Team Chicago started off the day with an awesome exercise with Adventure Stage Chicago.  Adventure Stage Chicago is an organization that runs theater workshops for local schools.  They also work with pre-teens from the city to discuss their life stories through the arts.  A professional playwright uses their stories as an inspiration for a full production that is put on for the entire community.  Representatives from Adventure Stage Chicago ran a theater workshop for us that focused on thinking creatively and bringing stories to life.  We became closer as a team and agreed that these types of activities are especially important for inner-city middle-school students because they face a lot of peer pressure at that age and are still trying to define themselves.  It’s important for them to have the chance to develop themselves and express their stories through art.

In the afternoon, we visited Rowe Elementary School, a relatively young charter school for kindergarten through sixth graders.  Their three core values are pride, success, and honor.  We were impressed by the strictness and academic rigor of the school.  The school emphasizes college graduation from a young age.  Each classroom is named after a university and each class is referred to by their future college graduation year (ex. Class of 2030).  The students took us on a tour of the school and we were allowed to observe classes.  Many of the students have ambitious goals, such as going to Harvard and then studying law.  Later, we discussed the pros and cons of exposing very young children to college.  Some of us thought that it was important to talk about college at a young age for these children because most of them will be the first in their families to attend college, and they will not be able to rely on their parents to guide them through the process.  They might also face more difficult challenges in the future, such as pressure to join a gang, and it could be important to have them develop goals at a young age so that they aren’t deterred by negative influences.  However, many of us also thought the school was over-exposing the students to college, and that starting at such a young age could put too much pressure on them.

Our last activity was going back to Northwestern Settlement and speaking with the director of group services there, Mr. Alatorre.  He gave us an overview of the settlement house’s history.  The settlement house has a history of serving immigrants.  Initially, it served mostly eastern European immigrants.  Over time, the area has become predominantly Hispanic, and Mr. Alatorre told us that currently there are many immigrants from Ecuador.  We were all impressed by the dedication of the staff to the house and by the wide range of programs offered to neighbors of the community.  After touring the house, we went to an Indian restaurant and had an awesome reflection while waiting for our food.

Today was very important for me.  I’m beginning to appreciate more fully the value of education in service.  Two years ago, I think I would have been frustrated that we weren’t doing more hands-on service, but now, I find myself really loving days like today.  Because of the presentations we saw today and the discussions we’ve had with our team leader, I feel so much more prepared for our direct service tomorrow.  I understand it’s important to talk to the younger kids about our college experiences, because most of them won’t have family members who went to college.  I also understand that some of the high school students we’ll be working with might not welcome us warmly.  While I hope that this won’t be too much of a problem, I’m beginning to understand why it might.  Our group talked a lot about how it might feel to have volunteers come into your school and try to help you and why we might meet some resistance.  Before today, I wouldn’t have even thought this would be a problem.  It’s clear that the past two days of education will have important effects on our next days of service, but I think it will have even more important effects on us after this trip has ended.

The past year, I have thought a lot about how much of an impact ASB trips have on the communities we serve and on the students who participate.  The most common criticism of programs like ASB is that they are only a week long, and that’s not enough time to have any major, lasting impact.  In a way, this is true.  While I hope that our interactions with the students this week will inspire them to pursue higher education and to set their goals high, and while I believe the smallest of actions can have consequences beyond our knowledge or even imagination, we are not going to solve any social injustice in a week.  It takes lots of time and commitment to an organization to impact it in a major way, as we heard from the people at the settlement house.  Because of this, some people might question whether our time and financial resources would be better spent on long-term projects, or if we should just donate the money we spend on trips instead.  As president of ASB, I probably shouldn’t be admitting this, but I have had my doubts.  However, I have spent a lot of time thinking and reflecting the past few months, and the past few days in particular, and here is what I have to say:

Our mission as an organization is not to change the world in a week.  Our mission is to create positive change and foster passion for civic engagement among Lafayette’s student body.  To use Landis terminology, we want to move students along the active citizenship continuum, so that one day we may all be active citizens.  Being an active citizen isn’t just about doing hands-on service on a regular basis – it’s about taking what you’ve learned and applying it to your daily life.  It’s about questioning why our service is necessary, what the root causes of social issues are, and how we can best address those causes.  It’s also about trying to find answers to those questions through critical thinking.  We’re not going to solve the problems that ail Chicago’s education system this week.  But when I start to have thoughts like this, I like to remind myself of the poem “The Long View” by Oscar Romero.  My favorite lines are as follows:

“We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.”

This perfectly sums up what we are doing this week.  Some people in our group have studied education before and want to become teachers.  Others did not know what a charter school was before we discussed it during pre-trip meetings. No matter what our background is, though, we are all being challenged by our experiences this week.  I see it in the questions the team asks during activities, in our amazing and insightful two-hour reflections, and in the discussions people strike up when we’re on the train or sitting in our hostel room.  Seeds are being planted in us, just as we hope to plant seeds in the students we’ll work with this week.  And when we return to campus, we will work to water those seeds within us and to plant seeds in our peers.  It could be something as simple as reading an article about Easton’s school budgets in the newspaper each week, or researching a candidate’s views on education before voting.  It could be speaking up when we hear others talking about why the arts aren’t important in our schools, or volunteering to tutor at the local Boys and Girls Club.  It’s these small changes to our daily life styles that can cause lasting change.  Not everyone on our team is going to study or pursue a career in education, but that does not mean we cannot contribute to education reform.  Another thing that I absolutely love about ASB is that you can take the skills you learn here and apply them to any other area of your life.  For example, some people on our team want to go into medicine.  Hopefully, if they do, they will think about the communities they’ll work in, about how income inequality and poor education can contribute to health. This can better inform them as to how to work with patients to improve health.  The kind of critical thinking skills and social awareness we develop on these trips can help us to become active citizens in other fields.  This is why I am so passionate about ASB and our social change models and why I believe that experiences like this are so important.


  1. Amber says:

    Mary, I am so impressed and moved by this post. I, too, have struggled with many of the issues you pose and also conclude that our mission as a club has the potential to create lasting change. ASBers from Lafayette will land in powerful careers in the future. If we can start them on a path to active citizenship through ASB, we can contribute to a better future for all. Thank for your service, your passion, your commitment to this movement.

  2. Bradford Bormann says:

    Ellen, I think your words ring very true — in my experience, within the context of volunteer work, it is always the volunteer who benefits more, rather than the recipient of the service-work. There is so much perspective and experience to be gained through opportunities like ASB, and I’m thrilled to hear that you have made time wherein you aren’t busied by work, but rather seeking and open to the lessons that can be presented to you by the circumstances of your experience… if you know intimately the community you are working for, the work will only be more enriched! I hope the experience continues to soar for you and your team.

  3. Alana Siegel says:

    I am so thrilled to read about your experience in Chicago, it seems incredible. I’ve come to realize that being a part of ASB was a privilege that I am so glad to have shared with other Lafayette students. I’ve come to know and see that no matter what path or direction ASB-ers choose, the important lessons and experiences are everlasting and relevant. Thank you for writing such an amazing post, enabling me to feel nostalgic about great ASB experiences!
    ASB 4 LIFE!

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