Interview with Lucy Saliger, Engaged English Scholar for March:
1. What sparked your interest in community engagement?
I believe that we all need each another's perspectives and participation if we're going to try to make a more just, compassionate society. More specifically, I know from personal experience how much of a difference it makes to connect to other people. I've had family and friends who haven't fared well in our society - some have been killed or died at young ages, one's in prison on a 27 year, 3 strikes sentence in California for crimes relating to his heroin addiction - and we were always trying to figure out how to solve these things on our own. I mean, we helped each other the best that we knew how, but we felt like we were floundering so much of the time. It would have made a huge difference to have some kind of community to work with for ideas and to see these issues in more of a societal context, instead of just personal failings. I've always believed that too many people don't have a sense of deep meaning because they learned early on that they weren't at all valued in our society. I can't do anything for my family and friends who have already died and I can't get my cousin out of prison, and that will always stay with me - the lives already lost or deeply damaged. So I want to do what I can to help people find other paths, and not to the individual materialistic success that's held out so often as a carrot in our society, but to finding that deep sense of purpose by knowing they're needed to help make a better world.
2. Is there anything at the U that contributed to this desire?
Definitely. My first semester, I had a service-learning class in Teaching English As a Second Language. I had some Political Science courses which developed my thinking about the need to actively participate in public life - the need for our learning to be connected to meaningful action, the importance of not withdrawing into only private concerns. I also understood better the structural nature of injustices and related problems in our society. Then, of course, I had Eric Daigre's famous 3741 course - Literacy and Diversity - and did my service-learning at Jane Addams School for Democracy. Last semester, I did Directed Study with him, studying examples of democratic education, like Myles Horton's Highlander School, which is all about tying education to social action in the community. And I did Directed Study with Dan Mrozowski, studying some past examples of education related to empowerment - or domestication - plus some theory about how education functions in society. I had a post-colonial literature course with Mimi Van Ausdall last semester, also, which added new pieces to my understanding of engagement and social change. At the end of the class, she asked us to choose one social justice issue related to our readings that we wanted to do something about, write what we would do, and she's going to mail those back to us in May to follow up. This semester, I started my two-semester honors thesis with Geoff Sirc as my faculty adviser (and ongoing help from Dan and Eric, plus Catherine Guisan in Political Science). It's on democratic, participatory education - what it is, what it's not, why we need it as a society, and how this relates to people telling their stories, because, of course, as an English major, I'm interested in the power of literature for resistance and social change.
3. Have these experiences changed your life? If so, how? What about your experience at the University?
I think a lot about how some people here have made such a difference for me, and there are always more people I meet who have an important effect. Sometimes even short conversations can just hit us in a certain way and have a life-changing impact. People might encourage us to do something we're a little afraid of doing and it gives us enough courage to put ourselves on the line a little more. I'm trying to find ways to do that for other people as well. I'm working at MNIC this semester, a charter school with mainly young adults who are immigrants, and I want to take the personal interest in students I work with there that people have taken in me. I believe so much comes out of just talking with one another, really listening, building on ideas and interests. I've also applied to do a UROP for summer, recording interviews with people outside of academia about their educational experiences and what they think about concepts like education for liberation. I told Dan Mrozowski about the idea last semester. He suggested I do it as a UROP and offered to be the faculty adviser for it. Now I think about ways to continue this work after I graduate in December, and things seem possible that I didn't even conceive of before. I don't know how they'll play out exactly. I know I love writing. I have ideas for working with others on needs in the community and helping people find ways to tell their own stories. A grad student in Political Science said to me that sometimes it's good to just do something really well, and see where it leads you. You can't jump ahead to assess what is possible without actually living the experiences along the way because the opportunities come out of those experiences.
4. Do you have any interesting stories about your time in the community?
At the first place I did service-learning, I was tutoring an older Somali man one day, and he was dutifully answering questions from the lesson, questions about if he should brush his teeth twice a day or twice a week, and about which drawings of women had curly or straight hair. I felt uncomfortable because it seemed condescending and also not very responsive to the vocabulary he might need most. But after I worked with someone, I always tried to engage in some spontaneous conversation because it's one of the most important ways to increase anyone's fluency. I love to garden so I asked him if he ever grew food in Somalia, and he got really excited, telling me about the gardens he used to have and the mild weather in Somalia. There was such a dramatic difference in his demeanor and level of interest in the conversation. And we were interacting as equals, which is how it needs to be all the time. There have been a lot of good experiences. At Jane Addams, in the beginning, in our large group circle discussions, we answered really basic questions, but with each week, we took on more serious societal questions, as people became more used to each other. We talked about the citizenship fees being raised from $99 in 2000 to over $600 now. People said how unjust they felt it was that they already were making some of the lowest wages, and how hard it would be to come up with that kind of money. I think that's an example of how college students learn important aspects of reality from people in the community.