Immersing Into a New Community

As our fellows wrap up and say goodbye for the year, we will be featuring the words of Rebecca Sufrin, who lived and served in Pittsburgh.

The first thing I was drawn to about the Fellowship was the community based, hands-on direct service. I have always been a firm believer that cultivating personal relationships is one of the most important things in creating a strong, unified community. As I thought about applying to be a fellow, I was captivated by the potential of being immersed within a community that meant so much to me on a personal level in the context of meaningful social justice driven work.

As an education justice fellow, I worked with students from all backgrounds in a variety of contexts. I had three direct service partnerships: Assemble, Neighborhood Learning Alliance (NLA), and the IMPACTS (Individuals Making Progress and Change Towards Self-Sufficiency) program at East End Cooperative Ministry (EECM).

I was lucky enough to work with folks from all stages of life. At Assemble, an art gallery and community space for arts and technology, I assisted in running a program called Saturday Crafternoons, which offered local kids from K-8th grade a drop-in program focused on STEAM education. With NLA, I worked within their pghGLO (Pittsburgh growing leadership opportunities) afterschool program, which emphasizes the importance of engaging African-American and lower-income students on an in-depth level. With pghGLO, I tutored and mentored high school students in two schools, University Prep and Barack Obama Academy of International Studies. With IMPACTS at EECM, I also tutored and mentored folks of all ages for various lengths of time throughout the year. For the most part, my clients and I worked toward the goal of achieving their GED or simply improving an area in their academic journey.

When I began this fellowship, I had huge dreams and expectations and expected them to be checked off my list by the end of the year. I’ve realized that this work is long-term and sometimes one must be patient to see their work pay off.

At some points throughout the year, I felt that both Repair as a whole and me as an individual were not accepted into our communities. This lack of acceptance, however, is understandable. For example, during my partnership with NLA, I worked at a high school that struggled to find and maintain a sense of community and pride. Many of the students came from broken family units and difficult personal histories. On my first day at the school, a beloved senior was shot and killed outside his home. Throughout my few months at the school, fights were common and the relationships between students as well as teachers seemed to be strained constantly. As a white person with loads of privilege, I was not prepared to work in this environment.

As my ignorance regarding these types of school environments slowly faded, I hesitantly accepted the fact that this was the reality for these students. As a white person entering a mostly African American school community seeking to form somewhat temporary relationships with students, I can now understand why I was not energetically greeted with open arms. At the time, I felt hurt and hopeless that I would not be let in to this community that was just as worthy of my time and energy as my own. Looking back, I have grown to understand that it’s okay that I was not wholeheartedly accepted into this community. I have learned that developing trust between anyone can take a very long time and that as long as I work with the mental, emotional, academic, and personal growth of the students as my top priority, then that is good enough for me.

Alternatively, some of the most rewarding moments from this past year involved the communities and networks that I cultivated. Being recognized on the street by folks from our partner organizations or recognizing community members on a daily basis are subtle occurrences, but seem to mean the most to me. At the end of our service year with Assemble, a parent of three sibling regulars at the program gifted me with a fancy bottle of olive oil from a local shop thanking me for working with her children. Similarly, I’ve developed such a close relationship with one of my clients at EECM that I will be tutoring her next year even though EECM will not be one of my partners.