• Community Ties

    Students Serve the Woodlawn Community through Alternative Spring Break

By Anne Hartman

The Woodlawn neighborhood borders the southern edge of UChicago’s campus, starting at 60th Street and stretching south for seven blocks. Despite its proximity, it can be unfamiliar territory for many students, as it once was for second-year Andrew Yin. Yin lives on the border of Woodlawn and Hyde Park, but rarely ventured outside of Hyde Park. His schedule left little time to explore Chicago, and he admits that as a student “it’s easy to live in a bubble.”

Yin’s interest piqued when the University Community Service Center (UCSC) announced that its first Alternative Spring Break program would be held in Woodlawn.

“I saw it as a great opportunity for me to interact with the neighborhood that I live in yet don’t engage with,” he says.

Yin applied for and eventually accepted the position of team leader in UCSC’s inaugural Alternative Spring Break program in collaboration with the Office of Civic Engagement and the Institute of Politics. Yin joined Graduate Program Coordinator Sonya Chaudhry, a master’s student in social work, to collaborate with UCSC staff in leading an Alternative Spring Break that would provide service to the Woodlawn neighborhood and guide a cohort of 13 undergraduates in exploring the facets of the multilayered community. UCSC’s longstanding partner in Woodlawn, Living Hope Church, was selected as the site where students would live and volunteer for five days.

Students across the country engage in Alternative Spring Break programs, foregoing the typical beach vacation to cross state borders and even continents to tackle service projects. For UCSC, the goal from the start was to keep the program local.

“We want students to take pride in the city and the community that they’re apart of, the South Side, and see how rich, gritty, and complex it is,” says Amy Chan, UCSC director and associate dean of students in the University. “By participating in an immersive five-day program, or any of our programs that are based in Chicago, students gain a different level of appreciation for really claiming their Chicago identity.”

UCSC’s Alternative Spring Break followed a three-part national model that many peer institutions have adopted and which encompasses education awareness and cohort building, action, and reflection.

Chaudhry and Yin planned several orientation sessions prior to Spring Break to introduce the students to the Woodlawn neighborhood and community leaders who are working to spur development. It also gave the participants a chance to bond.

“Looking back, those meetings were really helpful to get the cohort ready to build a community for those five days they were together at Living Hope,” says Nick Currie, the UCSC community service advisor who oversaw program development and implementation.

As the campus emptied for Spring Break, the cohort took the one-mile trip south to Living Hope Church. There, they assisted with the church’s efforts to start a community thrift store, building shelves and organizing donations to prep for customers. They also tutored local students attending the church’s after-school program.

Canvassing for Hope Works Community Development, the nonprofit arm of Living Hope Church, gave the cohort a more detailed picture of the community. They walked the streets of Woodlawn, having conversations with passersby about the programs Hope Works provides, such as case management services to help residents gain and retain employment.

When they weren’t volunteering for Living Hope Church and Hope Works, students had the chance to gain insights into the organizations and people who are working for change in Woodlawn. The cohort visited the Preservation of Affordable Housing, learning about the efforts to keep low-income housing in Woodlawn. They toured MetroSquash, a program that serves more than 400 elementary through high school students per year, helping them to master the game of squash while also providing tutoring, mentoring, and life skills. They had lunch at Green Line Coffee, a Woodlawn spot launched by Sunshine Enterprises, which helps to train local entrepreneurs in business management and development. They toured the urban gardens that line the streets in Woodlawn and are tended by community members, gaining appreciation for the green landscapes that have replaced vacant lots. They also met with staff at 20th Ward Alderman Willie B. Cochran’s office to learn about local initiatives.

In the coming weeks, the cohort will reunite for reorientation sessions, where they will reflect on how they changed from the experience and the service work they’d like to pursue in the future, Currie says.

The experience painted a new picture of Woodlawn for the students, one that is more hopeful and familiar than the vision they had before.

Second-year Angela Zhao says she wouldn’t have spent time in the Woodlawn neighborhood had it not been for her participation in the program.

“It’s a really vibrant community, and I think that’s something that people overlook,” she says.

The community gardens struck a chord for Zhao; she’ll continue to visit the gardens as she works on a project for her Remaking Chicago public policy class in the Study Chicago Quarter.

“Seeing their growth together and their growth individually, we just felt overwhelmingly positive,” Currie says. “This program has really been a transformative experience for students.”

Chaudhry counts hearing students’ plans to continue engagement with the Woodlawn community as one of the most meaningful parts of the experience.

“Many started the program from a place of, ‘I’m not sure how I want to engage in social change.’ By the end, they could say, ‘There are several organizations in Woodlawn that I want to be a part of, and I can think about how I want to incorporate this into my career at U of C and beyond,’” Chaudhry says.