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

Deverakonda_Akshay (1)

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.

Cathey Sadowski: Doing What We Can

by Jessica Edington

Cathey Sadowski is a board member with FISH, Inc, a local organization that provides food, clothing, and transportation to community members in need. She took some time to speak with the Office of Community Engagement about her work with FISH, the community, and William & Mary volunteers.

Office of Community Engagement: Tell us about your role in the community.

Cathey: FISH has helped persons in need in the Williamsburg area with food, clothing and transportation to medical appointments since 1975. It is the oldest of such organizations in the area and is supported entirely by contributions from the community, both financial and in-kind. FISH was founded on the philosophy of “neighbor helping neighbor” so we have no paid staff, take no tax money, nor do we seek grants from outside the Williamsburg community.

During 2013, FISH provided food equivalent to 158,220 meals; 10,287 outfits of clothing; and housewares to 568 homes. Overall, our volunteers served 5,051 requests for assistance, an increase of 6% over requests in 2012 (when requests were 14% higher than in 2011). Unfortunately, 2014 service numbers indicate that FISH is needed more than ever this year.

OCE: What role do William & Mary students play at FISH? What benefits does your organization derive from working with William & Mary students?

Cathey: William & Mary students are generous donors of both food and clothing to FISH. Many campus organizations and athletic teams sponsor food and clothing drives, significantly enhancing the services FISH can provide clients. Student support of the annual W&M Costume Sale before Halloween is important to the FISH budget. Direct volunteering at FISH is not feasible for most students, but there have been occasions when W&M students have given of their time in the FISH facility; the regular volunteers, most of whom are retired, always enjoy the young presence.

OCE: How do you see the students benefiting from their work?

Cathey: Through their efforts to help community members in need, students can gain awareness of the difficulties faced by many individuals and families, including some who work for the College in lower-paid positions.

OCE: How do you see the community benefiting from your work and the work of William & Mary students?

Cathey: There is less hunger in Williamsburg and more persons have useful clothing because students help FISH. The community may not know that students are important contributors to this effort, but FISH is pleased to pass the word whenever possible.

OCE: How are does your organization help educate student volunteers about community needs?

Cathey: FISH is happy to work with the Office of Community Engagement to help W&M students understand the way FISH serves the community – and the ways in which that support is limited to short-term assistance.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean to you?

Cathey: Active citizenship means giving time, talent and monetary support to helping members of the community, as well as the world, with basic human needs.  Food, clothing and transportation, are only a few of those basic needs; we are not able to solve systemic injustices; and, we can only help the persons of our local community. But in this case, active citizenship means doing what we can with what we have to share.

Beyond Bricks: A William And Mary Experience

by Jessica Edington

When they told me I could write a blog post, like any good William & Mary student, I did my research. There were no guidelines, just “write whatever you want!” with a mutual unspoken understanding that “whatever you want” meant “whatever you want that has something to do with either W&M or community service or both. Don’t write about your love for making pickles or your opinion on bad drivers.”

So I went and read some of the lovely posts written by other W&M bloggers. And as I read, I noticed something: almost every one of the bloggers was writing about experiences outside the classroom. That’s interesting, I thought, that W&M chooses to feature experiences outside of class when so much of what we do here is take classes. This person is interning in Washington, DC, this person is studying abroad, that person is working with Admissions, that person is volunteering… the list goes on.

I thought at first it was because these experiences make the most interesting stories. Everyone knows what it’s like to take classes. But then it occurred to me that I had personally had many of these experiences– the community service, the summer job, the DC internship, the virtual internship, the summer job on campus, studying abroad. And when I did the math, I realized that while I have spent about 20 months on-campus taking classes since I arrived in August 2011, I’ve spent (collectively) 16 months doing all these other things. That’s almost half my time here at W&M.

And I wondered, how many other students have spent almost half of their time at W&M doing other things? From the looks of these blogs, it’s quite a few. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the reason so many of the blogs about W&M experiences aren’t about taking classes because all these other things, the things that too often get lumped as things that “look good on the resume,” are half of the W&M experience. It’s not all about taking classes in old buildings and lounging on the Sunken Gardens on warm spring afternoons and cramming in Swem during finals week and shenanigans with your freshman hall. (Don’t get me wrong, though, it is also a lot about those things.)

When you come to W&M, you’re signing up for a lot more than some of the most rigorous classes in the nation– you’re signing up for an endless buffet of opportunities. They hide in the listserv emails and the bulletin board flyers, the professor’s office hours you keep telling yourself you should go to and the casual conversations with the person next to you in class. They might not always be obvious, but trust me, they’re there.

For me, it was the opportunity to work with people in the Williamsburg community, learning as much from the children I tutored as they (might have) learned from me. It was the opportunity to intern at the Library of Congress. It was the opportunity to go to Iceland, hike to the top of a volcano and work in an organic bakery. It was the opportunity to work on a sustainable farm, to get my hands dirty and find what it was I cared about. It was the opportunity to return to the office where it all started (when I became a Sharpe Scholar as a freshman) as an employee. For so many other students, the opportunities are the same, but what they choose to do with them is different.

As I get ready for my final year at W&M, with all the anxiety about the future that it necessarily brings, I’m reassured by remembering all the opportunities W&M has provided me in the past. I know that these will continue through my senior year and beyond, because after all, W&M doesn’t start and end with the classes I take. It includes all the things I do beyond the bricks, when I wear my W&M sweatshirt with pride and beam when someone recognizes it, shrug when they don’t. The opportunities will be there, if sometimes hiding; it’s just up to me to seek them out and make them my own.

Active Citizens Celebration Student Speaker

by Erin Faltermeier

April 2014

When I was in high school, I volunteered. There were afternoons spent picking weeds out of community gardens, tutoring young kids. I did so because I wanted to be a good person, I wanted to help out, I wanted to get into college. Looking back now I can see that I approached these experiences with a limited perspective and therefore produced only limited outcomes. Through my subconscious act of oversimplifying and labeling myself as the “helper” and those that I served as needing of my help, I unknowingly created a wall between myself and those that I sought to serve, shielding myself from feeling the empathy truly needed for successful community engagement. Now I don’t look back reproachfully at my former self, far from it. I chose my actions out of good intentions, and I optimistically believe that there were some good deeds accomplished. Still, I see now how my approach lacked nuance, my understandings lacked context, my attitude lacked humility. When you only skim the surface you see what is beneath through a distorted lens. I never asked the hard questions, so I never had to confront the difficult answers. I helped, but I didn’t understand. I wasn’t an active citizen.

I had no concept of what constitutes social justice until I came to college. Through the BranchOut Program, both as a participant and a leader, I have been granted incredible opportunities to serve and to learn in my community, to take what I learned in the classroom and contextualize it in my surroundings. This has allowed me to gain an understanding of why this service is necessary, and how much there remains to be accomplished. The beauty of social justice is that this realization leads to inspiration rather than frustration,an eagerness to address structural inequality and systematic injustice, and the abiity to recognize our own privilege.

From these experiences with Branchout I learned that service is a continuous process rather than a single act, one that must be approached with care and intention. I learned the importance of education, of subverting subconscious stereotypes and granting context, without which we walk into service blind. I learned the importance of reorientation, the critical understanding and drive necessary to transfer newly gained perspectives, to bring home your message and to pursue similar action in your own community. I know now that social justice is not just one battle but a war, one from which we can never really wash our hands and say that we are finished. Above all I learned the importance of attitude in service. I first read the following words, born out of a Social Justice movement in Australia, on the office door of the ever lovely Melody Porter when I first went to interview for the position of BON site leader, but I didn’t truly understand their power until I had experienced my own trip. The saying goes “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This quote speaks to me because it beautifully expresses the humility necessary for successful community engagement. I saw this at work on the BranchOut trip that I led over Spring Break, working with students at a charter school in rural NC. On our trip we were called interns rather than volunteers, and our presence was explained to the students as visitors coming to learn and experience rather than just volunteers coming to help. This nomenclature was more than just a change of labels, it was a paradigm shift that recognized the situation for what it truly was: two communities of people coming together to learn from each other, to work collaboratively, to jointly identify problems, work towards solutions, and to together further the tides of social justice. This experience both humbled and inspired me to carry the fight for social justice into my own community, and to every community that I am fortunate enough to visit.

Now I fight for social justice because I see the equality of potential in the people around me, and I see that potential wasted. We wonder why our environment is degraded, our students are failing, our neighbors are underfed and underserved, but it can hardly come as a surprise when we squander our most precious resource, human potential, by marginalizing entire segments of our society, denying opportunity, denying people their voice.

I fight for social justice because I have felt my oppression, but I have also seen my privilege, and I now know that although privilege may make me better off relatively, in absolute terms we are all worse off for our inequalities.

I fight for social justice because I have now seen that regular people are in the best position to identify the problems facing their own communities rather than me telling them what they need, and that when empowered with the ability to connect and collaborate with others people can best generate creative solutions to address their problems.

I fight for social justice because I now see the beauty in my position not as a savior, or even simply a helper, but as a humble yet boldly active citizen working tirelessly to further the causes of social justice in my community. Thank you.

Katie Mitchell: Considering the Context

OCE Profile Series
By Daniela Sainz ‘15 | Nov 6, 2013

Katie Mitchell for blog 2

Katie Mitchell’s service extends both on-campus and beyond. She is dedicated to improving the welfare of animals looking for a home in addition to improving the general welfare of students through her volunteer work. Although she is passionate about all of the causes she works towards, she has a special spot in her heart for the Heritage Humane Society, which works to find permanent homes for stray cats and dogs.

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

Katie Mitchell: It all started before freshman year, when I went on the inaugural 7 Generations pre-orientation trip, volunteering at a sustainable farm in Lynchburg. Freshman year I was a Sharpe scholar, and helped design teaching tools for local elementary school special education programs. Sophomore year I joined Circle K International, and I’m now Executive Vice President.

CKI has at least two large-scale service projects each year—a food-packaging event in the Fall, and Strike Out ALS! in the Spring—as well as many other wonderful service opportunities. I am very active with our large-scale projects and dabble in organizations such as Campus Kitchens, but my main focus is volunteering at Heritage Humane Society, which I do approximately 10 hours a week. I am also an active member of the William & Mary branch of Active Minds, a mental health advocacy organization.

OCE: How has this work contributed to community needs?

KM: Circle K International is an amazing organization that offers so many ways to help the community, and I am honored to help run the behind-the-scenes work to support our members. The two issues I am currently most passionate about are animal welfare and mental health. Volunteering at Heritage Humane Society has been an amazing experience; the shelter is extremely well-maintained and organized, and this is largely due to the amazing staff and the dedicated team of volunteers. Recently I have been helping out mostly with negotiating adoptions, and it is a truly rewarding feeling to see these amazing, loving animals go to a forever home.

My work on Mental Health is mainly through Active Minds, and we work very hard to decrease the stigma of mental illnesses on campus, and provide access to resources to students. Last year we had our first Debunking the Myths panel discussion, where students and faculty shared their experiences with mental illness and information about the resources available on campus. We also do lots of smaller campaigns such as tabling and handing out motivational and educational materials. As a relatively new club, our presence is still growing, but I can already notice a snowball effect as members feel more comfortable discussing mental health, which encourages their friends and family to feel more comfortable discussing it as well.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?

KM: To me, active citizenship means always considering the context in which your actions are occurring. It means not making jokes that stigmatize mental illness or disability or marginalize any group of people. It means pointing out problematic aspects of media, even if it is also media that you enjoy. It means being aware of political issues and taking a stand for issues that matter to you. It means always being open-minded, empathetic, and humble enough to really listen to those with different life circumstances and needs, and adjusting your actions accordingly. It means always being willing to help.

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

KM: I am still trying to figure out what I want to do after college (which is coming up much sooner than I want to consider!), but my community engagement work has definitely helped me to come up with some ideas of potential paths to take. Working at Heritage Humane Society has really fueled my passion for working with and understanding animals, and I have considered pursuing graduate school to research animal communication or the human-animal bond.

These days it looks like that might not be the path that I follow, but it is still a topic that fascinates me and has led me to take some really interesting psychology and linguistics classes. Now I’m thinking more about how I enjoy the leadership and logistical aspects of planning service events and Circle K meetings, and I’m considering pursuing a career in non-profit management, particularly non-profits focusing on animal welfare or mental health.

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

KM: I know that wherever I end up, I will not feel fulfilled if I am not engaging with my community, nor do I think I can simply stop being an active citizen. As a friend of mine eloquently put it, I’ve now “tuned into the background noise of my life,” and it’s almost impossible to tune it back out. I’ll always notice the inequalities and injustices that surround me now, and I just hope that I will have the strength to not give up on the fight. Luckily, I have so many amazing, service-minded friends, and I know we will always give each other strength.

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

KM: Two years ago I attended Relay for Life with several other Circle K members. The remembrance ceremony and silent lap hit me incredibly hard. One of the speakers had just read the poem, “The Dash”, which talks about making the years in the “dash” between your birth and your death count. During that silent lap, this was all I could think about. About how I want to make the most of my dash, about how amazed I am by the courage of those who struggle with cancer and other chronic conditions, about how many people one life can touch, and about how lucky I am—about how so many people don’t have the same opportunities to make the most of their “dash” as I do, and how unfair that is. I want to make the most of my life and touch as many lives as I can, and I want to help empower others to reach that same goal.

 

Abbitt Woodall: Extending Investment in Service Beyond College

OCE Community Profile Series
By Daniela Sainz ’15 | October 2013

Abbitt Woodall for blog

Mr. Abbitt Woodall demonstrates how a personal investment of service towards the community should follow every William & Mary student long past their formal education years. A graduate of the class of 2002, Mr.Woodall was a dedicated member of Alpha Phi Omega, a national co-ed service fraternity and one of the largest community service organizations at William & Mary. He is now the executive director of the non-profit organization where he volunteered for three of his years at the College, Housing Partnerships, Inc. HPI is a regional non-profit that provides house maintenance and repair services to low-income housing within the Williamsburg community. Here we spend some time gaining a more holistic perspective on how Mr. Woodall’s experience with service has strengthened since his time at William & Mary.

Office of Community Engagement: Tell us about your role in the community.

Abitt Woodall: I am the Executive Director of Housing Partnerships, Inc., which is a local & regional nonprofit for low-income homeowners within our community. We have a broader community view of what exactly that entails. We repair and replace housing. Clients come directly to us or are routed through social services and other non-profits. Actually, one of our most common routers is hospital discharges. Nor are we limited to repair and replacement services, we also can do accessibility projects. For example, we install walk-in ramps and special home entrances for handicapped clients.

OCE: What role do William & Mary students play at HPI?

AW: William & Mary students are our largest pool of volunteer labor. We leverage the dollars we have at our disposal by using as much free labor as possible – this helps us save the resources we need to pay for the services we provide. At HPI, we are a partnership of community members and volunteers. Since our founding in 1985, some things are different: we now have a contractor and certification to conduct our services, to name a few. Despite the new complexities of the site, we have adopted well with the times. Students have always been a big part of the project, from the very beginning.

OCE: What benefits does your organization derive from working with William & Mary students?

AW: Students help us out by being such fantastic volunteers: they aid primarily in the actual construction of housing projects. There are more and more technical responsibilities involved in the volunteer opportunities; fraternities usually come out for a day and do yard clean ups. Additionally, we ask students to help us take old roofs off of houses. Then our contractor will come and puts the new roofs on. Occasionally HPI will have mission trips from other universities that come over spring break: they will generally tackle bigger projects because they will spend more time with us. We demolished an entire house with a student group once!

OCE: How do you see the students benefiting from their work?

AW: This kind of work is geared towards benefitting a part of the community that the students don’t usually get to see. Some people who live in Williamsburg don’t have indoor plumbing, and many students are unaware of that. Student involvement in our projects helps them create a better awareness of our community and its needs and services. They get to witness first-hand how the American dream of homeownership is still difficult for a lot of people to achieve. Additionally, they learn some basic handiwork skills like how to replace a rotten bath, or a floor, or a window. Today’s younger generation have a lot less handiwork skills. The older generation has much more of a fix-it-yourself mentality.

OCE: How does your organization help educate student volunteers about community needs?

AW: At W&M, students sort of live in a bubble. You don’t have to go very far to find parts of the community that look a lot different from colonial Williamsburg. There are homes a mile-and-a-half away that have no indoor plumbing, where people make $12,000 a year. A lot of them work for the college, for Colonial Williamsburg, even. Unfortunately, Aramark (the company that employs dining services) does not give its employees any pensions, so a lot of members of the community live in very dire conditions. I have worked on houses of people I have known from when I was a student at the college; they worked in dining services during that time. I fixed problems in their house for them. It’s so nice to be able to give back to some of the people who really brightened my day when I was an undergraduate.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean to you?

AW: To me, active citizenship means being a participant, being engaged. We all have a part in the community in which we live. It is not enough to live on the sidelines. We need to be more engaged and involved in implementing strategies to make this community a community in which we all want to live.