, after being involved with some issues on specific trips, I like to think that I’ve hopefully benefited from that by treating the issue more respectfully the next time I come across it. For example, Grace [Fernandez] led a trip to the Special Olympics in Norfolk our freshman year. Since then, I’ve definitely been careful to say “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled people,” and definitely have had to take a stand several times and call people out when they use “retarded” in the wrong sense of the word.
But also, with other trips, for example after the Lynchburg Grows trip– that was the national trip I mentioned earlier– I’ve been more mindful to look for organic options whenever I got to the supermarket. I just try to eat more green and more local when possible. So it’s like these one time events have helped me to be more active in hopefully every waking second. I like to think that I’m more mindful and I treat these issues more respectfully when I can.

OCE: How has your experience working in the community affected your educational career at William & Mary?
AD: It turned everything upside down for me, but in a good way. You know, when I came to William & Mary, I wanted to major in neuroscience and then go to law school. The reason I signed up for Dr. Taylor’s class in Sharpe was because, from my point of view, that was the only science related Sharpe seminar. But that ended up changing everything. Especially the work I did at South of the Ferry, a farm in Surry, through Sharpe, in conjunction with going to the organic farm in Lynchburg later freshman year, helped me realize that “Hey, this environmental science thing is pretty fun!” I was still a bit iffy about switching majors after freshman year, but those two experiences lead me to do the William & Mary in DC program, where I worked for the EPA during the semester. That was another amazing experience that definitely helped me. I think it really confirmed for me that I wanted to do this.

OCE: How do you plan to use what you’ve learned as an engaged citizen beyond William & Mary?
AD: In the long term, I really like the local and national active citizenship opportunities that I’ve been very fortunate to get here at William & Mary, and I’m hoping that I can pursue those through Peace Corps after graduation, because I want to experience it on an international level as well. Beyond that, graduate school and some kind of environmental science or conservation field, I’m not exactly sure what yet. But after that I definitely hope to go into government, because I definitely like the idea of public service. And I guess it ties back into the idea of active citizenship. And I definitely want to use my scientific background to give back to the community in that way.

OCE: What is the most memorable or striking moment you experienced during your engagement work?
AD: Probably during the reflection session that I had on my most recent regional trip last fall semester. We were at Environmental Studies on the Piedmont, which is an environmental advocacy/outreach organization in Warrenton. So, long story short, we were helping them remove invasives and other species management work during the weekend. But the reflection was particularly striking because our community partner, who was with us during that reflection, he really did a good job. He helped us realize the bigger picture part of our work. I think on one hand, it is definitely easy to think that “Okay, well, we pulled weeds in only a small part of a several acre property for a weekend. Does that really make a big difference?” But Doctor Wood, our community partner, he definitely put it in perspective for us, and he said that it was this type of engagement that really helped us build or rebuild our connection to our natural surroundings that we’ve lost over the years. He encouraged us to continue to be involved in this kind of service work, with conservation and the outdoors matters and so on. I think that’s striking for me just because it definitely helps me remember that what I do matters. Even if, admittedly, it only helps for a little bit, that still makes a little difference. And going back to what I said earlier, it definitely helps me be an active citizen every moment when I can.