Making the community your extended family
Yee Thao is a student at the University of Minnesota studying computer science and community organizing. He also works for the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and the Jane Addams School for Democracy.
In the 1930s, students who couldn’t afford the full cost of attending the University of Minnesota could stay at the Phyllis Wheatley House in North Minneapolis and earn room and board by working with young people and taking care of the clubs and activities at the center.
Phyllis Wheatley was a settlement house developed in a former bag factory in the 1920s by the Women’s Christian Association. It offered a place for many in the community to gather and engage in learning and other activities. “The center had the best gym, libraries, nursery schools, and assembly room,” said Larry Brown, a Minneapolis community organizer and retired fourth-grade teacher.
Mr. Brown and Ron Bell, another Minneapolis community organizer, spoke to my class last Thursday about organizing and their past with the Phyllis Wheatley House. In Organizing for the Public Good, students have a goal to build relationships, explore self-interest, and develop skills for community organizing.
Brown and Bell had both grown up with the Phyllis Wheatley House. Both also studied at the University of Minnesota, Brown starting in 1939 and Bell in 1961, when acts of racial segregation had just been outlawed. Bell describes his struggles for education as having to “fight my way into school and my way out of school.”
When asked about the differences between the “old” Phyllis Wheatley and the “new” Phyllis Wheatley, Ron Bell had much to say. The old Phyllis Wheatley was a single entity owned by the community for the community.
Over time, the demographics of the community changed. “Initially it was not a community for people of color, but the people with few books moved out and the people with no books moved in,” said Larry Brown. As this trend continued, the Phyllis Wheatley House changed into the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center.
Today, Phyllis Wheatley Community Center is composed of several entities. The space is rented and the mentors and tutors come from all over. Although not a bad thing, Bell believes that everyone should be engaging in their own community. “Non-profits are merging left and right with corporations to survive, and these corporations begin driving these communities,” says Bell.
The Jane Addams School for Democracy (JAS), which grew out of the settlement house tradition, is similar to the Phyllis Wheatley House in that it offers a place for teens to go to for activities like homework help, open gym, and studying for the U.S. citizenship test, and tutors come from all over.
Which makes me think maybe you don’t have to live in a community to participate.
Although I don’t live on the West Side, JAS is an established community that I couldn’t find anywhere else. It is at JAS that I was introduced to service learning as a college student leading youth activities and participating in one-on-one learning pairs. It was at JAS that I came to appreciate different aspects of my Hmong culture and many other cultures as well. It is there that I found a new value in the word family, and there that I learned about my voice and became a better citizen.
However, service learning does not necessarily make a citizen better. It merely introduces one to a facet in the word citizen. I have seen many college students come and go at JAS. They take a class that requires them to participate in a community organization and then when that class is over they simply leave.
What’s the solution? I think everyone has to throw in what they have to offer, what they enjoy doing, and relate it to the young people. If not, they’re missing out on the philosophy of JAS where everyone’s a learner and everyone’s a teacher. They don’t fully get the learning part because they’re just there to teach.
I made a lot of friends with other tutors at JAS. I build relationships with a lot of the youth in that community, and that’s why I can’t just leave.