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Connecting Communities

Connecting CommunitiesUndergraduates Rachel Brown and Adam Kornetsky are taking active citizenship and building community to a new level with the recently implemented Tufts Youth Literacy Initiative.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.27.08] On Oct. 23, Tufts students and residents of a nearby housing development bonded over snacks, arts and crafts and homework at the successful kickoff event for the Tufts Youth Literacy Initiative.

This program, spearheaded by Tufts student Rachel Brown (A'10) in conjunction with Hillel's Read by the River Initiative, fraternity Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT), and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, is targeted at children age 5 to 11 in the Clarendon Hills Public Housing Development in Somerville.

"The program itself is about building literacy, engaging kids in something constructive and homework help," says Brown. "And [there is] also an aspect of teaching community responsibility."

More than a year in the making, the initiative is rooted in Brown's work as a Tisch Scholar with the Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS), a group that works to eliminate poverty. In the fall of 2007, Brown worked with CAAS on their eviction prevention program, which she further developed by working with the Tenants' Association of Clarendon Hills in the spring.

The tenants, according to Brown, "identified two major concern areas: security-they didn't have any locks on the exterior doors of the building-and they also wanted after-school programs for kids."

An Active Citizenship Summer Grant allowed Brown to continue her work with Clarendon Hills through the summer. By facilitating tenant meetings, collecting more than 100 signatures for a petition and composing a formal letter to the Somerville Housing Authority in conjunction with the Tenants' Association, the housing authority has promised to go through a procedure of polling residents and putting locks in where they are wanted. But Brown believed her involvement could stretch further.

"I just really wanted to think of a way to build relationships between Tufts and Clarendon," says Brown, acknowledging that while Tufts has been engaged with the community in outreach projects before, they have been short-lived. "Tufts students go into the community a lot; they do lots of different things. But a block away from us, there's this place that could really benefit from Tufts students."

She also believes that Tufts could gain from such a partnership. "It's just such a diverse and amazing community, and I just felt so happy going there. I really loved meeting the tenants. I learned so much from their views, their perspectives and their understandings of what was wrong in the housing projects, in the world, in everything."

Setting up a volunteer program to allow Tufts students to work with children in the community seemed to be the perfect solution.

Brown, herself a former volunteer at Hillel's Read by the River Initiative, an educational fair promoting children's literacy, pitched the idea of an after-school program to Hillel. Hillel quickly jumped on board, and soon connected the fraternity Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) to the initiative as well.

"The Read by the River initiative is something that Hillel has wanted to take in a new direction for a while now. One day out of the year to celebrate literacy is great, but it's really important to do it all year," says Adam Kornetsky(A'10), a ZBT brother also active in Hillel. "I heard about [Rachel's] idea and said ZBT has a lot of manpower and would love to get involved in something like this. So we teamed up and decided that, between Tisch College, Hillel and ZBT, we would be able to put together a great program."

Building the Youth Literacy Initiative came with logistical challenges and differences of opinion, but ultimately the groups were able to create a curriculum for the program with the help of an area school teacher and the close involvement of the community.

"I really do think it's important that this is a process that involves the community, however long it takes to get started, because the real goal of it is to be sustainable," Brown says.

To all involved, maintaining this program from year to year is a major goal.

"The really big hope-like the huge, huge hope-is that this becomes a sustainable initiative with Tufts students involved with the kids, but that it also serves as a catalyst for continued Tufts involvement in Clarendon," says Brown.

To both of these student leaders, the influence of Tufts has been invaluable.

"The themes that Tufts puts forward [about] being an active citizen really add additional meaning to doing things like this," says Kornetsky. "Not only are we hearing about these themes through lectures and things like that, but we're going out and doing it ourselves. And that's when it's the most meaningful."

Profile by Molly Frizzell (A'09).

 

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