Becoming an Active Citizen: Alternative Breaks with the Homeless Coalition

Becoming an Active Citizen: Alternative Breaks with the Homeless Coalition

by Dr. Mark Mussman
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University of Vermont Students here for Cincinnati Urban Experience

This month, the Homeless Coalition, along with many of our partners and member organizations, has been leading college students in service learning throughout Over-the-Rhine. Our approach is different than many service-learning programs because we focus a lot on education – whether it be learning about our community’s history from Bonnie Neumeier at Peaslee Neighborhood Center, from M. Shannon at Venice on Vine, or Chris Schuermann and Bubs at St. Francis Seraph, among others – students get a holistic understanding of the struggle of the Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement. We also hear from many other speakers from the Voice of the Homeless Speakers Bureau and other community members who give up their time to help put social injustices, like gentrification, in perspective.

Southern New Hampshire with Speaker Melissa Mosby
Southern New Hampshire with Speaker Melissa Mosby

We also do direct service with several organizations, like the St. Francis – St. Joseph Catholic Worker House, Rothenberg Preparatory Academy, Future Leaders of Over-the-Rhine, Our Daily Bread, St. Francis Seraph Soup Kitchen, and other life-giving organizations in our community. I would like to dedicate this space to the voices and images of the college students from the University of Vermont and Southern New Hampshire University who have (or are currently) participating in the Cincinnati Urban Experience with us this month.

Upon arrival, we ask them “What do you want to learn or experience this week?” Here are some of Southern New Hampshire University’s expectations:

“I would like to learn about Cincinnati’s initiatives to end homelessness and also learn ways that I can make an impact on the community. I would like to know what I can do as an individual to help people’s experiencing homelessness. How can we end the cycle of poverty? I want to feel what people go through on a daily basis. I want to learn about the racial divide in the city, and more about the economic issues of the city. I would like to learn about the impact of race on poverty. What are the stereotypes that people have about homelessness? I want to learn more about the history of Over-the-Rhine and what led to the terrible living conditions in the city today. I want to become an Active Citizen.”

Dr. Mark giving a Social Justice Walking Tour Photo: SNHU
Dr. Mark giving a Social Justice Walking Tour Photo: SNHU

As you can see, students are eager to learn about the causes and effects of poverty, racism, and homelessness. Becoming an active citizen is about making community a priority in one’s values and life choices. It means going beyond curiosity about social injustice, educating oneself, and asking why? and putting community as the most important priority in your life. Ask yourself if this is something that you do, or are you more of an arm-chair social justice leader. Do you do things in the community even when it’s inconvenient or difficult?

At the end of their experience with us, which typically lasts a week, I ask students to give us some feedback on their time in Over-the-Rhine. I asked them to write down injustices that they witnessed during the week. Here are some of the responses from the University of Vermont:

“When distributing Streetvibes people rarely made eye contact or outright ignored us and Lee. It was very dehumanizing. The police made us move down the street and made inappropriate comments about people experiencing homelessness. When we asked people to take our picture with Lee, there were people who refused to listen to him. In addition, it was disheartening to see housing being destroyed by 3CDC in favor of parking or condos for the upper class. I noticed that there is a large problem with giving tenants rights, people losing their homes to developers who are gentrifying the neighborhood (as seen on Vine Street). There are not enough resources for people experiencing homelessness. For example, a man wandered into the church where we were staying because the cold shelter closed and he had nowhere to go to get out of the rain.”

As you can see, the Vermont students are very aware of what happens around them during their time here. They wrote about what impacted them the most: “The active process of gentrification and seeing it unfold in real time was both shocking and motivating. I am now more aware of the impact this has on communities and what role I can play in helping the process be more community-friendly. I feel better equipped to be an active community member. What impacted me the most was learning about all the people who are forced out of their homes with nowhere to go. It is so unfair to do that, and I could not imagine what it would feel like to have that happen to me. I will take away the increased knowledge on gentrification and causes of homelessness.”

“I was impacted most by seeing social justice firsthand by experiencing and interacting with people experiencing homelessness directly. I loved getting the educational aspect and understanding how to be an advocate for underprivileged populations. I will take away knowledge from this trip to become more active in my community. I was impacted by what people are doing and how they are advocating for people. I was able to see how I can do that in my own life. I will take lessons learned on what it means to be an advocate, how to be compassionate, and so many other lessons.”

So many people come together to make the Cincinnati Urban Experience the most unique service-learning trip on any college’s roster. Students gave shout outs to Lee McCoy, Samuel Jackson, Melissa Mosby, Key Beck, students at Rothenberg, and of course, myself. I’ll leave you with just a little love that I got from the Vermont students:

“I was most impacted by Dr. Mark’s work and passion for the community. His teaching about the community and about homelessness as a whole definitely laid groundwork for me to follow his example in my own community.”

Although I may be exhausted after this month, every ounce of energy I have put into the Cincinnati Urban Experience will be amplified in communities around the country, and for that I am truly lucky. I am humbled by the work that our community does to end hunger and eradicate homelessness.  Thank you everyone!

University of Vermont with Lee McCoy Photo: University of Vermont
University of Vermont with Lee McCoy Photo: University of Vermont

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