Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Communities in SchoolsIn the US 14.5 million children live in poverty. Struggling students and their families face the challenge of accessing and navigating a maze of public and private services. Communities In Schools works directly inside schools, building relationships that empower students to succeed inside and outside the classroom. CIS operates in 2,300 schools in 25 states and the District of Columbia. Its school-based coordinators bring community resources into schools and help to remove barriers for vulnerable students. 

Often the challenges are not just technical or theoretical, they are problems of human relations; they are problems fostered by a lack of trust. For its 2017 Virginia state convening of 90 site coordinators, CIS called on Initiatives of Change USA to deliver a morning workshop on implicit bias and trustbuilding. Six of the IofC USA  newly formed team of skilled facilitators and trainers led groups of 15 in lively discussion, kicked off by the drumming of musician and facilitator Ram Bhagat.

The 25-member facilitation team emerged this summer as part of Richmond’s  participation in the national Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation process launched by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation with IofC USA serving as the lead organization.  Most of the facilitation team are alumni of IofC USA’s Community Trustbuilding Fellowship and represent a range of backgrounds and experiences. Ram Bhagat taught for many years in Richmond Public Schools. Other facilitators for the CIS workshop included Abigail Ballew, a recent graduate in social work; Shelli Brady, an urban design specialist; and Anjum Ali who teaches Islamic Studies with a focus on women and children’s rights. As one of them said, a key to this kind of work is “learning to ask ‘why’ rather than bringing our own assumptions and baggage.”

Communities in Schools Dominque Routier, who is in charge of onboarding and training, said, “Everybody brings something different to being a site coordinator. Because we are diverse, I wanted to make sure we are on the same page. I really felt passionate about cultural sensitivity and looking at our own personal biases. When Rev. Turner (IofC USA Director of Reconciliation Programs) told me this was about trustbuilding, that was the key for me because, we have to build trust within our school communities.”

The participants had taken the Harvard Implicit Bias test prior to the workshop. After watching two short videos produced by the Kirwan Institute, they were asked to share their personal impression of the test and the videos. In another session they talked about times when they had felt excluded because of their background and also times when they had felt affirmed. Finally they explored the strengths and challenges of the communities and schools they serve and asked, “How do I show up in ways that are trustworthy? Where does trust need to be built?”

The site coordinators are faced every day with formidable challenges of racism and poverty. In many cases they were drawn to CIS because someone had reached out to help them when they themselves were in school. As one said, “I want to be at least one person in the school that the kids can count on.”

Following the program one site coordinator said, “I was surprised that people of different complexion had some of the same issues that I did. I was surprised to hear a white woman say she felt bad about being white.” Other participants remarked: “The space was safe because everyone was open and honest.” “They spoke from the heart.” “People allowed themselves to be vulnerable.”

Communities in SchoolsJonathan Penn, the Executive Director of CIS in New River Valley, Christianburg, commented, "In order to work effectively with anyone, trust must be the first thing established, so the techniques that were provided today will be very beneficial in gaining that trust, first and foremost with the students we work with [as well as] their families, because a lot of them have experienced distrust in the system.”

Mark Emblidge, the founding President of CIS Virginia, said, “The work you do is some of the only work that is addressing the root problems associated with the permanent underclass. So much of what is being done is just band-aid. We don't insert ourselves at a deep enough level." Emblidge is a past president of the Virginia State Board of Education and teaches at the Curry School of Education at University of Virginia.

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