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College partnership uses literacy to build bridges

Kristen B. Morales

November 14, 2018

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On Tuesday evenings, a handful of middle and high school students gather in small groups to paint, write, or just chat.

While these activities may seem small, their efforts this fall will slowly add up to create change in their larger community.

Working alongside these teenagers—sometimes prodding, sometimes cheering them on—are graduate students from the University of Georgia enrolled in the College of Education and some in the College of Environment and Design. All are there to test the waters of a new partnership blossoming in the Parkview Homes Community Center near downtown Athens that aims to bring new ideas and activities to the aging space.

For example, starting in January, UGA students will host story times with some of the youngest members of the neighborhood—the community center has a new selection of children’s books thanks to a recent grant from the Coretta Scott King Foundation. And on Mondays, teams of first-year medical students with the AU/UGA Medical Partnership Mobile Clinic, supervised by faculty members, visit Parkview.

Right now, the partnership is starting small, but that’s the point. Faculty and students are trying to create sustainable activities that are meaningful to the community. By starting slow and using neighbors’ input, they hope to create a partnership that will last beyond a few semesters.

“A lot of people want programs for kids, so we will start there,” said Ruth Harman, a professor in the College of Education who helped work out the memorandum of understanding between UGA and the Athens Housing Authority, which manages Parkview and other public housing neighborhoods in Athens.

This sentiment was echoed by residents who attended an open house at the community center earlier this year. Many in Parkview have small children, and they feel strongly that they have safe places to play and things to do during the week. “The children who don’t go to daycare, they’re home all day and I want there to be something here … that would be something that would be very helpful in our community,” said Parkview resident Keri Jones. “It’s about the kids—getting them entertained and offering different activities. Their brains are like sponges and they soak up everything. Good knowledge is the best knowledge.”

So far, the activities related to the community center have served to benefit both the residents and UGA students. For example, students in the College of Environment and Design gained experience in designing a space without moving walls—creating a space without making physical changes. College of Education students are learning new ways to encourage young adults to interact with the world around them, and built literacy skills in the process. And the weekly visits from the AU-UGA Medical Partnership Mobile Clinic gives medical students an understanding of health issues affecting a community, while serving the residents who may have difficulty accessing care.

Dr. Suzanne Lester, assistant professor for family medicine with the AU/UGA Medical Partnership, organizes teams of medical students and faculty at community partner sites, including a new site at Parkview. Medical students led by Drs. John Norris and Michele Monteil visit Parkview with the MPMobile/Athens Free Clinic on Monday afternoons, Lester said, and right now they are assessing needs in the community and how they relate to larger health needs.

During this first year, she added, they are developing interventions—often through preventative measures—that the students can carry out in the second year of the program. Parkview is one of several community sites visited by the MPMobile/Athens Free Clinic; other locations include the Pinewoods community, Mercy Health Center, Denny Tower/Athens Community Council on Aging and Nuçi's Space.

“Our goal is to build on our original curriculum by integrating mobile clinic care so that the medical students recognize that addressing the determinants falls within our scope of medical practice,” said Lester. “Also, meeting patients in their own homes and neighborhoods, we believe, builds compassion in these students, who may not have had these types of meaningful experiences in our local communities. Our goals over the long term are empowering partnerships in Parkview and the organizations that also serve there. We have so much to learn from all our neighbors.”

The Tuesday evening class, taught by associate professor Kevin J. Burke in the UGA College of Education, links literacy with community. Burke is teaching the students—both the teenagers and the twentysomethings—how to “read” the world around them through personal stories, history, art and the spaces where they interact.

“We talk about literacy in a holistic sense,” said Burke. “Yes, it’s reading and writing, but it’s also about orientating to the space. So, our sense is the center is a hub of community work that starts with literacy and radiates out.”

With that in mind, the class is designed with a direct benefit to the neighborhood and the community center. At the start of the semester, said Burke, the UGA students would gather in the space to talk about what they hoped to achieve with the children and teenagers who might come. Throughout the semester they would partner with the youth for creative activities, culminating in interviews with elders in the neighborhood. Then, the UGA students would work with the youth to identify themes in the interviews and translate those themes, with help from local artist Broderick Flanigan, into a mural for the center.

For Burke’s class, students also realize an added benefit of an on-site class that takes them out of a typical teaching space and challenges them to work with children and young adults in different ways.

It’s this type of programming—something that provides multiple layers of benefits—that drives the partnership, says Burke and Harman. Rather than change the design of the community center, added Melanie Bowerman, project coordinator with the UGA College of Environment and Design who initially helped re-imagine the space, the challenge is redesigning what goes on inside it.

“Our portion of ‘design’ can involve that, but also designing a program that is long-lasting is really going to be helpful,” said Bowerman. “And I think, for us, designing how we continue to engage all the kinds of people who live here, not just the kids. … The things we do in here are more important than anything else.”

And, added Harman, classes such as Burke’s can translate to other places. Harman, who has long spearheaded a program blending literacy and community action at Coile Middle School, is now working with Mariah Parker, an incoming county commissioner and doctoral student in the UGA College of Education, to launch a program in East Athens that blends literacy with civic engagement in a similar, interactive way.

“It’s one of those things where we see it as the first of potentially other sites where UGA could be involved,” she said. “The idea is to try and get some funding for different programs and slowly growing it. But the main thing is starting slow, gaining trust and seeing what people want.”

On a recent Tuesday evening, Kiriyana Faust, 12, sat in a semicircle with UGA students Carmen Kuan, Dannie Chalk and Alice Hilton as they listened to the recording of Faust’s interview with her grandfather. As he spoke, they discussed themes they heard emerging from the audio—for example, his memories of living a lifetime in Oglethorpe County and the space it provided, his desire to keep a garden in Parkview and the difficulty in finding parking there on football gamedays.

The project then takes storytelling and makes it personal, giving the teens a deeper sense of the place they live. It also gives the UGA students—some in the College of Education and some in the College of Environment and Design—experience in creating lessons and programming that shift and evolve to the space around them. It’s seeing a space as more than a room—in a way, the community center and the neighborhood become a character in the story told by the children and their elders.

When the class first started, Burke admitted he didn’t know who was going to show up. But after a few weeks, a dedicated group of kids began coming for the activities and staying for the discussions. Before long, they were identifying people to interview and coming up with questions.

For 15-year-old Ta’nya Sims-Floyd and the other students taking part in the Tuesday evening activities, it’s the first time they’ve ever interviewed anyone. Sims-Floyd said she was interested in talking to as many people as she could, both young and old.

“I feel like some people are going to name some changes they want to see. For kids, they’ll say what they want to add to the playground,” she said. “There’s a difference in what you’re going to get.”

As the semester winds to a close, it’s clear the teens are hooked. As Faust’s group wrapped up their notes and made plans for the following week, Faust and her sister lingered in the community center, excited about the new stories they uncovered.

It may be just one evening a week, but it’s something the students look forward to—and the UGA students in the class also feel they’ve successfully begun building connections to the youth in the neighborhood.

“It’s been really fun,” said Sims-Floyd. “It’s given us something to do, but it’s been a great project. I know I can trust the people here.”