Service Learning Trip to City on a Hill Ministry in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Our trip consisted of a historical tour of Milwaukee followed by a teaching/seminar about residue of racism particular to many communities in the United States. We completed many service projects, including sorting and moving canned goods for their food bank, sorting and cleaning clothes for the short-term mission poverty simulation and their clothes drive, and serving a hot meal during the Saturday monthly health clinic. Out in the community, we visited homes within the surrounding city blocks and connected families and individuals with resources about City on a Hill, especially the Super Saturday Kids event and the Free Health Clinic; another day, we offered free lemonade and prayer to passers-by on a local busy corner. Additionally, our team participated in a 48-hour poverty simulation, without any access to our personal resources, clothes, or stay-rooms.
I learned that the world is much more fluid in the realm of distinctions and differences. There is not just one category to define poverty or homelessness. The real faces of the condition of poverty and homelessness are very diverse and do not often obey such petty class distinctions that we so often place upon the poor.
One fact I found most shocking is that of the homeless population in the United States, approximately 36% are families. When thinking about the cycle of poverty, where individuals may cease to be able to work then can no longer afford to own their home, one could infer that many families would be affected by this upheaval. For quite some time, growing up in a blue-collar household, believed that those who did not have the means to provide for themselves were either lazy, entitled, or were substance abusers. I had never really before considered that sometimes in life even if the circumstances seem like you are stable, it only takes one or two unfortunate things to happen for someone to fall into the clutches of poverty and homelessness.
Another assumption I had before going into the experience was that many people siphon their federal welfare through having multiple children and feeding their addictions. I learned that while abuse of drugs is higher among lower SES populations, most drugs are consumed by the richest populations who can afford them. The lack of hope permeated by the poverty cycle keeps people addicted and vulnerable as a result of the compounding of issues of access, wellness, racism, violence, etc. During our poverty simulation we had to create a hypothetical budget for one person living in abject poverty without assistance. It was at least one third of the total value of all the items of one of our bedrooms at home. Needless to say I was very humbled.
Perhaps even months after the experience, I am still applying and learning lessons about the nature of poverty in America. One of the most transformational things that took place was the poverty simulation. We were asked to turn in our own shoes and shirt and any valuable items we had and for 48 hours we essentially lived in comparable conditions that one would face in abject poverty, i.e. looking for food, looking for employment information, seeking homeless shelters, asking for money, etc. Through that process we watched two educational films; one was about the homelessness/job loss/welfare cycle that many adults have to face, and the other was about the many disadvantages children in abject poverty experience in regards to education, health, and stability.
I could not believe the amazing stigma that we experienced when we were on the streets of Milwaukee during the poverty simulation. The same Church of the Latter Day Saints missionaries that would normally talk to us as students at Ohio State’s campus barely looked at us when we were sitting on the sidewalk in our borrowed clothes. It took us four times asking before anyone took pity on us and gave any spare change. Interestingly enough, this person was a younger woman, perhaps of college age. We were looked down upon when we tried to enter the Marquette University library, but conversely, we were given very kind service and direction from the man working at Marquette’s student Union. This treatment to me seemed highly problematic, especially considering all of the churches, educational institutions, and restaurants in the more developed sections of the city which would have more disposable resources.
I will never forget serving on the food line during the Saturday health clinic. There was one man who came through the line that was smiling so joyously, greeting each one of us as we were serving him. You would have thought by his grateful smile and words that it was he who was doing the serving! I remember how amazed he was to discover that we were serving fresh seasonal fruit, which for someone accustomed to living in a food desert -or area with no access to fresh foods- must have been such a surprise. The fruit that I would have passed up or taken for granted became such a prized possession! I also had some time to walk around the cafeteria and sit and talk to some of the folks there. It was enlightening to hear one man quoting many different parts of the Bible from memory, another man entertaining us with jokes, and still another woman opening up about her family’s struggles. These were the very hearts of the city, so like everyone else, there for one reason or another. This was community.
Transformations and Impact
I never considered a career in missions work or non-profit work, but after this experience, I have a new appreciation and value for this kind of work, and that so often it is the work of volunteers and interns that drives the very necessary work of the non-profit. I was impressed by the breadth and roundedness of the education we received throughout the trip, and that added to my inspiration of the many applications of my major of study here at university. In addition to the work the City on a Hill does with their food bank and outreach programs, they also have a scientific school for middle grades attached to their building which functions as a public school. I was shocked to learn that the teacher to student ratio throughout Milwaukee in K-12 education is 1 to 30. At that rate, it is almost impossible to differentiate to the bevy of needs and cultural/SES differences that the students bring to the community. All of this made me so thankful for my privilege to have had so many advantages throughout my own K-12 career, let alone the ability to attend and succeed at such an institution as The Ohio State University. I would come back to a community like Milwaukee and teach with a much fuller understanding of the issues surrounding poverty as well as a drive to further equitable solutions in the school system.
Perhaps the most important transformation for me occurred spiritually throughout the whole trip, but particularly our Saturday night closing ceremony and synthesis of our experience. According the the Judeo-Christian practice of foot-washing, there is a great expression of appreciation, love, and servitude that comes from humbling oneself before another. From my reflective journal, I wrote:
“LORD, never let me forget the graciousness and powerful healing and closure which came about during the act of washing one another’s feet. I have inexpressible love and peace on account of the healing that comes through humility and obedience. The Holy Spirit opened up floods of concern, breakthrough, and promise as each person who committed to serving someone better. My mentor* prayed that I might start a book. My friend* washed my feet with such willingness, wiping away all pain and hurt or friction between us.”
I think it is too easy to go into an experience like this thinking with a deficit model, regarding the community we are entering as one that needs our help. But looking back, the experience had more of an impact and transformation on my heart and mind than I had even thought possible.
As a result, I intentionally seek to meet needs within the campus community and the surrounding Columbus area by always having something with me to give away, whether food, a few dollars, or even a smile. I take a daily “privilege check” before letting my emotions get the best of me. Because if we continue to give away what we don’t want, what kind of value are we placing on people? I have learned to give the best of what I have, letting the highest form of love be sacrifice, because my time is really not my own, nor are any of my possessions. For every time I was in need, there was someone who showed compassion on me.
(*names omitted for privacy)
Part Two: Connecting the Dots of Poverty and Food
Buck-i-Serv Trip to Immakolee, FL
My original plan for this project was to re-visit City on a Hill in Milwaukee for a second week this past June. However, two things occurred: (1) there was no one on the team from last year to organize it, and (2) City on a Hill did not offer a returner’s educational experience. My awareness was heightened about the nature of American poverty as my tenure in the College of Education and Human Ecology progressed. Because my degree program focuses primarily on schools in urban areas, the topic of poverty and how it relates to student performance as well as school performance as a whole is certainly a thread. Hearing only good things from peers about the Buck-i-Serv program, I thought that taking a trip under the Children and Youth/ Education categories would help further illuminate this relationship.
When I applied for the program in Immakolee, FL, all I knew is that I would be working at some place called the Guadalupe Center for Early Childhood. Due to the program’s random selection mechanism, I was really holding out for this trip. Something was calling me there. Then one day in early April I peered out of my dorm room window to see a large crowd gathering on the South Oval protesting Wendy’s presence on OSU campus. I had only heard of this movement once or twice and remained ignorant of just why so many were up in arms about Wendy’s (in)action. I listened to the protest with its speakers in English and Spanish as they talked about Wendy’s refusal of the Fair Food Act and how tomato farmers- often migrant laborers- have been striving for living wages. Interested in knowing more, I researched the cause and discovered that the very tomato farmers they were talking about lived in Immakolee, Florida, where I now had a burning desire to go. With the Wendy’s headquarters in Columbus, and this Buck-i-Serv trip conveniently going to Immakolee, could the connections become any stronger? I was ecstatic when I got the approval email.
My group of seven other OSU students and awesome advisor departed early Saturday from OSU and arrived in Atalanta, GA by the afternoon. The next day was spent travelling the eight hours from Atlanta to Immakolee. We drove up to a large ranch house used for large retreats on a large rural property, complete with swimming pool, basketball court, dance room, horses, and even goats. While taking in the view, I thought it strange that I couldn’t view any of the farms that the migrant workers tended to. The town itself was very quaint with a few main streets lined with palm trees, convenience and grocery stores, taco stations, and some family owned businesses. The houses were well maintained albeit small. I was very excited to see the children we’d be working with.
At the Guadalupe Center, we spent each morning with three to four year olds observing instructional time, playing with the children, eating with them, and helping them prepare for rest time. The teachers were all paired with a co-teacher and had marvelous control and confidence with their class. Their curriculum lined up with Florida’s early childhood standards as well as a creative curriculum. The high level of interactivity and fluidity with lessons and classroom management/engagement proved evidence of this curricula’s success. I was so impressed by not only the children’s ability to recall and interpret information, but also their uncanny compassion and kindness towards one another (and our team as well). I would learn that this county in Florida has stable support for the educational system due to the higher income areas closer to Naples and Marco Island. But not all of the area children could go to the Guadalupe Center…
When we asked the main teacher in our room about any students that hail from families of migrant workers, she said that there were just two, and an equal minority throughout the whole school. It costs $18-$30 per week on a sliding scale according to parent income to send one child to Guadalupe. After living expenses are paid, there is not much left for many migrant workers to provide their youngest with this care, especially if it may not be consistent. Additionally, would there be this same kind of interactivity and opportunity for differentiated education as these children grow up and enter the job market? In other words, how many of these children would choose to stay in Immakolee?
I was equally impressed by the PACE Center for Girls where we spent Tuesday and Thursday afternoons tutoring middle grades and high school girls. We spent time playing volleyball, dancing, tutoring, and just sharing life with the girls during their afterschool program. The PACE Center students qualify for admission if they express a number of risk factors. Like Guadalupe Center, the integrated and creative curriculum model was tailored to the students’ needs, developmentally and socially. They use cyber curricula for math and reading, hands-on models in science, and even a holistic health and wellness course. In addition to receiving merits for good classroom and academic behaviors (redeemable for prizes and field trips), the girls can prove social mastery by moving up the spectrum where entry-level represents acclimation to the environment and top-level represents thriving in the environment. One girl a month was chosen as an “overcomer” for showing the most improvement. The girls seemed to really appreciate the time we spent with them, reminding me of the many reasons why I chose to study middle childhood education.
The girls I worked with were very future oriented. One was determined to serve in the Air Force and another reconciled her passions and became excited about pediatric oncology when I was finished talking with her. Many were extremely cautious about weighing the cost of college with the output of a career. To be given the space to even be able to think about a promising future I thought was hopeful and very positive.
On Wednesday we visited the headquarters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) where we gained a considerable education about the efforts taken to guarantee migrant workers’ rights on tomato farms. One of the Coalition members described the hierarchy of laborers where supervisors control conditions on the farms, growers communicate business interests with the supervisors, and big businesses like Meijer and McDonalds conduct negotiations with the growers. We learned about the penny per pound proposal whereby laborers would earn one additional cent per pound of tomatoes they harvest under contracts with business that approve of the measure. Currently, the CIW has been leading a Wendy’s boycott because they have yet to sign on to this measure and have offshored their tomato purchases to Mexico where they can pay less. While other companies such as Publix (ironically Florida based) have refused to sign, Wendy’s is the only one of the major fast food chains that has not signed. Since the headquarters of Wendy’s is in Dublin, OH, this meeting really hit home for me as an OSU student and as a church member in Dublin. We learned that President Drake was well aware of the concerns of the Boycott Wendy’s movement, and that the administration promised to cut the contract with Wendy’s in the Medical Center if they did not sign.
Wendy’s has yet to sign and they are still in the Med Center.
Our conversation with the Coalition continued out in a walking tour of the surrounding streets. We observed a local convenience store, houses, and the migrant workers living space. We learned that about fourteen people live in a space of an average single bedroom and use separate building for laundry. I asked why more workers didn’t live closer to the farms, and our guide (who was also a Coalition member) said that not only are the spaces limited and rents higher, but the workers desire a sense of community with others who are like them. To me, that made the most sense in the world.
Transformation and Impact
One of my favorite moments of the trip was when the group decided to head out exploring to a nearby lake. I joked with my friend that I was going to talk to this group of women that was approaching the dock where we stood. When I did, I asked the one woman for any good restaurant recommendations. She heartily gave her favorite choices, and then the conversation continued. When I mentioned we were on a service trip and where we were serving, she told us her story. She had been a migrant worker from Mexico and ended up being able to support herself and her children by working for Catholic Charities through the Guadalupe church. Her children received Ivy League education and are currently working as educational administrators in Immokalee schools. She was very grateful to still live in the town which she calls home and to invite her family to visit, as she did the day we met. I was amazing to me that we were able to meet living proof of someone who encountered great success as a migrant worker, bringing my experience full circle.
I also will always remember the conversation I had with the volunteer and outreach coordinator at PACE Center. She was a recent hire for PACE and just seemed so passionate about the girls but also the wider implications of such spaces for society. She addressed that many of the effects of poverty result in the ways people are told to expect low standards from themselves and their communities. The power of words has an incredible impact over time. When people, especially young people who are marginalized and/or in poverty, hear words of low expectations, it is often internalized and then reproduced in their own lives. Spaces like PACE can reverse stigmas with positive reinforcement and a community of individuals with similar shared experiences, offering time to reinvent oneself and hear words of blessing and not cursing. This made me think back to Milwaukee and how the story of the victor is the one that gets told, like when the Hispanic population won a street war against the black population and then took control of the neighborhood. In both cases, the victor gets to tell the story about poverty, and it is more often than not a story of cursing, belittling, and subduing. After visiting these examples of redemptive action, I wonder if this process of reversing the story for justice can be made consistent unless each community changes their narrative towards the poor and the oppressed.
Two months later, I feel much more aware of the systemic injustices that occur throughout this country, specifically within the food and educational industries. All people are affected by the food industry, and it is especially important to consider the ramifications of food access and affordability in low socioeconomic status communities on a child’s education.