Students Use Spring Break to Serve Others
More than 80 UMass Amherst students will spend next week in rural Virginia assisting two separate local organizations with community designed projects in low-income, largely African American communities. The effort is part of a long standing curricular alternative spring break sponsored by the UMass Alliance for Community Transformation (UACT), based in the Anthropology Department.
The students are members of the course Grassroots Community Development (GCD). Now in its 13th year, GCD is an intensive honors seminar that relies considerably on pee-to-peer teaching and learning. Students spend the first half of the term studying the method and theory of grassroots community development and well-known case studies. Then they spend their spring break in poor communities working with a grassroots organization.
“We endeavor to give the community a serious week full of labor,” said Art Keene (anthropology), faculty director of the program. “But what we give can’t compare with the education that we receive while we are there which is simply incomparable with a classroom education alone.”
Working long days, typically sleeping on the floors of churches or community centers, and often doing without running water, the students get to help communities with ongoing projects. At the same time they learn first-hand how communities without resources mobilize to combat poverty and political disenfranchisement. Often, students work with community youth, sharing stories from their own lives and serving as role models for young people who may not see education as a viable option in their lives. When they return to UMass, they spend the remainder of the the term evaluating the way the methods and theories they explored in the classroom played out in the real world.
UACT maintains partnerships with organizations in Virginia, Mississippi and Holyoke, MA. This year, the main GCD class will be working in Virginia with the New Road Community Development Group of Exmore and Concerned Citizens for Cape Charles in Cape Charles. They will be engaged in a variety of projects, including demolition, community clean up, collecting oral history and work with local youth. This is the 12th year that UMass has partnered with these Virginia organizations.
A smaller group of GCD alumni will be spending their spring break working with Nuestras Raices, an urban farming organization in Holyoke. In addition, 11 students from the Anthropology Department’s Anthropology Caucus will be spending their spring break in a co-curricular collaboration with the Jonestown (Mississippi) Community Development Resource Center.
Keene notes, "In order to bring a better life to their communities, these groups have modeled vision, strength and tenacity. Some of their struggles have been truly heroic. They have inspired us to remember that committed citizens groups can and do effect significant change”
March 11, 2010