Riley Dolan, J-Term On the Hill

These past few days have been filled to the brim with preparing for our volunteer work starting next week for our J-Term On The Hill class. For those of you unfamiliar, J-Term On The Hill is a month long “study-away” intensive social work course at Tacoma’s Hilltop District where we learn first-hand about poverty and participate in community projects. Along with three other Pacific Lutheran University students, I will be volunteering at Peace Community Center, whose mission is to “support and encourage youth historically underrepresented in college to cultivate their academic and leadership talents so that they can gain full access to education opportunities and reach their full potential”. Other groups of students will be volunteering at different locations around the Hilltop, which you will be able to read more in-depth about on this blog.
Exposure was the title of our first week of class; before we were ready to start volunteering, we first had to be exposed to the world of social work and the Tacoma Hilltop District. And get exposed we were. I learned, thought about, saw, and did so much in just these past four days that I could probably write three times longer than your threshold of full attention. Therefore, I will attempt to, in the most efficient way possible, address the main highlights of the class, how I felt about my experiences and their meaning, and connecting what I have experienced to what I have learned in the classroom.
 For our first day we stayed on campus and were given an introduction to the course and social work. In preparation for class, we were tasked with reading the NASW Code of Ethics for social workers and the article “Helping, Fixing or Serving” by Rachel Remen. These reading assignments were the subject of our in-class discussions . The second day was also entirely in-class, where we began to dig deep and talk more in-depth about service and our personal identities. One of our activities consisted of answering questions about our different identifying factors, such as gender, religion, or socioeconomic status and then we shared with the class why we chose our answers. I absolutely loved this activity; being able to hear such diverse and unique viewpoints from my peers opened my mind up to a whole new world of consideration, one that I will take with me for the rest of my life. 
Another activity that we did on the second day was writing down five things that someone could discover about our hometown’s zip code by researching it online, and then five things that we personally believe are defining characteristics of the area. Other students shared what they wrote, and they mainly talked about physical features for the first half of the activity. This came as a surprise to me, because I wrote about things such as the racial, religious, and political makeup of my hometown. Although there was not enough time for me to share what I wrote with the class, it made me realize something. I thought back to our earlier activity where I was exposed to many new viewpoints. My hometown was primarily made up of white, conservative christians. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact I also wrote about how we have a very tight knit community. However, I realized just how much I was in a vacuum, unexposed to the rest of the world and what it has to share with me. Realizing this got me excited for my future interactions with our diverse world, and with great timing since the next day we traveled off campus to have a tour of the Hilltop.

Our third day of class marked the start of our ventures off campus, so it was only fitting for it to be a tour around the district we would be volunteering in. Before we began our tour, we took the public bus system for the first time while discussing our homework with our peers. The assignment was to read an article on a social justice issue facing us today. I chose to read an interview with Guilherme Boulos, leader of Brazil’s homeless workers’ movement. I decided to apply what I learned the previous day by seeking out new viewpoints, so I chose an article that focused on a problem not in the United States. I learned of prominent figures and a struggle going on for years that I had no idea existed just a few days ago. My classmates picked out equally as interesting articles, and it was fascinating to get their perspectives on them. 
The tour around the Hilltop District was provided by the Northwest Leadership Foundation’s Urban Leaders in Training. We were taken to many prominent areas related to social justice in the Hilltop community. Some “highlights” were learning about the the 13th and Tacoma Ave. Boulders, becoming aware of the Northwest Detention center, and seeing the old graffiti garage. Although learning about all of these things initially made me sad, I realized that I would rather know about the harsh realities of our world than to be blissfully unaware. The two photos below show a comparison between 2012 and now at the graffiti garage. After doing some research, the garage was apparently shut off to the public due to “concerns regarding safety and liability”. However, our tour guide posed the question of whether the garage was ever about the art, or if they were just in it for the economic stimulus. 

Source: http://douglasorton.photoshelter.com/image/I0000PJn6E0LF6Y4

However, the two main places that dominated our discussion after the tour was the boulder field and detention center. The area where the boulder field now resides used to be a congregation area for the homeless community, but then one night these boulders popped up, cutting off the option of sleeping there. What appeared to be the most shocking item on our tour was learning about the Northwest Detention Center, a holding area for illegal immigrants plucked off the street where the inhabitants are treated horribly. For example, they are required to work in various locations for sometimes just $1 a day, and if they would like a lawyer then they must pay for it themselves. Most despicable of all, however, is that the more prisoners this center has, the more money they are paid by the government, so they have a direct incentive to basically turn the area into a prison industrial complex factory. Again, these are heartbreaking things to learn about, but I realized that all we can do from here is serve our area as best we can to improve these situations.

On our final class day for the week we were able to tour around all of the volunteer sites and to go on a “scavenger hunt” in the Hilltop and Proctor districts to compare the two. My volunteer area will be at Peace Community Center, where I will be working with high schoolers to prepare them for college and help them with their homework. We were given very passionate stories from three employees at PCC, which ignited a spark inside of me that has caused me to get extremely excited for these upcoming weeks. In fact, all of the volunteer sites were incredibly inspiration to me, just by seeing all of the great work they are all doing. I was able to connect back what we learned on the first day of class, realizing that all of these people truly are serving their community, not “helping” or “fixing”. Our scavenger hunt, while brief, was very eye opening as well. I have lived in the same small town my whole life, and although the income of the area is low compared to average, we don’t really have a homeless community, most likely because we don’t have services to support them. Therefore, I never had the opportunity to compare more affluent areas like Proctor to less affluent, like the Hilltop. Doing this made me realize the challenges these residents have to face, such as businesses being further apart in the Hilltop despite there being less car owners. This made me grateful for what I have, and at the same time grateful to be exposed to these socioeconomic differences.

Like I’ve said, I have seen, read and experienced so much in just this past week that I could write so much more. In essence though, what has this week brought me? Although my volunteering hasn’t even begun, I already feel changed in so many ways. The biggest impact I have had so far is just an exposure to all of these different viewpoints, lifestyles, cultures and more. This week has been an amazing experience, and I cannot wait for the ones to come.

You can read “Helping, Fixing or Serving” here: http://www.lionsroar.com/helping-fixing-or-serving/

You can read the article on the graffiti garage here: http://www.cityoftacoma.org/cms/One.aspx?portalId=169&pageId=40679

You can read the article on Brazil’s Homeless workers movement here: http://www.thenation.com/article/a-conversation-with-guilherme-boulos-leader-of-brazils-homeless-workers-movement/

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