For my STEP project, I worked at the In His Presence Ministries (INPREM) Holistic Community Center. As a social work student, I was able to learn how to run their food pantry, understand the systems of delivery, and identify necessary services to be built. During my time there, I wore many hats. I organized and ran volunteers who would sign-up through the Mid-Ohio Database or just wanted to help out, take care of the kids during the women’s church group, run the front desk and check people in, be a translator for South Asian (Nepali, Bhutanese, Indian, Afghani, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Malay) immigrants and refugees. When a situation where clients had new needs presented itself, I would adapt my services accordingly.
As a humanities scholar and social work student, I find myself learning all the time through my changing experiences and interactions with other people. I had volunteered at the INPREM food pantry for many months before I started my project of building community services there. Being in school for social work and having the opportunity to focus on work at INPREM through STEP meant I could come at things from a total different angle. I was no longer just providing an extra hand, I was becoming a part of the decision making and change process. Through this experience, I gained a clearer picture of the struggles and blessings that come with community-run organizations. The population I am serving consists mainly of minorities, including African-Americans, latinx/Hispanics, and immigrants and refugees from Africa and Asia. After growing up in India, this project exposed me to the experiences of various minority groups in America and the areas to target for change.
The work environment was informal and vibrant with a community feeling to every action and word spoken. It was a reflection of the communities that I hope to build up in India as well, and therefore the perfect site for me to begin my work. Rather than cold systems of delivery, community spaces like churches or community centers can become loving and compassionate spaces for giving back. The professional demeanor at INPREM was relaxed but I learnt to be stern when clients tried to take advantage in various situations. My awareness of power dynamics enhanced while working with people facing diverse issues. Despite coming from a “third-world” country, there is a world of privilege that separates me and my clients because of the immense educational advantages I’ve had in my life. It is my career goal to pay this forward by building happy and healthy communities.
An article I read for research purposes during my project called “Exploring Long-term Food Pantry Use: Difference Between Persistent and Prolonged Typologies of Use” by Michelle L. Kaiser and Anna M Cafer discusses how long-term use of food pantries have become more commonplace despite its traditional base as an emergency resource. The idea of a food pantry is to feed those who do not have food security in the hopes that this will give them the opportunity not to worry about feeding themselves and their family so they can work towards building a secure life. However, if they have been coming to the pantry for years then we might be giving these people fish rather than teaching them how to fish or better yet, start a fishing business. This emancipation process is something I want to assist in. It requires unconventional solutions since the convention is set by a biased system. To overcome it, we must empower people by freeing their minds from the idea that they do not matter. I recognized that my role is only to facilitate. I have learnt how to organically get the elder women of the community do the life coaching since they have the shared life experience and relationship with the girls. It is key that the girls see women who have been in the same situations as them but have emerged victories and found happiness by making better choices. As the girls open up, how we deal with the trauma is where my services come in. Based on what the situation calls for, will be providing support and key insight on how to overcome through necessary referrals, better decisions, life skills, faith and community support. This strengths-based approach model can be implemented for a variety of services to be community-run.
With a community empowerment center in the space above the church sanctuary, disadvantaged children could receive the care and support that the institutions around them fail to give them. A human being, especially a child, does not have the ability to access higher cognitive functioning until they know they are loved, safe and matter. Before I expect people to stop their unhealthy coping habits and educate themselves, I realize their basic needs to be met. This empowerment center would be multipurpose and flexible according to the shifting needs of the community around it. Many of the parents we see never had a chance to grow up themselves. The center will aim to mentor youth and young adults to enhance their self-esteem, imbibe effective communication skills in them, teach them to be assertive rather than aggressive, and with time to have self-control and patience. Based on how much funds we am able to raise, we hope to have regular community-building programs, spoken word coaching, and a tutoring program. Creative empowerment and spiritual healing will be the pillars for our educational endeavors with the children. We would also have a mentorship program specifically for young mothers in our community who are at a dangerously high risk of losing their baby before they can even finish one year of their life.
This STEP project has helped me better conceptualize institutional oppression, generational trauma, and how to empower people to transcend a damaging system. I will continue to be working with the church until I’ve graduated this semester. I will be demonstrating leadership and confidence in my abilities as a social work intern by shifting from micro to mezzo and macro level social work. I hope to spend these next few months helping the community learn how to help and sustain themselves. The notion of dependency can become just that once a community learns how to raise and run itself.