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The Experience and Importance of an Effective Community Service-Learning

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The Mitchell reading talks about how effective community service-learning is about witnessing/developing a commitment to changing the structural components that underlie the issues that the student is working to combat. Historically when I’ve done any sort of volunteer work it has been sort of half-assed in the ways that Mitchell names. The experience is more about giving me (the student) a sense of generosity or “with it”-ness than it is about making a long term commitment to whatever organization I am working with. Something that I am aware of in myself is that I find human interaction really fulfilling and that when I have friendly interactions with people who are outside my class, race, ethnic, geographic, or education background I feel like I am doing important work even if I am not actually measurably contributing to anyone else’s well-being. THIS is one of my biggest fears about working with Sojourner House: that my ego and my perception of myself as a “worldly” person will benefit from meeting people in situations much tougher than my own but that I will not actually be that helpful to them or that I will leave patting myself on the back for doing good work instead of feeling the need to work harder to serve people I have interacted with. [Note: as I am typing this up 7 months after writing it I want to add that, although this is a legitimate fear, I think that I wrote it at a time when I didn’t have much self compassion. The Mitchell article mentions, and I agree with this idea, that the value of the actual service in service learning is usually not the point. The point is to build relationships with people and to build understanding of systems that need to change so that the student feels compelled to make more substantial commitments. Although I never want to use other people’s hardships or marginalized identities to position myself as a “savior” either in my own mind or in anyone else’s, I think that if interacting with people from different class/race/ethnic/educational backgrounds is fulfilling and energizing for me, then (without exoticizing poor POC) I should try to use these interactions as motivation to make larger commitments to the undocumented community.]

Ideally I would like to get a few things out of this experience. First, I often feel embarrassed about my privilege (specifically my class and education) and I feel nervous to do work with undocumented people because I am afraid that I will come off as pretentious or preachy. This fear is something that has it’s origin in privilege, because, since I am white and wealthy, I have almost always had people assume that I am kind and have good intentions. I hope to practice presenting myself authentically and I hope that I can build honest relationships in which clients and staff trust me to listen, be respectful, and provide the help that is asked for.

Second, I have been teaching sex ed/healthy relationships to high schoolers for 6 years but I know very little about abue (both physical and emotional) . I am hoping to learn about what abuse looks like and I aslo hope I can dispel some of the stereotypical images I have in my head about “battered women.”

Third, I think I can offer administrative help (forms, driving clients, answering phones, etc) but that I will probably occupy the role of listener rather than trying to throw myself into direct service give than I have no training.

Today Gloria Greenfield visited our class to teah us about Sojourner House, her advocacy specifically for undocumented women, the abuse and power wheel, and about legal help that can legitimize the residency of victims in the U.S. Off the bat things that struck me were Gloria’s dedication to this project and to the amount of legal knowledge that is needed to do this kind of work. I know this is a ridiculous assumption for me to have made but I was initially surprised that Gloria, who is herself an immigrant to the U.S., is the life and energy behind this part of Sojourner House. I am so used to seeing white people as figure heads for NGOs and social action organizations that I guess I had just assumed she would be white.

(Sidenote: This got me thinking about why wealthy white people are so often the leaders of organiztions that are dedicated to helping low-income POC and then that got me thinking about the barrier that lower income people face when they want to go into community action or NGO work which is usually lower paying than other lines of work.)

Another assumption I had made about Sojourner House before Gloria spoke with us was that most of the services provided had to do with emotional counseling, support groups, or with providing housing and food. I guess I had imagined the role of Sojourner House was to provide some sort of comfort for people stuck in a bad situatin rather than actually helping clients find legal solutions for the problems they are facing. I was amazed by how much legal information I learned from Gloria’s presentation and I started to understand that most her time is spent advocating for special visas for her clients. I did not realize how complicated the decision-making process can be for a victim (can I afford to call the cops?) before Gloria’s talk.

Revisiting this journal entry months later, I now see the connections between my lack of information about legal options for abuse survivors and how being unaware of legal options can negatively affect decision-making in the moment when abuse is taking place. Abrego says, ““Claims-making requires an awareness of existing or possible rights (Minow 1987; Polletta 2000). Informed by their legal consciousness – commonsense understandings of the law (Merry 1990) – people develop stratified levels of rights awareness, pursue various conflict-resolution strategies (Emerson 2008; Hoffmann 2003), and generally interpret their lives in different ways.”

In simple English, this essentially means that you can’t demand your rights if you don’t know what they are. I think of myself as pretty informed about issues of sexual health and immigration but I had absolutely no idea that 1. survivors of domestic abuse can apply for visas based on the trauma they have experienced 2. In order qualify for these visas they need to have a police report that was filed as proof of an incident of domestic abuse. This second point is important because, for undocumented survivors, while learning your rights after the fact can be empowering, it is only those who understand the importance of calling the police who will benefit from U-Visas and VAWA. For this reason, it is important not only to advise these clients but to educate them on relevant legal systems so they can apply and share this information.

Gloria invited me to sit in on a meeting with a client today. When Gloria meets with new clients she initially asks them to explain their story as they would to a friend and she mostly listens so that way the client feels more comfortable sharing details that are emotionally charged, triggering, or embarrassing. A necessary component of every application for a U-Visa, T-Visa, or VAWA relief requires an incredibly detailed statement from the victim. Because Gloria knows what kinds of details are persuasive to the review boards that go through the cases, she offers to help her clients write their statements. She listens to their stories and asks questions that encourage them to share specific pieces of information that are useful for making a case for visa eligibility but that might be really emotionally charged. Originally Gloria had told me that, because she was dealing with a high volume of cases, she could use help with taking down client testimony. She told me that I could sit in on a meeting of this type and listen to the types of questions that she asked and then I could try doing it on my own.

This seemed like a really scary task for me for a number of reasons. First of all, sexual and domestic abuse are incredibly personal and triggering topics. I worried that I would either be so worried about making sure I didn’t push clients to relive traumatic experiences that I wouldn’t get details that might be important for their case or that in looking for that information that I would push someone too far. Second, I can understand Spanish well but I cannot communicate gracefully or grammatically. I worried that, because most of the undocumented survivors that Gloria meets with are Spanish speaking, I might not be able to even ask the right sorts of questions respectfully.

The woman who had been scheduled to give her testimony ended up having to cancel and so instead I sat in on a meeting with a woman who had already given her testimony. Gloria had her come in a second time to ask her a long set of yes or no questions that are required by the review boards. Questions asked about every possible type of legal infraction that she could have been involved in (plane hijacking, drug use, smuggling, etc.). Gloria prefaced these questions by explaining that they were a formality of the application and that it was important to be completely honest but she also apologized that some of them could be uncomfortable. I could imagine that, had they been asked by someone other than Gloria (a white, male, legal advisor, for example) the questions could have seemed accusatory. I don’t know how other forms of Visa or relief application work, but there was something about the whole process that seemed really uncomfortable, especially in the context of a country that claims to center it’s legal system around the concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. Instead of being asked to disclose any laws she may have broken, Gloria’s client, who is an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, was made to listen to a ridiculously long and comprehensive list of crimes that she was unlikely to have committed and confirm that she had not committed any of them. There seemed to be parallels to this and Gleeson’s writings about how undocumented immigrants are seen in the public eye as ‘illegal’ or inherently in conflict with the law.

Today was my first day volunteering at Causa Justa: Just Cause in San Francisco. I’ve known about this organization for a long time and it’s only 5 blocks away from my house, but I’ve always been too nervous to volunteer here. I think I have it in my head that, because I went to a private school on the other side of town and most of my friendships are with people I went to school with, not people I live near, I am not really part of the Mission community in the way people mean it when they talk about displacement and gentrification. Causa Justa is an organization that deals with immigration rights education as well as housing rights counseling (often for immigrants, both documented and undocumented). Even though I care deeply about this area of work, I’ve always been nervous that I would be seen as being on the wrong side of the issue because of my class background. In reality, CJJC is understaffed to provide the incredible amount of counseling that the neighborhood wants so they are more than appreciative to have extra help from anyone who is informed and passionate about their work.

Today I spent most of my four hours doing orientation with Leticia (Lety) Arce. We first talked about CJJC’s Serve the People model (vs. a service the people model). In the serve-the-people model, providers focus on educating clients about their rights and defending and expanding these rights, they try to build clients’ knowledge and existing strengths and they try to give clients information so they can make their own decisions, they tie people’s personal problems to larger structural inequalities and they try to get clients to mobilize for larger reform and community building. By contrast, the service-the-people model is about providing charity to people deemed to be powerless or resource-less. The idea is that skilled professionals solve problems for “poor people” without any information about rights or without any intention of giving clients the tools to solve their own problems. Usually, in service-the-people models there is no long-term goal of mobilizing for systemic change. The focus is instead on resolving individual cases. Part of what is problematic about this second model is that those giving aid may get into a mindset that identifies the poor as being people who do not have skills and are indefinitely stuck in their situation and dependent on the kindness of more fortunate strangers. This is dangerous because it means that the skilled professionals think of their work as a generous kindness given to the downtrodden. The service-the-people model, on the other hand, identifies the condition of it’s clients as the result of structural inequality and thinks about the laws and policies at the root of these problems to be changeable. It is focused on empowering members to advocate for their own rights and encourages clients to claim the things they are entitled to but have been denied.

Talking to Lety about this made me think about Speed’s piece on Critically Engaged Activist Research (or really just critically engaged activism, at all). The idea in the piece is that research about vulnerable communities should allow those communities to decide what kind of research would be beneficial to them instead of taking a topdown approach to research and dissemination. The common theme here is that vulnerable communities should still have agency to decide what they need.

Today was my first day actually volunteering at the housing clinic. I spent the first part of the morning going through referrals and the second part of the day working at the front desk of the housing clinic. Both of these tasks ended up being a lot more involved than I had expected and I was surprised by how much responsibility CJJC was willing to give me. During my orientation with Leti I was given numerous readings about housing laws and ordinances as well as information about how to answer client questions and how to advise undocumented tenants who were facing landlord abuse, intimidation, and illegal evictions. After briefing me on the laws, Lety showed me how to use the referral network. Essentially, Causa Justa only has the capacity to advise tenants who live in San Francisco on certain types of cases. They can’t provide legal defense in court and they can’t advise on Section 8 housing. But because all of the organizations in San Francisco who work with undocumented immigrants and with housing rights have overlapping membership bases and draw support from each other during political actions and mobilizations, there is a strong network of service providers and organizers who can meet the needs that CJJC might not be able to meet. Anyone who either calls in to CJJC or comes into the clinic receives one of three types of help. The first goal is to understand the client’s issue and to give information about rights and basic advice. Most issues (illegal rent increases, illegal eviction notices/buy-outs, etc.) can be handled in this kind of triage by whoever is working at the front desk. If the issue is more serious (an illegal owner-move-in, a lock-out, urgent repair, etc.) the client is scheduled for an hour long appointment with a counselor. If the client’s issues are not in line with the services CJJC provides, they are referred to one of the organizations in the San Francisco network. I was amazed how extensive this network is and how quickly organizations follow up on referrals.

My first job was to call people who had been referred to CJJC by other organizations in the network. Most of these people were Spanish speaking and lived on the southern half of the city. My jobs was to call them and try to determine if I could give them the information they needed over the phone or whether I would have to schedule them an appointment with a counselor. Given the gravity of the situations people were calling, my newness to the laws, and my mediocre Spanish, I was surprised that Lety was willing to trust me with this work. The entire day I was incredibly afraid that I would give someone incorrect information about how to deal with their landlord. I was worried mostly because, in the case of an illegal eviction notice, the course of action is to write a letter to the landlord explaining that the eviction is illegal, and then do nothing (aka, keep living in the space). Many of the people I spoke with were undocumented and were hesitant to take this advice because they feared accidentally violating a law and then having to come in contact with law enforcement who might green-light their deportation. Even though San Francisco is a sanctuary city and law enforcement cannot demand or report immigration status to ICE, there is real fear and mistrust of the police within this community.

Part of the difficulty with volunteering at Causa Justa is that, in order to give advice on how to deal with landlords, the rent board, and law enforcement agents, you have to have an intimate understanding of how the law works and how it is actually applied in San Francisco. In Gleeson and Gonzalez’ article “When do papers matter?” they discuss “the radically different ways that formal protections are instituted for the undocumented population [in different institutions], even within the context of a uniform federal immigration policy in the United States.” Essentially, even though we have federal immigration policy, the context it is applied it radically changes the way that it actually affects the undocumented populations.

In San Francisco, many policies are set up with the intent of making the city liveable for the undocumented population that powers much of San Francisco’s economy. Although undocumented immigrants are not legal residents of the United States, they receive the same tenants’ rights as every other U.S. citizen when it comes to disputes over housing.

Many of the undocumented tenants I’ve spoken with, however, do not know this. So they end up putting up with landlord abuse because landlords threaten to report them to law enforcement agencies or they fear that going to court to dispute landlord abuse or calling the agency that inspects residential buildings to make sure that they are up to code will make them too visible and put them at greater risk of deportation.

One of the most interesting things I learned this week is that the state of California recognizes verbal contracts as a legal form of contract. That means that, even if tenants to not have a written lease agreement to show how long they have been living somewhere and how much they have been paying for it with what benefits and services included, the state will recognize the verbal agreement as legitimate as long as they have some sort of proof that they have been paying rent. This is sometimes difficult for low income, especially undocumented tenants who often pay their rent in cash without any sort of proof of payment. One of Causa Justa’s piece of advice to all renters is to keep documentation of everything that happens with regards to housing. For example, if you mail your cash to your landlord and get a receipt at the post office you have proof of payment. Causa Justa also suggests that all communication with landlords be done in writing and photocopied so that there is proof of any agreements or harassment in case it has to be taken in to court.

It was easy to tell which clients had worked with Causa Justa or had been through housing disputes before because people who had came in with photographs and photocopies of everything that could possibly be relevant whereas new clients came in with their story and maybe a letter from their landlord. Even with documentation, however, there can be risks for tenants when reporting run down facilities or other types of landlord abuse. Many of the units being rented out in the Mission are “in-law units”, or sub-units that are technically not legal living spaces. If a tenant calls in an inspector to check on unsafe living conditions that a landlord is refusing to fix, the inspector may find the entire unit is not a legal unit, in which case, even if it’s the landlord who is in violation, the renters will have to leave.

Today, after archiving files for a few hours, I joined Maria Zamudio, CJJC’s housing rights organizer, on a trip to City Hall. We were there for a planning commission hearing about two new projects being proposed in the Mission: a small project with 24% affordable housing and a much larger 167 unit building with most units being built at market rate and only 12% (the city mandated minimum) being built at affordable costs. It should also be noted that “affordable” in this case means that it can only be accessed by people making 50% or less of the city’s area median income, which is $93,036 in the Mission District. That means any family making $46,518 (which would be considered middle income in many parts of the country) are eligible for this housing.

I was surprised by numerous parts of this hearing. First of all, the planning commission meets for these kinds of hearings about once a month. That means all development plans that need approval are heard back to back. Our hearing time was listed for 1:00pm but when we arrived at 2:00pm there were still two cases ahead of us. Our case was finally heard at 5:00pm after many of the community members who had shown up to speak against the development had left to pick up children or to return to work. This semester we read about the high costs of political participation to undocumented people and at the hearing I saw it in action. Only people with flexible schedules (developers, tech workers and professionals who receive annual salaries instead of hourly pay, seniors) could afford to spend 4 hours at city hall waiting for a hearing that ultimately lasted an hour and a half. By the time the planning commission opened up the hearing for statements from the community the only Causa Justa community member who was still present was an older disabled man who did not speak English and was nervous to speak in front of the room because his perspective was so outnumbered.

The goal of Causa Justa (and of other community organizations like Calle 24 & the Latino Cultural District) had not been to shut down the proposal, but merely to delay it so that community members and developers could meet to talk about increasing the number of affordable units in the building and moving the entrance of a parking lot that was designed to block an affordable senior housing facility scheduled to be built in the next year. This, really, is the only power that the planning commission has in these hearings. Unless the development is in violation of a city or state law, the commission must either approve the building or delay approval to a later hearing. Erick Arguello, a founder of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District spoke in favor of delaying the project and was incredibly restrained and respectful when talking to the developers given the fact that he has seen projects like this one eclipse numerous 100% affordable projects in the neighborhood.

Despite this fact, developers and concerned homeowners repeatedly stood up and gave testimony about how at meetings intended for negotiation with local housing organizations, community members had been angry and had shut down statements from the developers. The main point of their argument was that community members were irrational and emotional and were restricting the free speech of developers who were trying to be patient and reasonable. I expected to hear this kind of respectability politics thrown around by developers but I was surprised that long-term residents of the Mission used these kinds of arguments too. It opened my eyes to the fact that “community” in a neighborhood doesn’t necessarily mean that all long-term residents are united. Homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods who stand to win from increasing property values have very different economic priorities than renters who are at risk of being displaced.

I told her that I was worried that my Spanish wasn’t good enough to give people accurate advice (especially about complicated and technical legal terms) over the phone or at the front desk but she encouraged me to keep practicing and not feel embarrassed about asking questions.

This week, however, Lety gave me a new project to work on. I started going through all of the file cabinets in the office and pulling case files frome 2014 or earlier. Every 2 years CJJC goes through all of it’s old cases to store cases that have been resolved, follow up on ones that are still open, and figure out if those clients want to keep working on them or to figure out why they decided not to continue with them. Even though this task was less social and more tedious than phone or front desk work, it was honestly kind of a relief because I was less anxious about messing up. Even though Lety had encouraged me to ask for help whenever I needed it at the front desk, I was so worried that I would distract counselors from more pressing concerns with their clients if I asked for help constantly that I barely asked for it even though I had hundreds of questions.

After sorting and following up on cases for 4 hours I went out to lunch with Mayra-Yoana, the immigrants rights organizer at CJJC, and we talked about how she connects with San Francisco’s undocumented population to provide Know-Your-Rights trainings. While we were walking to lunch I asked her to explain how SF’s sanctuary status works and whether it actually stops police and other city employees from reporting to ICE. She told me that, for the most part, police are good about abiding by the law, but there are certain types of tricks that have become more common in trying to get undocumented immigrants to voluntarily disclose their status. Although law enforcement can’t directly ask about a person’s immigration status, many will try to bait immigrants into disclosing their status by asking questions like “How hard was it for you to migrate?”. Part of her work is trying to inform undocumented immigrants that they don’t have to answer these questions and they don’t have to even respond to the officer. She hands out cards that explain undocumented immigrants rights in Spanish and have a message printed in English that can be handed to a law enforcement officer explaining that the individual knows that they have the right to remain silent and will not respond to questions unless in the presence of a lawyer.

So in a certain sense, it seems like the sanctuary city law doesn’t do much for reducing fear amongst the undocumented immigrant population. What it does do, though, according to Mayra, is makes it easier for organizations that provide services to undocumented immigrants to exist legally and receive funding for their services. In contrast the Proposition 187 that greatly reduced undocumented Californian’s access to health services and other forms of government funded relief, the Sanctuary City laws make SF a haven of resources for undocumented individuals. The problem in the Mission however, and this is why it is so important that CJJC works both on housing rights and immigration rights, is that if undocumented immigrants are forced out of the city limits by eviction or rent increases, they are no longer eligible for many of the resources in the city. Because other parts of the bay area are under different laws, if these immigrants move they receive less protection under the law and have to relearn their rights.

As I was working on archiving files today I was sitting in the office conference room/kitchen which is where meetings are held in the office. About an hour into work Maria Zamudio had a meeting with a co-worker about Causa Justa’s policy goals but because there were no other free desks in the office they said it would be find if I sat at the table with them while they were meeting. Because the archiving is pretty straightforward and mindless, I had a lot of time to eavesdrop as they were going over propositions that they expect to show up on the next ballot and deciding where Causa Justa stands on them. Most of the proposed policies were pretty straightforward. There were numerous proposals about zoning and about mandating more affordable units be included in every new development in the city. There was also a lot of proposed legislature about San Francisco’s homeless population and how to provide resources for this population instead of criminalizing them.

One of the most interesting proposals that they talked about, however, actually had to do with giving undocumented immigrants the right to vote in specific parts of local elections. The proposal specifically aims to give undocumented parents who have children in local schools the right to vote in the San Francisco School Board elections. Off the bat, this sounded like something that I would support, that the undocumented community in the Mission would support, and that Causa Justa would support. But when Maria introduced the topic, she didn’t sound enthusiastic about it.

When she explained where she thought Causa Justa’s position should be on any of the proposed laws she started by figuring out who was sponsoring the proposal and who was officially against it. Apparently this proposal is being sponsored by a subset of the undocumented Chinese community in San Francisco, specifically a portion of the Chinese community that is politically conservative. Maria worried that, because of the conservative political leanings of it’s supporters, the real goal of the bill was to enable a voting population that would support a more conservative School Board. I don’t know what the breakdown is between conservative and liberal undocumented immigrants in San Francisco, but Maria seemed concerned that supporting this expansion of voters’ rights would actually harm the San Francisco school system.

This overheard conversation brought up two thoughts for me. First of all, it made me wonder about the ethics of supporting voting rights only in politically strategic moments. Is it ok not to support the expansion of rights for your constituent base if you think doing so might actually harm them or their children?

Second, it made me think about the historical relationship between the Chinese and Latinx immigrant communities in San Francisco. Unlike the Mission, Chinatown in San Francisco is home to an ethnically homogenous group of people who have been able to unite around housing demands and create special zoning ordinances that protect the boundaries of the neighborhood for better or for worse (gentrification is not an issue in Chinatown but many of the living conditions are unhealthy or unsafe because there are so many restrictions on renovation). The Mission, on the other hand, is a culturally and economically diverse neighborhood that has had trouble uniting around specific housing goals because the needs and political identities are so varied.

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GradesFixer. (2019, January, 03) The Experience and Importance of an Effective Community Service-Learning. Retrived May 19, 2019, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-experience-and-importance-of-an-effective-community-service-learning/
"The Experience and Importance of an Effective Community Service-Learning." GradesFixer, 03 Jan. 2019, https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-experience-and-importance-of-an-effective-community-service-learning/. Accessed 19 May 2019.
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