The first assignment in Dr. Andrea Simpson's political science course "Nowhere to Go: Women, Dependency, and Homelessness" required students to get personal: They had to write and produce one-minute digital stories on how they felt about homelessness.
With 14 students representing a range of majors and coming into the course with an equally broad range of experiences with homelessness, “Everyone had their own perceptions,” says Terance Trammell, ’10, a sociology major.
Two and a half months later, after spending hours volunteering at a homeless shelter, reading scholarship on homelessness, and debating its causes in class, Trammell says he and his classmates are able to identify how those perceptions diverge from reality. Looking back at the initial stories, people “see how their vision of homelessness has changed.”
Trammell believes homelessness persists because Americans resist the idea that homelessness has institutionalized roots. “People think that if you’re in America … and you’re not successful, it’s your fault,” he says. But his own experiences volunteering with children in community centers and shelters around the city during the past four years have taught him differently.
“Not everyone starts on the same playing field," he says. "It takes a strong-willed person with a lot of dedication to get to where they need to be when they start off with such a disadvantage. It’s really hard to get out [of poverty].”
During class, Simpson’s students grapple with social and political theories about homeless women, including mothers. These discussions provide context for the realities they see at Home Again, which provides emergency shelter to homeless families and individuals in Richmond.
Trammel invoked these theories when helping an 8-year-old boy with an art project at the shelter. “I asked the boy what he wanted to draw, and he wanted to draw a house,” Trammell says, then describes the drawing: A house with a big door, big windows, and a big backyard. “This boy knows he doesn’t have a home, but also knows it’s the norm to have one,” he says.
Of this boy’s mother and other women at the shelter, Trammel says, “I can see the cycle that these women go through. I can imagine through my class readings that their mothers probably went through the same thing.”
Simpson has taught Women and Politics with an optional service-learning component in the past, but with the institutionalized support of community-based learning at Richmond, she is able to take the academic and practical components of her course to new levels. For nearly a year, she worked with the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement to develop the course.
Simpson requires that students keep field note journals to bring into focus their time at Home Again, and as a way of learning methods of ethnographic research. Through field notes, students “learn how to observe without judging,” Simpson says. “They write down what they see, not their interpretations of what they see.”
Simpson completes each assignment alongside her students. “It’s great to have a professor that’s in the same boat,” Trammell says. He credits her involvement with creating an open classroom environment, where “we all feel comfortable with each other, so we can all have our own opinions.”
But community-based learning isn’t just about hands-on opportunities for students. A key component is collaborating with the organization to create something to benefit it. The final project for the class is another digital story — one that shows the development of each student's understanding of homelessness. Home Again will select stories to use for fundraising and development purposes.
Simpson thinks community-based learning will continue to grow at Richmond and across the country. “Global changes are going to compel the American academy to … use knowledge to change things,” she says. She adds that while she doesn’t claim to know what is best, she believes that, “Giving students tools to pursue a difference on the ground,” is an educator’s responsibility.
Looking toward graduate school, Trammell says he appreciates the role of academic inquiry in social change. And on a personal level, he finds value in community-based learning for himself and his classmates.
“I admire those attempting to understand life through a different race or a lower class,” he says. “It’s easy to just turn the other way. I think it’s rewarding to understand what’s going on.”