The Miami University Over-the-Rhine Residency Program just completed its third iteration this past fall semester 2008. And like the last two years, the Program was successful.
The Residency Program constitutes a particular model for community engagement that distinguishes itself from programs based on charity, vanguardism, and noblesse oblige. Students in the Program work collaboratively with neighborhood organizations and residents—through courses, research, and active service—in order to assist that which is already in movement oriented to developing the community without displacement.
This year twelve students lived and worked in Over-the- Rhine. Eight were architecture/interior design majors and the others came from international studies, teacher education, and family studies and social work.
We had the same administrative team as last year except for two new additions. Chris DeLuca, an alum of the Fall 2006 cohort and who remains in the neighborhood with a job in childcare at the Peaslee Neighborhood Center, was the Resident Coordinator. In this role he helped students acclimate to the community by holding weekly common dinners, inviting guests for the students to meet, and encouraging the students to volunteer and attend community meetings. Professor Marcia England joined the faculty and taught GEO 458 Cities of Difference as part of this year’s core of three courses offered at the Center for Community Engagement. Again Sister Alice Gerdeman taught her course in Service-Learning and I taught my ARC 427 The American City Since 1940.
Beyond this core, the architecture majors did two projects. The first was the design for a new second-story, steel balcony for an apartment owned by Over-the-Rhine Community Housing. Seemingly a simple project, it was everything but.
Because of unstable soil conditions, the students created a way to hang the balcony off the side of the building. The students also presented their work to the Historic Architecture Conservation Board and were awarded approval. Installation of the balcony will take place this summer. The second project was the investigation of new, infill housing on eight different sites scattered throughout the neighborhood. Here the students were asked to integrate affordable and market-rate housing.
John Blake, the Community Projects Coordinator of the Center, ran the Design/Build Studio and organized these experiences.
Other students engaged in service-learning in various neighborhood organizations that serve the under-served, totaling 24-27 hours per week. They worked at the Peaslee Neighborhood Center, the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, the Worker’s Center, and Over-the-Rhine Community Housing. The teacher education major worked full-time as a student teacher at Rothenberg Preparatory Academy. A special thanks goes out to Tammy Schwartz of the School of Education, Health, and Society, who joined the administrative team this year and kept close tabs on the student-teacher working at Rothenberg.
Bonnie Neumeier, a long-term resident and part of the administrative team of the whole program, again held the invaluable weekly sessions for journal writing and was involved in all aspects of the program. She supervised the service- learning experiences, attended classes, and organized the students’ engagements in community-based campaigns.
Finally, we had one more addition to the administrative team, Louise Mettler, who was partly assigned to the Center for Community Engagement working as an Ohio Campus Compact/AmericorpVISTA volunteer for the university. A graduate of the Fall 2007 cohort, Louise was helpful in recruiting Miami students for the Fall 2009 Program and in building partnerships between the Center, the university, and the community.
Now that we’ve done the Residency Program three years running, some interesting patterns in the students’ experiences and transformation have emerged.
The first is the students’ frustration with the pace of social change. Some of this is explained by the gap that always exists between analysis and action. The students are learning and changing so quickly. The issues that become real for them and the deep analyses they develop occur at such a blistering rate that they immediately become frustrated with the glacial speed that most social change happens.
But there is another explanation. And this one stems from the students’ growing and deepening understanding of the complexity of the issues they live and read about. The Residency Program offers students (and faculty) an opportunity to move beyond, as educational theorist Henry Giroux would say, a language of critique to enact a language of possibility.
And the richness of this kind of experience, moving from critique to action, is all the more amplified when students and faculty come to see the issues in Over-the-Rhine as something more than being problems of the community. Over-the-Rhine is a global phenomenon. It is the result of global/local intersections. So while classroom readings help students to see the interrelationships among, say, gentrification, affordable housing development, services for the homeless, expanding police forces and prisons, racial segregation, and the financialization of the economy, frustration can set in precisely because their increased understanding of these intersecting realities shows just how difficult it will be to change them.
Second, it never ceases to amaze me to learn from my students the depths to which they develop a compassionate and an empathic understanding with the people of Over-the-Rhine. I find this extraordinary, and it speaks to the nurturing relationships the students develop with community members. These relationships typically disarm the students and help them take steps to deconstruct their privilege, precisely because they come to see their privilege as a kind of learning disability.1 It may sound naively simplistic but the students are shocked to find that the homeless on the streets, the children in the classroom, the day workers waiting in line, and the neighbors next door are full, sentient beings far removed from the stereotypes and media representations that previously served their middle-class biases. As students struggle to make sense of their new relationships and conditions, they come to realize that doing so is as much a process of disassembling their middle class consciousness so that they can construct a new one that allows them to experience life in new ways. They come to see humanity amidst conditions that are too often inhuman.
Effecting such nurturing relationships that produce benefits for the students and the community is a primary goal of the Center for Community Engagement and the Residency Program. In the Residency Program, the ethic of serving the community is non-negotiable. The challenge put to the students is, can you see the people and community beyond media stereotypes? And when the students let their guard down, they themselves change. They are changed by the relationships they make with community residents through the engagement and service they provide. Coming to see the ‘other’ through their sustained service and growing empathy is the life-transforming process. And at the end of this process many students just don’t want to leave Over-the-Rhine after the end of the Program.
Many have trepidation about their return to Oxford.
To end, because the Residency Program spans a full semester it offers a substantial way to build relationships and trust, and thereby resists the notion that communities are mere laboratories for learning on the part of students and teachers. Because students don’t just study a neighborhood but actually become part of it, the Program resists philanthropy, charity, and noblesse oblige as models for community work in universities—what Paulo Freire called “false generosity”2—and assists the neighborhood in its struggle to address oppression and enact its right to self-determination.
1 For a discussion of “privilege as a learning disability,” see Janis L. Dutton, Learning to Unlearn: Organizational Learning, Popular Education, and Intersecting Stories of Community, Leadership, and Democracy (master’s thesis), Antioch University (May 2007).
The mission of the Residency Program is not quite captured by characterizations that we are helping to build community, or helping to advance public culture, or even contributing to the public good. The mission certainly encompasses these ends, but the goal is sharper in assisting students and faculty to experience relationships characterized by oppressed and oppressor populations. Coming to understand the dynamics of such relationships opens a window for students and faculty to see how class and racial struggles take specific form in Over-the-Rhine and Cincinnati. And through this investigation of the systemic structures that produce oppressor/oppressed relationships, the intent is to act upon those structures and relationships, with the community.
As I did last year, I asked the students to reflect upon their experiences in Over-the-Rhine in light of the course readings. I wanted to know how the reading material came to explain their experiences, if it did at all. Again the responses were powerful.
When asked by friends about my time here, I referred to this semester as the single most life-changing experience of my life. I came to Over-the-Rhine mainly to learn more about how architecture can affect people, particularly in an urban environment, but I may have discovered more about how people can and should influence architecture and development. It is hard to remember what I was like before Over-the-Rhine; the personal growth I have experienced in such a short time has forever changed who I am and how I think.
Probably for the first time, I was very interested in all of my classes. Throughout the semester I felt as though I couldn’t get my hands on enough literature about the topics we were discussing in class; I wanted to know all I could about cities, Over-the-Rhine, and the issues that struggling neighborhoods across America face. How did Over-the-Rhine become what it is today? What are the struggles they face and why are they issues? Who are the people, what are their stories? I became completely absorbed with the information that was being presented to me within our classes.
This new knowledge was so meaningful because I was living it; I would read about the situation of Over-the-Rhine and of neighborhoods like it, walk outside, and there it was. Because I was living what I was learning, the urge to change what was wrong was so strong. I met so many amazing people here on the streets, people that I probably would have just walked past a few months earlier. But living here, even for a short period of time, connected us through the issues we both faced in this neighborhood. Mike Rogers touched me on one of our first days here when he said, “At the end of the day, we are all just human beings.” Recognizing that we were all in the same boat allowed me to put aside judgments I had made about others and get to know people in the neighborhood. I will never forget many of these people who have touched my heart in ways that they don’t even realize.
2 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: The Searbury Press, 1970).
Carrying the lessons I have learned into the field of architecture, I have learned a great lesson that existing residents of an area need to determine what is built there. Residents know more than outsiders ever will about what is needed and desired, and I fear that architects are outsiders that barge in and plop a building down. It is valuable for architects to have their own visions, but a more important skill is to make the visions of the residents become reality. Before this experience, I thought I might want to specialize in non-profit, low-income work. Being in Over-the-Rhine has not only solidified my desire for that area of work, it has proven to me that although it is more challenging that I ever imagined, it is important and needed.
The growth I experienced throughout this semester both as a student and simply as a person have changed my life, and I am looking forward to sharing my story with others. I met a man in my last days in Over-the-Rhine who thanked me greatly for our time here. To him and many others in the community, just seeing us walk to class every morning was enough, just being here gave them hope. This man told me he doesn’t understand why anyone would want to help out the ‘hood, but he thanked me for our work and our positive presence. Coming here was anything but comfortable, and leaving this place I have been accepted into has been hard. Our presence has reached more people in this neighborhood that I can imagine, and if our work inspired just one person, then our time here was worth everything.
I cannot say there has ever been a more impacting experience than the one spent in Over-the-Rhine. It was more than just a new way of thinking or viewing issues from a new perspective. I know that this experience will affect decisions that I will be making in the future. I am currently struggling with the idea of staying in architecture. I know that I could potentially design for people with low-incomes, but that is far from actually addressing major issues like the current relationship between opposing races and classes. I want to be more directly involved with much-needed change. That said, I am also incredibly confused about this change that needs to happen. In Marcia’s GEO 458 class, we were asked to pick an issue in Over-the- Rhine that intrigued us, and to think of potential ways of solving the problem. That paper was one of the hardest papers that I have ever written because no one problem can be solved without addressing other problems.
Before leaving for Thanksgiving Break, Sister Alice talked with us about how we might interact with our families and told us not to start arguing with them about issues. Within twenty minutes of being with my dad I was already arguing. When I got to my Uncle’s house, where the rest of my extended family was, I decided I wasn’t going to talk about issues because I didn’t want to spend the whole time arguing and fighting. This was not going to be the case. Everyone was asking me what I was doing in Cincinnati and what I was learning. The result was quite humorous looking back on it. I got into an incredibly heated argument with one of my uncles where we ended up yelling at each other. After coming back to Over-the-Rhine from Thanksgiving Break, I knew that I could not go back to living the way I did without questioning myself or feeling guilty about something. This experience has definitely taught me to not take anything for granted.
When I decided that I wanted to do this program I did not realize that I would be getting as much education as I did. I wasn’t even thinking about social issues then; I signed up solely because the architectural aspect of the program was intriguing. This experience has been incredibly humbling, and this is why I am struggling with the idea of staying in the architectural field. I like the design aspect of architecture though, and I am thinking that I would like to carry over that passion into designing for change.
I do not want to leave Over-the-Rhine. I do not feel like I have accomplished enough. When working with Mike Rogers on Choices Café he tried to assure me that I have done something more than just create a sign for him or for the café. He believes that Doug and I helped give hope to people, those who need it the most, by showing them that they are worthy of other people’s time and attention. He said that it showed people that people still care and want to assist the community. As this may be, this community did more for me than I did for them. I learned so much from the community and I did not do anything nearly at the same scale that it did for me.
Though I learned from some courses more than others, all of the courses were needed. At first I did not think that I was learning anything much from Sister Alice’s service-learning class, but I later realized that I would not have kept my sanity while living down here if it were not for that class. In ARC 427 and GEO 458, many issues were brought up that didn’t seem to have solutions, which became incredibly frustrating. In Sister Alice’s service learning class, I learned patience and a deeper understanding of people. I hope future students will learn and experience new things and feel the same way about the program and community as I have.
This experience has altered my life forever. I have learned much more than I have on the Oxford campus where the things I studied are only seen through the pages of a book. In Over- the-Rhine, I would study an issue then leave the classroom and enter the world where these issues were present and lived.
Before I came to Over-the-Rhine I had learned about different social issues in my Miami classes, but I had never lived in a city environment or in an impoverished neighborhood. I was apprehensive about getting to know the neighborhood and the people, but after living in Over-the-Rhine for a few weeks I was opening up more and more to the community. Now, in the “violent” Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, I felt completely comfortable walking the streets and talking to other people in the neighborhood, maybe more so than I feel walking and conversing in my home town or in Oxford.
My most life-changing memory of Over-the-Rhine was participating in the Rothenberg Parent Resource Center. The parents of Over-the-Rhine welcomed me with open arms and shared their lives with me. I have never known people who are as loving, open, and knowledgeable as the parents in the Resource Center. I feel like I have known the parents all of my life. They feel like family. The parents are very honest, caring, and giving. I will remember them for the rest of my life. What impresses me the most about the parents is how generous and loving they are. These women mainly live off of welfare and have many more stresses in their life than any other family I have known, but they are the most generous and loving people I have ever known as well.
What I hope to accomplish after this semester in Over- the-Rhine is to break down the stereotypes and misconceptions of the impoverished. Much of what I have heard growing up is that the poor are needy, lazy, incompetent, and greedy. This is not true! The people I have met in Over-the-Rhine are not given the same opportunities that I was given. There are many forces working against these people, and yet these are the most generous, knowledgeable, and loving people I have ever met. A life lesson I have learned is not to judge people based on preconceptions, but be open to befriending people who are different from you and hear their story before you make any accusations.
I entered the Over the Rhine Residency Program thinking that I had a firm grasp on the realities of urban ghetto living. I was all too wrong to make such an assumption. Through living here for a short time, I’ve come to realize that the current state of affairs within urban environments and city centers is nowhere near that the media portrays. Media conglomerates, which are owned and influenced by the elite, paint communities like Over-the-Rhine as being a hotbed for drugs, violence, homelessness, and prostitution. I was of a similar mind, demonizing the disenfranchised, people of color, and homeless through classist lenses. When driving home from downtown I would see people drinking and loitering on the streets. I would think to myself, “How can people live like this? Why don’t they just get jobs?”
When first seeing all the new swank stores emerging along Vine Street I thought they were a nice improvement considering the conditions of Over the Rhine a few years ago. I thought the monetary influx would be good for the neighborhood and bring safety to the crime-ridden area. I didn’t consider the costs the community would have to pay when capitalistic ventures develop in the midst of impoverished neighborhoods. I never thought to consider how these businesses could affect community life and the general mindset of the people living there.
After some enlightening readings and experiences here, I now see how gentrification is an abuse of white privilege used to preserve the affluence of some by enslaving the poor brought about through the white affluent leaving in the first place. I was blind to structured racism and how it is variously implemented. Coming from a family primarily dealing with development and real estate, I was shocked at how easily community life can shift when these forces arrive. The cost of living drastically rises along with the rate of joblessness. People who once could afford to live here are finding themselves on the streets, blindsided by the reformations of monetary influx. Folks in this situation are forced to make ends meet by whatever means necessary. If selling a bag of pot to some rich white kids from Indian Hill puts food on the table, I have to reconsider my views of our national standing. Not that I’m condoning the distribution of drugs, but it is alarming when a family can no longer support itself by playing within the rules our society has set up.
I’m not sure what all the answers are to the questions I have, but I do know that an immediate change is necessary. I did encounter some life-changing moments of clarity while living here. I saw glimmers of hope in the eyes of people that were once vacant pools of despair. When Obama was elected people were overjoyed. They sprang into life…tears flowed…laughter and light-heartedness filled the streets. This was so surreal to me because no matter what hardships I have encountered in my life I am still a white male living in a white- driven society. I had never experienced being ‘the other’…until my time here.
I felt very disconnected to people here during my first two months. People would stare at me…ask why I’m in the community and look at me with questioning, critical eyes. After engaging with community members and actually having lengthy conversations, tensions on both parts subsided and acceptance was my award…and a great award it is. People yell across the street just to acknowledge your presence and ask about your day…something that just doesn’t happen in my experience. The sense of community has me spellbound. I find it hard to contemplate living in Oxford next semester. Walking through a coldhearted campus, I see every problem in Over-the-Rhine as the direct effect from the mindsets present within Miami’s student body. I don’t know how I’ll react to some of the things that will be said or done once I leave here, but I do know that condoning silence is not an option.
I can envision myself back here in the not so distant future working for and with the community. I can’t leave here knowing what I’ve learned and not give something more back. The program has shaped me into a more compassionate and sensitive person as well as a designer.
Thank you Over-the-Rhine.
To prepare myself for this self-reflection, I read over the letter I wrote when I applied for the Residency Program. The desires I expressed in the letter still hold true today. “I want to see how other people live, since I know the entire world is not filled with the wealthy, even though it is all I know. Hopefully by seeing and hearing about real struggle and hardship, I will appreciate what I have and not resent my privileges.” My need to see how the other half lives is one of the central reasons for my time here. Coming to Over the Rhine has been the first step in this exploration.
In the letter, I said I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. Although I did not find exactly what I envisioned, I did find a community. I wanted to see into the lives of people in this neighborhood, and I was granted that glimpse. One semester is not enough, and I feel like I am just now getting to the point where I am ready to step out even more. I hate to admit this, but I have felt a bit shy towards the people here this semester. However, I have had some memorable conversations; ones I will not easily forget. Those conversations were anything from a passing comment from a young man to a discussion of someone’s life story. I am honored to have this knowledge, and it has certainly made me appreciate what I have been given in life; a close, supportive family, an education, plus more. This semester, I realized what it is to be cold through seeing the people outside, and living in a house that is the same standard as the community. Every time I was cold, I just think about the people who have nowhere to go, and I got a little warmer.
The readings we did for class helped mentally organize this semester. Reading about the history of the ghetto helped me experience it, and reading about the working situation enlightened me. The most helpful part of the class was the weekly response papers and the responses I received in return. Not only did these allow me to process life, they helped me understand what I was witnessing and experiencing. Each week, I looked forward to writing these papers, since I was able to categorize my thoughts, and spend some time exploring my opinions. I learned a lot through this process. By living in Over- the-Rhine, I hoped to challenge my beliefs; I have lived in the same town my whole life and was around people who thought the same as I did. Coming to college and Over-the-Rhine has really been the first time I have had to rethink my ideals. I did not expect for all these changes to take place this semester, but I hoped they would start, and they certainly have. I would not say my mindset is completely different, but I have had new views presented that will influence how I make decisions in the future.
The funny thing about this semester is that I don’t feel like I’ve changed; I know I have, but I am still the same person I was. I did not expect to come away as someone else, but I suppose I am slightly surprised that I am still me. Maybe this is a hard concept to put into words. I think it is similar to growing up; adults say how much you have changed since they last saw you, but you feel no different, expect possibly taller. The feeling I have now is a bit the same. I have just grown as a person.
The project I did for the Worker’s Center had the most impact on me out of everything we did for the class. Honestly, I do not get very passionate over issues, but this one I did.
Talking to the people at the Center was eye opening, and I felt inspired to help their cause.
I am so thankful I was able to come down here. I spoke to one of my neighbors today, and we said how fast it had all gone. Even he was sorry to see me leave, and he barely knows me! This experience has been pivotal in my life; I’m not sure how, quite yet, but I know it is. It has set certain wheels in motion. I do not know how I will use the information I have learned this semester, but I know it will be used, if for nothing more than a better understanding of this world.
The Residency Program and especially the design-build component interested me since I began at Miami in 2006. When the opportunity presented itself to me a year ago, I knew immediately where I would spend this semester: here, in Over- the-Rhine. Now the adventure I had looked so forward to is nearly over. In the months prior to this semester, I thought of nothing else. This program in Over-the-Rhine, I thought, would solidify my feelings about architecture and community service and determine my career choice after graduation. Instead, this semester has brought me to question nearly everything in my life.
I knew this program involved community service and architecture in a historic neighborhood, but I learned there was much more after the semester began. I have never been so challenged in so many different ways until this semester. I struggled the most with both educating myself on all of the different issues and then forming a concise opinion; many of the issues I was completely unaware of before, so learning about each side of the argument and then trying to determine my position was tough. I do feel, however, that I am a better- educated student and citizen after this semester. I’m still learning, but I’ve been taught awareness that will allow me to continue pushing forward.
Gentrification, and the other neighborhood issues brought on by gentrification, was one of the problems I was completely naïve to before this semester. In fact, the city’s role in Over-the-Rhine caught me off guard completely. To me, it was a positive improvement to the neighborhood—a way to bring a new mix of people to the neighborhood along with new money and job opportunities. It took me a while to form my own opinion on this touchy subject—and I might still not be there fully—but gentrification means so much more to me now than simply city rejuvenation. Being able to walk the streets of Over-the-Rhine and talk with people here has impacted the way I view these corporate developments in the city, and even the attitude the city takes on in these cases.
Being from Cincinnati, I was fully aware of the statistics and stereotypes of this neighborhood. Luckily, I had supportive parents who were encouraging of this opportunity—but a number of friends and neighbors back home, in the city’s suburbs, were less than supportive. But, for me, I’m happy to have had this opportunity in Cincinnati. Aside from being educated on the issues here, I’ve learned to call a new neighborhood home, and a new type of people my neighbors and friends. I’ve gotten to know the city—where I’ve lived my entire life—and learned most importantly that people aren’t always who you think they are.
In the end, I wish I had more time here. I haven’t had nearly enough time to do a lot of things I’ve wanted to, but the important thing I’ll take away from this opportunity is that this is only a jumping off point. I’ve learned and experienced just enough here to go out, test more limits, educate myself even more, and be able to make my own influence—even in the smallest way. I feel empowered after this semester, even if I may still be timid to take immediate action. I have, however, changed—and I look forward to what will come next.
When I signed up for the Residency Program, I was aware that it would be a challenge and hoped that I would not be harmed in the process. These sorts of situations that set you off kilter provide valuable experiences to shape your life for the better and I was certain that Over-the-Rhine could provide this to me. Just before moving in, my fears set in. Would I get shot? What if all of my belongings are stolen? How can I live in this situation for four whole months? Although these questions seem overly dramatic at the present moment, I was very fearful for how I would mentally, emotionally and physically cope with the vast difference in living situations and community.
Coming from a predominantly upper middle-class household, I previously dismissed people as drug-dealers, homeless guys and drunks without fully comprehending how they came to live in their situation. These labels dehumanized their existence and I am ashamed to say that I did not previously give respect to persons in these situations. I have learned both through our classes and personal experiences that each and every person on the street and in this neighborhood is a human being and should be treated with same respect that I require from others for myself.
The readings opened my eyes to the realities that exist on these streets. It is not uncommon within my group of peers to look down upon the inner city for their misfortunes and even deem items or situations as “ghetto” if they are not shiny and fabulous. My newly gained knowledge of why economic degradation exists within these areas takes the generality out of the term “ghetto.” What we read in class, we were able to observe on a daily basis as proof to the words the authors spoke. Without this living experience, I do not believe I would have the same outlook about poverty that I do today because there would be no physical example to the theories.
The moment when I realized that I was about to have a life changing experience occurred in the first week of our residency. I was lying in bed and heard two gunshots fairly close to the house. The fear that penetrated my heart could not be explained. I own a gun and frequently shoot at the range with my father; the sound of gunshots is familiar, but at that moment, I knew that the weapon was being used towards the harm of another person. This experience began my cultural assimilation into the community and although I am not fully integrated, I have become quite fond of the neighborhood and its inhabitants.
There has been a complete transformation in my thought processes concerning inner cities and Over-the-Rhine in particular. I no longer feel naïve or terrified about the cultural differences within this community but am becoming increasingly aware of the ignorance of my peers. It is a relief to know that once I leave, there will always be someone from our residency group to confide frustrations and feelings with, when no one else in my life understands. I have had such an amazing experience this past semester and although it was not what was expected, it has permanently changed my outlook on life.
Gunshots were my early impressions of living here in Over-the- Rhine. It wasn’t long after we moved in and suddenly, at 2:30 in the morning I was grabbed out of sleep by a bang that sounded like it had come from Republic Street. I lay there for a few minutes, heart racing despite the fact that I was in no imminent danger, and found it hard to get back to sleep. That was my first real experience with the “hard” side of Over-the-Rhine. I saw a fair amount of this side. When I first moved here I was still in my sunny bubble of “Happy OTR,” rose-colored glasses and all. Those gunshots woke me up literally and figuratively as well. I found myself seeing more and more negative things here and wanting to “escape.” Suddenly the apartment didn’t feel so safe as it once had and everything seemed a bit alien. I was glad to get out for a bit and visit my sister for the weekend. At that time I was really looking forward to moving on and leaving this part of my life behind. I figured it had been a nice little adventure, but it really wasn’t the life for me; I couldn’t imagine how Chris DeLuca and Annaliese Newmeyer have stayed here.
But as the semester progressed, I saw other sides of the neighborhood and of the people. Their energy and spirit are incredible and have both daunted and inspired me. Seeing the movement that Bonnie and buddy built has given me a lot of hope about the power of single people inspiring others and really making changes. Groups here don’t take “no” for an answer and are very effective at organizing things—working with OTREPS has especially helped me to see that. Also, through my work at the Workers Center I’ve been watching and helping a small movement grow on behalf of immigrants in this area. From a small informal gathering with no name back in September we have now grown to a steady membership of about twenty with a stable meeting place and time. We’ve gotten things done, we even have a name (IAM—Immigrant Advocacy Movement). I’ve been really proud to see this group grow and to be a small part of it.
The readings were a good backdrop for what went on while we were here and gave me a great foundation, but usually they just increased my frustration. They presented huge problems that we have understood for so long, yet the situation has not changed much. For example, during our time here we were able to read about problems (such as jobless ghettos) and walk outside and see the things we just read about, yet none of the suggested solutions have been implemented with much effect. Although I appreciated getting a stronger background in some of these issues and understanding the complexities of problems like globalization or joblessness a bit better, I wish I had been able to take more action while I was here—CIRV rallies and IJPC events were helpful, but I couldn’t feel a big change as a result of them. I had a hard time making connections between my small actions and a change in the problems I was hoping in some small way to chip away at. So I could read about violence and march with a group to protest it, but the issue of violence itself that the readings had put in my brain was still out there, looming, unchanged.
Seeing things, talking to people in the community and in our group, and reflecting on the “why” of it all has been my main source of new knowledge. Although I feel like I came in with some experience in this and other neighborhoods and was not completely clueless about life outside the suburbs, living here has deepened my awareness of some things and has taught me others. For example, I knew before coming here that you could work and be poor, but I didn’t know that you could work and be homeless (although I probably should have). I didn’t know what homeless people were actually like as people; most of my experiences with the homeless had come on one side of a soup pot as we handed out meals or when I have read reports about the homeless and poverty. Getting to know Larry and Owen has really helped humanize this population and has made some of the things we read about in the assignments real to me. There have been many other small revelations like these that have made me take a step back and reframe the way that I would normally see things. I have also come to experience the difference between knowing things in your mind and really knowing things in reality. For example, I knew that people could work really hard and not make a lot of money, but it was only after working at the Workers Center and hearing real stories and talking to real people that I truly began to know these things.
On the whole I can say I’ve gone through many changes in my thinking about this place and my experiences here as time has gone by. Looking back at it all now, I know I will miss the community, our small group of students, IJPC, the Workers Center and everything else I have been living and experiencing down here. It has been a good semester for me and I’ve appreciated it—so much so that I don’t really want to leave at all now. It’s been a long journey from those shots in the night.
Many neighborhoods across the nation have never been able to overcome the kinds of poverty and disinvestment that Over-the- Rhine has experienced. There are neighborhoods that, once the cycle of re-investment begins, have not been able to hold a meaningful place for low-income residents. When applying for the Residency Program I expected debates upon debates about which is right and which is wrong. Should gentrification be allowed to swallow pieces of property, and spit people out? Can there somehow be a mixed-income community that pleases all members, including big government/corporations and their profits, public works projects, residential rehabilitation, suburbs, blue-collar jobs, solidarity, day labor sites, addictions, and families? My understanding of these topics has significantly changed from the events I had experienced living in Cincinnati and from lessons discussed in classes.
I have learned that poverty and Jim Crow are sisters under the skin. To make a decent, happy America, both must go. The sooner the better. Though Americans prefer to dwell on parables of white virtue and black advancement—culminating in the flowering of goodwill all around—events periodically force us to widen our gaze and to focus on terrain we would rather not see. I was so unaware of how much I did not know. I was so naïve to think I knew anything about the issues I now want to somehow address.
I realize that too many who live in affluent America ignore those who exist in poor America; in doing so, the affluent Americans will eventually have to face the question: How responsible am I for the well-being of my fellows? To ignore evil is to be an accomplice to it.
It is difficult coming to terms with what we as humans have done to ourselves, and there is no quick fix. To solve the race problem you’re going to have to deal with the poverty problem. Judgments made by outsiders of the community are often cruel. There are so many different perspectives. In most situations, there is no right or wrong answer, just a very large gap from where we exist to where the ideal would be for society. The gap between economic classes is too vast. If we could find constructive ways for people to work together, learn together, talk together, be together, that’s the best shot we’ve got to avoid some of the horrible problems we see in the rest of the world, to avoid some of the difficult problems we’ve had in our history, and to make progress on the problems that we still have here today.
This program has made a profound difference in how I view the world. I have found much more respect for some individuals and have lost some for others. I have lived twenty- one years now, not knowing enough. I’ve vacationed in Europe, studied in Africa but can honestly say I was not affected the way I have been here. I’m not stating I have figured out the secret to happiness by working with and studying the Over-the- Rhine community, but I can state I have been affected in a positive way and that makes me the happiest I have been in a very long time. This experience has provided much more for me than I could have ever expected. I didn’t think I would change. I have the utmost respect for the community members, program, professors and any/all individuals that have donated time and effort into making a positive change in me and the community.
Living here as an actual community member was very different than living here as a student who was being guided along a specific path. The chance to simply sit around talking to people was invaluable. And the opportunity to process everything on my own and come to conclusions without interference was an experience I would not have traded for anything.
Understanding the history and the reasons why reality is what it is allowed me to make more sense of everything, so in that aspect the course and the readings were really informative and helped answer the “why?” that I found myself continuously asking. One issue that bothers me is the fact we are given the opportunity to understand how a place like Over-the-Rhine has come to be, but I am guessing most of the people living here have not had the same opportunity to learn how their communities and their situations were created. I would prefer that everyone learn this, but if only one group is going to learn the history of the urban ghetto, it should be the people who have to live in it. A program that reached out to the community more might be more beneficial than just educating a handful of Miami kids. I have lost track of the number of times community people have asked me about how they could take classes in their neighborhood. It’s a rather awkward question to be asked when you do not have a satisfactory answer to give in return.
For the most part I came in with similar feelings as I’m leaving with, I just understand better why I have the opinions I have. If anything has changed, I think I’m better at looking at things through multiple perspectives. I’ve been doing this for a long time, but this experience provided quite a lot of practice. It’s extremely important to see things from as many angles as possible, but at the same time it makes me into one of the most indecisive people I’ve ever met.
That being said, I have also realized that I am absolutely not an academic. I can’t for the life of me write something that makes a definitive point because I can’t make up my mind long enough for that to happen. Education is important for making informed decisions, and I am glad I have it, but I do much better interacting in the real world. I have appreciated the opportunity to do that here as a way of learning. All in all, I enjoyed the program and found most of my thoughts reaffirmed through the classes and daily life.
What has this semester in Over-the-Rhine been for me? I don’t think that I will fully understand or grasp the full impact that this four-month experience has had until I’m truly gone. Even as the semester is over, and I sit here on my first day home writing this, I still feel emotionally and spiritually connected to the place, and ultimately the people. Looking back on the whole term, I can see how I have changed, and truly how my direction has shifted. I’ve always felt a pull and longing to serve my community and truly benefit others with whatever skills needed that I may possess. I’ve longed to pass on my blessings onto others and leave a legacy wherever I go, not just of architecture, but of service and heart.
Going into this semester, I really tried to prepare myself by being completely open-minded, for I knew it was the only way I could be ready for what was ahead. Going to Ghana this past summer really impacted me in this way, because I knew that anywhere you go, it’s not necessarily about how you can help others, but what you can offer each other in that exchange.
But in Over-the-Rhine, the true human connection really became personal as we all interacted and grew together with our community. In a place like Ghana, your personal niche has less to do with what you have or don’t have and depends more heavily on the quality of your personality and character. This opened my eyes on how dependent our society is on materialistic and temporal possessions—we become separated by the haves, and have-nots. As middle class college students, this was all too apparent the first couple weeks of our time in Over-the-Rhine. However, as we studied the issues of globalization, capitalism, and redevelopment happening around us, and more importantly as we grew increasingly familiar with community members, this line of segregation began to dissolve, allowing the development of true bonds and friendships.
Coming into this semester, I think everyone had generalizations about the other. People criticized these white, rich Miami students coming into the neighborhood for an ‘excursion’ while many of us students, including myself, really didn’t know how to approach or even what to think about the homeless, the addicted, and the traffickers. But as soon as the street interactions moved to a more personal level, the stereotypes plastered on our foreheads became irrelevant.
Wealth, privilege, poverty, homeless, addicted, trafficker, and desensitizer all became mere conditions rather than identifiers. And it was clear that our condition is almost never under our direct control, or even more importantly, connected to our person. That man sleeping on our front stoop could have been anyone at any point in life, no matter their inheritance, education, philosophy, or color. In fact, it became quite sobering to think that tomorrow it might be us. As the semester flashed by our very eyes, the more people we met, the more friends we made, and the more laughter and even tears, the more these conditions were smothered by the uniqueness of each encounter and the heart of every individual. When it came down to it, everyone, including us, had a story to tell, an experience to share, and a heartfelt bond to forge.
Overall, the classes offered in this program were sometimes a quantifier, sometimes a fog, and really a lens through which we saw the events occurring around us. Many of the readings complemented and many challenged the experiences that we encountered. But most importantly, the in- depth discussions that occurred in class were the means by which we encountered the politics, challenges, and issues experienced by the area and like communities. However, what was most valuable was how these discussions existed not only within class, but on the streets, and in our kitchen. The classroom did not create the valuable experience in Over-the- Rhine, rather, it provided the material to make the experience of Over-the-Rhine valuable.
Overall, my experience of this class, and those around it, has been variable frustration but true seriousness and value. As a student, I feel that I have learned and gathered more this semester than any other, and in all truth, I look forward to realizing the impact of these short four months as time goes on and my own experiences mature. It is my hope and desire that this semester never becomes a mere memory fading into the distance, but rather a key marker in my development not only as an architect and designer, but as a citizen of humanity.
I want to live differently. I don’t want to live forgetting about the needs of the people around me. For one semester, I was immersed in a place where, no matter where I turned, I saw raw truth. People sleeping on the stoops of abandoned houses, drunks passed out on the edge of the park bench, women wandering aimlessly on the streets, children dancing on the concrete slab of a back yard, babies crying, music blaring, drunk men cussing, shouting and fighting, wheels squealing, and police sirens twirling. I’d look out my window and see the poverty at my doorstep. I’d drive down the street to see the same man sitting on the same bench, the same women on the same corner, huddled up together to keep warm. I’d see the same men carrying the same brown paper bag, walking out the door of “Bangs,” and the same men standing on the same corner by the carry out on Vine Street. Occasionally, these things would change, and when they did, I’d wonder…what happened? Are they ok? Are they busy somewhere else? Are they alive? What must their life be like? What would it feel like if I was in that position?
Everyday I tried to answer these questions. I’d wrap my mind around something that I have not even come close to experiencing. I can pretend that I can empathize, but really I’ve never experienced what some people have experienced. Despite this, never did I give up on trying to feel the way they felt. Each day I was amazed by the things that I was learning, that I was seeing, witnessing, feeling, and discovering. I was blown away by how rich my life could be if I continued to live with, become a part of, and understand the lives of the people who are often forgotten and looked down upon.
During my semester in Over-the-Rhine, I got a taste of what my future may look like. I was able to spend countless hours and devotion to teaching, learning, and living in community with some of the most amazing children I have even met. Rothenberg Preparatory Academy, the only public school remaining in Over-the-Rhine and a place where others would never consider going, was a place I found purpose, love, and complete joy. Each day I would wake up excited about the opportunity to impact young lives in a way that was so different than what they had ever experienced. Many of the children grew up in broken homes… broken financially, emotionally, and physically. Fathers are out of the picture in many instances, mothers are working countless hours to barely put food on the table, and grandmothers are working to help their children’s children receive things they never had. Children are coming home to an empty house with the responsibility of caring for their younger siblings, making dinner, and carrying the burden of childcare. Kids are left unsupervised, without an adult to assure they are safe and taken care of. Some go home to parents, uncles or older siblings who struggle with substance abuse, or participate in the drug market. They look for someone to look up to, and follow after all they know. When they come to school each morning it may be their first chance to be surrounded by people who truly love them and will provide a safe and nurturing environment. They may receive their first meal since lunch the day before. They may relax for the first time, and doze off in class because they finally feel safe enough to sleep peacefully. They may give countless hugs and look for reassurance because they crave to be wanted and acknowledged.
These children were brilliant when given the opportunity to demonstrate what they knew or could discover. These children were creative, always imagining and pretending. These children were eager. Eager to learn how to read, write, and succeed at something. I learned so much from these children and realized so much about what it takes to be a teacher who has rapport and a relationship with her students. Many people in these student’s lives have failed them, not followed through with their word, and haven’t been consistent in their lives. They have trouble trusting and opening up because they are afraid of what might happen.
I look back on the relationships I built with my students and the connection we were able to establish, and I ask myself “What do I want to remember about these children? What have they taught me?” They taught me to listen. To listen carefully about what their actions and words are truly saying; to listen when they were frustrated and not push them too far. They taught me to be patient. I had to be patient with their learning, patient with their behavior, and patient with their ability to trust me and open up. I learned to understand carefully where they were coming from, I met them where they were and then allowed them to lead as I gave little nudges and reinforcements along the way. They taught me to laugh and find joy in the smallest things. When I looked in their eyes with a big smile on my face they lit up. A high five or recognition for their hard work meant everything to them. They taught me to find joy in learning again. They begged for extra free reading time, and always wanted me to read the same stories again. They loved learning and thought some of the books I’d bring in were the best things in the world. They were excited if I was excited and the joy of learning was so much fun. They taught me to appreciate everything I’ve been given. To not take for granted the opportunities I’ve had and the blessings in my life. They taught me to dream, to believe in myself because that’s what I’d teach them. They taught me to love. To truly love by choice instead of relying on feelings, even in the toughest situations. They taught me to forgive and forget, and how not to hold grudges or let myself get upset over the small things. They taught me more than I ever expected, more than I could ever put into words, but most importantly, they taught me how to be me. How to be confident in who I am, and what I have to share and offer my future students. To be proud of the way in which I want to teach and the way I live my life.
Because of my experience in Over-the-Rhine, I have found peace in who I am and the purpose I have in this world. Because of my experience in Over the Rhine, I want to live my life learning with those in need and from people who have different experiences than I do. I don’t want to have a comfortable life. I want to be challenged to live surrounded by the raw truth that I witnessed each day last semester. I don’t want to forget what is going on in the world around me. And most importantly, I don’t want to forget those who are most forgotten!