More Student Reflections on Over-the-Rhine

More Student Reflections on Over-the-Rhine

by Thomas A. Dutton

Over-the-Rhine is undergoing rapid change—often referred to as the “urban renaissance”—where it seems new upscale condos, businesses, bars, and eating establishments are opening every day. It is the new urban playground, when on warm nights music pumping at full volume disgorges into the streets and keeps residents awake well into the wee hours of the morning. Though changing, Over-the-Rhine is still mostly Black, and poor. The median income in the neighborhood just a few years ago was roughly $10,000/year. Amid these changes, long-term residents lament feeling like strangers in their own neighborhood.

Immersed in this cauldron, students see the disparity right off the bat. And as the Residency Program unfolds, the questions that rise to the surface, become clear: Have we confused the proximity of class and ethnic populations with true community? In a neighborhood where ethnic and class differences now occupy the same geographic space, to what extent do the different groupings actually engage one another? In the spirit of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Beloved Community, do differing groups actually learn from one another and become their neighbor’s keeper nurtured by a radical empathy?

A related question that Bonnie and I put to the students is: What is your theory of social change? It’s a trick question actually, because inherent in the question is the prejudice that only something large and grandiose (national policy or a new social movement or a new political party) can stand up to the overwhelming, systemic issues of poverty, gentrification, segregation, unemployment, inequality, violence, racism, etc. Grandiose actions will be necessary, but what the students come to find through their experiences is that it may well be the “small things” that equally matter too—the new relationships formed and the new perspectives gained that come out of conversations across difference, however defined. Notice what’s happening here: As students interact with people across difference, the abstract issues of poverty, etc., become less so—they become real and personal—and once that happens students have difficulty casting community people as abstractions. Here is how the personal and political become linked, related, seen as mutually constitutive. The intention here is to open up new horizons that allow future practitioners to merge the personal and political in new ways that can lead to more socially just directions.

In the reflections that follow, Residency students grapple with these challenging questions. They have become keenly aware that engagement across boundaries of ethnicity, culture, class, and gender remains quite rare. But as you’ll read, many students took this challenge straight up, and have come through with a social skill set through which others can learn. The world needs people like the students of this cohort, who have learned to navigate socio-economic and racial borders. And who are now able to take their experiences and see how they are absolutely vital to understand and usher forth new kinds of professional and social practices the world desperately needs.

Stella Norris (FSW)

As the semester comes to an end and I look back on my time here in Over-the-Rhine I have a mix of emotions. This semester was a roller-coaster and full of experiences that have forever changed me. There will be parts of the semester that I will miss immensely and parts that I am happy to leave behind.

I think back to the first day, I was like a deer in the headlights and completely unsure of myself to become successful and integrated into the community of Over-the-Rhine. I walked into buddy’s Place for the first time and looked out to Vine Street. I was at a loss for words. I couldn’t start to imagine what was in store for me over the next sixteen weeks. The first week was hard. I recalled an interaction with myself and my journal, questioning everything. I couldn’t decide if this Program was right for me. I felt like an outsider and I was worried I would spend sixteen weeks in a place where I felt out of place and uncomfortable. Would I ever feel at ease? Then uneasy feelings became frustration. I told family and friends about my experiences and my truths but all I felt was judgment and lack of empathy. When would these horrible feelings end? The first month was hard to say the least. I had more days than not going to bed frustrated and unsure of the days ahead. I would tell myself it’s just a semester and it will be over before I can even realize it started. Little did I know that is exactly what happened.

Now I have days that brings tears to my eyes because of the joy and beauty of this world. I struggle to understand how the semester went by so quickly. Over-the-Rhine has etched a spot in my heart. It’s not the location or the new buildings but the people in Over-the-Rhine and the experiences that have taken my heart. I will never forget. My journal entries went from questioning my decision to be in Over-the-Rhine to enjoying my days and experiences in it. I would be lying if I said all my days are good now; I still have bad days from time to time but they are few and I know how to handle them. The injustice still breaks my heart and it forever will. But I know that my experiences in Over-the-Rhine have helped solidify my abilities in social work. I am a better social worker because of those good and bad days.

My favorite, most impactful memory had to have been when I saw my first client sign his lease. This moment brought more happy emotions to me than Christmas morning. As Iwatched as my client was explained the rules and regulations of his apartment the gratitude and excitement that was radiating around him were incredible. I was honored to be a part of his journey to housing. He had never had a place of his own and now he just signed his first lease. The pride he felt was something unexplainable and so intense it created butterflies in my stomach. I walked away from that experience over-joyed. That will be a day I will never forget.

I am forever thankful for my experiences and the people I have met being a part of the Residency Program. I will look back on the good and bad days and know that I have been forever impacted. I also know that I will be a better social worker because of my internship through the Program. My hope is that one day I will be able to come back to the community and continue fighting the injustices.

Lauren Gould (FSW)

My time here in Over-the-Rhine has been by far the most meaningful and influential experience I have ever been a part of. Through this experience I was not only able to gain knowledge about the neighborhood through classes, or gain skills through social work practice in my field placement, I was able to gain a sense of community and a better understanding of different individuals and their backgrounds and experiences. I was able to walk in another’s shoes, not just in my placement with my clients at the Drop Inn Center, but in community member’s shoes such as Mr. Earl or Miss Dorothy, in my professor’s shoes like Bonnie, Tom, and Alice, in my classmate’s shoes like the architects and the teachers as well as the many others I encountered throughout this semester. Allowing and willing myself to walk in others’ shoes and alongside their journeys with a spirit of humility and a genuine desire to meet and talk with others helped me expand my view of the world and gave me a new framework of thinking about the world.

This lived experience and new way of thinking reminded me of two different quotes from two of our journaling sessions. The first is a quote from our first journaling session, by Richard Rohr: “we don’t think ourselves into a new way of living; we live ourselves into new way of thinking.” The second quote is from our journaling session with Steve Elliott, who I am a very big fan of and respect very much. The quote reads, “I learned that my instincts are not always right, my first impressions are not always true, and my way of doing things and of living is not the only way to live.” These quotes are both very powerful to me because there were several times throughout the semester that I seriously questioned my thoughts, beliefs, and values and how I viewed the world. Discovering the enrichment that comes from seeing other ways of life allowed me to let go of some of my toxic ways of thinking and let these new ways of thinking wash over me like a wave, each and every time.

A journal entry I did on November 11, 2015 is a great example of the ways in which my thoughts, values, beliefs, and views of the world were challenged. The prompt asked how we have been stretched throughout this experience. My response was: “I have been stretched in every sense of the word. I have been stretched physically, mentally, and emotionally. I have been stretched physically by taking on too much. A thirty-hour work week, three classes, volunteer work, and my work with NAMI have taken a toll on my body. I have been stretched mentally because I am constantly in a mental conflict about how to think and feel and act. Why do I feel like I’m being forced to change the way I think? If I don’t think a certain way, am I still a good social worker? Am I doing everything I can to help and advocate for my clients and their needs? Am I doing everything I can to be the best version of myself? I have been stretched emotionally through the Program, but especially through my placement at the Drop Inn Center. Working with clients who have nothing, who are stereotyped and discriminated against, who have so many challenges and obstacles to face, and knowing I can only do so much, which is usually not enough, has been very hard on me.”

This entry was difficult for me to write, but was also very helpful because it made me take a step back and look at what was really challenging me and allowed me to rethink my stressors. My life could be so much worse or I could have real problems and real challenges I have to face like so many of the people I’ve encountered during this experience. Knowing this helped me open up my mind, body, and spirit and helped me rid myself of those negative thoughts and feelings I felt rolling in like a freight train with no breaks.

My time in Over-the-Rhine has been by far the best experience of my life thus far. I grew so much as an individual, as a community member, as a student, as a social worker, as a family member, and as a leader. I learned to appreciate the little things like a funny conversation with a homeless man or a meaningful group discussion with my classmates. I learned to not take anything for granted because I saw first-hand with my clients that nothing is guaranteed and you can lose so much so quickly, regardless of your race, class, ethnicity, etc. Finally, I learned to be more understanding and empathetic of others and their situations because you truly never know what they have been through or are going through. I am so thankful for this experience and for my time here because it not only opened my eyes to a new world, it made me a better person, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Jill Elfers (ATH)

I start my reflection with a draft of my final presentation speech:

“I am a senior anthropology student and during my time in Over-the-Rhine I have interned at Crossroads Health Center. Crossroads is a federally qualified health center, based here in the community, with the mission to provide quality healthcare despite an individual’s ability to pay. As an intern at the clinic I was part of a newly formed care coordination team committed to closing the gap between traditional clinical care and patient self-management of chronic conditions.

I was involved in coordinating care for the patients diagnosed with hypertension or high blood pressure. Through mainly outreach calling I collaborated with patients, families, community partners, and insurance companies to ensure that these individuals had improved care experience, better health outcomes, and decreased health expenditures.

Over a two-month period, I called over 130 patients and spoke to almost 60. I helped these individuals schedule follow-up appointments, request refills for their medication, and obtain blood pressure cuffs. Additionally, our team connected many of our patients to community resources to aid their attempts to eat healthy and exercising regularly.

While making these calls I realized the numerous barriers this patient population faces. In the beginning, this made my task seem incredibly daunting and I questioned what difference could one girl from the suburbs make in their lives. Over the course of a semester I have realized that I was wrong to think that it takes grandiose interventions to make a difference. Every person I spoke to I affected and in turn they affected me. That has been my take away from this program: everything matters; every detail from history, every active policy, every seemingly mundane interaction. I have many plans for my future but I know I will always carry these experiences with me as a reminder of the power of the individual in their community.”

During my time in Over-the-Rhine I have learned to never underestimate the ability of one person to effect change. From the story of Peaslee and the mothers that saved a piece of their community to the struggles shared by individuals who have experienced homelessness or addiction. I have been raised in a society that has taught me that “bigger is better.” I have been trained to think interventions must have endless amounts of money and resources to succeed. This experience has taught me that the opposite is true. All that is necessary for real change is the investment of the individual. This is my largest “takeaway” from my time in the community. I had one interaction, in particular, that facilitated this conclusion. While calling patients at Crossroads, I interacted with a woman who was struggling with mental health issues. After talking to her on the phone, listening to her struggles, and scheduling an appointment for her with the counselor I realized the effect one person can have. She asked if she could meet me and I agreed to introduce myself to her at her next office visit. During that encounter I realized that it was not only me affecting others, but that they were affecting me. This interaction allowed me to foster relationships and empathy with community members.

I believe that living in Over-the-Rhine was integral to my growth in this program. Without the residency aspect of this Program it would be impossible to have the same encounters with community members and therefore experiences in the community. As I prepare to go back to Miami, I struggle with how I will interact with others who do not share my experiences. However, this is not a new struggle for me; between family and friends I have a history of trying to persuade others to see things from a different perspective. After careful consideration I have decided that patience is what I want those unfamiliar with Over-the-Rhine to have. It takes patience to learn the burdens of history, to listen to the stories of the oppressed, and to care for the underserved. It will take patience to counteract the oppressive systems built over centuries and to fix the mistakes of our forefathers.

What I will miss the most about my time in this community is the way it challenged me. Never before have I been forced to think about how to aid a population of people who are chronically homeless. Never before have I needed to contemplate where mental health issues stop and substance abuse starts. Never before have I struggled to talk to someone whose every thought and feeling differs from my own. I have relished these challenges and I will miss them immensely. I am incredibly grateful for these experiences and will carry these lessons with me throughout my life.