Posts filed under ‘Rachel Levenson’
by Rachel Levenson
Things move quickly at the International Institute. A new family from Bhutan arrived two days ago. Two weeks ago, it was an Eritrean family. With each new person comes individual doctor’s appointments, school registrations, job applications, as well as new thoughts, dreams for the future and burdens from the past. In the Children’s Education Room where I spend most of my mornings, these complexities come alive. They kick other children whose English is better than theirs, sit quietly in chairs trying to read a book, jump up and down singing words they don’t understand while dancing in a circle, and, most of all, challenge me as a leader and an educator. Leading the children’s room has been a learning process. Each child is different every day. Sometimes it feels like each child is different every minute. When I ran after one child who had grabbed too many cookies, I came back into the room to find that one of the better behaved of the children had kicked the classroom’s globe, creating a big dent in it. The symbolism of this action struck me and now every time I enter the room, the dented globe reminds me of the complexities of the experiences of the youths who enter this building, who go to ESL classes, and who, in the fall, will have BRYTE tutors.
During a check-in meeting with my mentor at the Institute, I expressed how overwhelmed I felt by my desire to help every individual I meet at the Institute as best I can every day and at the same time committ time and energy to redesigning BRYTE. He said to me, “Ah, I see you have been caught in the vortex.” Maybe he is right. But when I go to the library to work on BRYTE’s strategic plan and go to meetings with community partners, I think that sometimes that isn’t too bad of a thing. One of the bases of my Starr fellowship was my desire to make sure that BRYTE would survive when some of its original leaders disappeared– when the people who had the passion to found the organization passed the torch to new tutors.
But now I’m thinking that it may be the power of personal relationships that will keep BRYTE alive. At a recent meeting at the Swearer Center on ways to interact with community partners, the power of personality was mentioned as a critical tool for successful partnerships between organizations. The facilitator of the meeting, a Brown student who has worked with several organizations in Providence, said that she cherished her personal relations with different people and felt that such relations are generally underacknowledged in the field of public service. At first I resisted her comment, saying that I thought it was problematic that an organization needs strong leaders to work well- that at the end of the day, personality trumping strategic plan is not a good thing. But I think I am changing my mind a bit about this as I see how public service organizations work, both at the Instiute and through my work with the Family Help Desk. This has been a big breakthrough in how I approach what I am doing this summer, and how I understand the concept of “success” in BRYTE. Now, I plan on instituting a BRYTE Internship: a semester long student coordinator internship at the International Institute to further ties between BRYTE and our community partner. I know that my presence at the Institute has done much to reform its ideas of BRYTE and BRYTE’s work,and I want to make sure there are always students in the building from Brown whom the staff and students at the Institute can turn to with trust. So, while I am still working hard on BRYTE’s strategic plan, I am no longer seeing the time I spend developing professional and personal relationships with BRYTE’s staff as a detractor from my work on BRYTE but rather as an essential component of it.
The last time I updated this blog, I was sitting in a hotel lobby in Hanoi, Vietnam. Now I am back in Providence, but sometimes I feel like I still am in a foreign country. And to many people living in Providence, that is what America feels like, too. After two full weeks of working at the International Institute, I have sat in rooms with people from Bhutan, Iraq, Vietnam (I tried to use my Vietnamese, but to great failure), Burundi, Liberia (the list goes on…) and am just beginning to learn what it means to reconcile those identities with life in America. Almost all Americans were immigrants at some point, but for many, identities have been simmering in the great big melting pot for years and the complexities and subtleties of the initial melding of foreignor and American are no longer fresh memories, if memories at all. Because this is true for me, I have a lot to learn even about the questions that need to be asked about such an experience. But as I spend more time at the Institute and see the diversity of individuals and experiences who walk into the Refugee Resettlement department, I am slowly learning the important questions I should be asking, not only about the persons who I meet, but also about BRYTE and how Brown students can meaningfully fit into the lives of students in the BRYTE program.
Some of these questions that have been nagging me the most are:
What does it mean for a tutor to enter the homes and lives of refugees in Providence? And to leave it?
Where does one draw the lines between tutor, mentor, and case worker?
Can one measure the impact of a friend? Of a tutor? A mentor? And should those be made at all?
These questions are just a taste of those that fill my head as I spend my mornings helping English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers with their adult education classes. I am working in these classes both as a way to learn more about teaching methods and also to build a relationship with the adults in the classes, many of whom are parents of BRYTE tutees. I am hoping that in this upcoming week the questions that I listed above and many more, will be ones that not only I, but also the parents of students in the program will be answering as I begin to conduct a mini-study on user opinions of the BRYTE program.
I look forward to hearing what they have to say, and expect that I will learn a lot from the parents with whom I speak, particularly about this foreign land we inhabit, and ways the lives of students on College Hill can meaningfully continue to be intertwined with Providence’s refugee population.
by: Rachel Levenson
During the winter vacation of my freshman year, long before I decided that I would become a Comparative Literature concentrator, I read Dave Eggers’ semi-biographical novel What is the What. There were many aspects of this novel that struck a deep chord within me: the harshness of the lives of refugees in America, the exotic and terrifying accounts of long walks and near death encounters with lions, tragic love stories and romantic reunions. But one fact awakened in me a passion for action and education that has since directed my Brown career: Valentino, the story’s protagonist, could not tell his own story. It was not until Dave Eggers, an already famous novelist, took the time to sit down with Valentino that he was both linguistically and financially able to set his story to the written word. If Dave Eggers had not decided to write a book about Sudanese refugees, if he had not decided to interview Valentino, it is most likely that Valentino still would have been working graveyard shifts and facing repeated rejections on his college applications. And inside Valentino, an important story would have sat untold until it, like those Lost Boys who did not make it through their treks in the Sudanese desert, sat down against a tree, closed its eyes, and died. But Valentino’s story was told, and from the telling of this story appeared ripples of action that are still unfolding, particularly in my own life. What I have learned from reading about Valentino is that stories do have consequences. Literature not only reflects or responds to the world, but it also can reform it.
I began to tutor with Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment (BRYTE) the following semester. I was matched with Solomon, a then fifteen year old who had arrived in the U.S. only a month before I started working with him. Tutoring Solomon has persistently been one of the most educational aspects of my Brown experience. Like Valentino, Solomon has a story. But unlike Valentino, who could not write his story on his own, Solomon has the chance to learn how to express himself on paper and to author the change in his own life. It is this knowledge that motivates me to visit Solomon week after week.
In addition to working as a BRYTE tutor, I began training to become a BRYTE coordinator in the spring of 2008, a position that I took over this past September. As a tutor for BRYTE, I am committed to an individual: Solomon. As a coordinator, I have learned about my potential for effecting change on a community wide scale. While I began work with BRYTE interested in learning the story of an individual, from my coordinator work I have also become interested in the story of a community and the ways that I can best address the needs of thecommunity I am working in as a leader of the BRYTE. Through the window of refugee resettlement, I have been able to look at broader community- and society-wide issues and reach a better understanding of how different pieces of the public and private sectors fit together. Along with this learning, however, is also the recognition that one missing puzzle piece will inhibit the entire puzzle from reaching completion. Whether that missing piece is literacy or mental health care or having the money to buy a new pair of shoes, I have reached a higher understanding of the interrelationships that can both include and exclude residents of this country.
In What is the What, the organization who helped Valentino disintegrated, despite the intentions and leadership skills of the woman behind it. It is my goal over the course of the next few months to make sure that this does not happen to BRYTE. As a leader of BRYTE, I have learned to anticipate, identify and respond to various problems that emerge when one is trying to help a large collection of people. Through frequent communication between myself, the International Institute and the Swearer Center, however, I also witnessed the tremendous potential results of collaborations between different partners all interested in the same overall goal. As I work to reevaluate and redesign BRYTE, I am going to work with these community partners. My work will accumulate in a web site and strategic plan and ultimately a more sustainable and effective student-run organization.
Currently, I am half a world away from Providence, Rhode Island. I am studying abroad in Vietnam as part of the International Honors Program’s Health and Community semester. I arrived in Vietnam yesterday, after having spent a month and a half in Tanzania and two weeks in Washington D.C.. While I am physically far from Providence, I am very much in the social entrepreneurship mindset. Through this comparative program I have seen how people address inequality, specifically health inequality in many different domains. In the next post I will discuss what I have learned from this program.