Powerful People: Karina Saunders, Popular Education, and Service Trips Part 2

Karina Saunders
Karina Saunders

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of power people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities.

Karina is my co-worker in The Pilgrimage, the principle outreach ministry at Church of the Pilgrims, that focuses on the experience of the hungry, homeless, and working poor. The Pilgrimage welcome mostly college and youth groups to engage in service learning and popular education to envision a world made new.  This is part 2 in a 2 part post. 

Changing the Narrative of a Service Trip PART TWO

 The Tina Jones Project is a small attempt to remember the lives of people who affect our daily lives but are often invisible. The hope is by giving group participants the name and brief bio of someone living in poverty; they will begin to understand the structural injustice that keeps millions of people in constant struggle.

Tina Jones

Your name is Tina Jones, and you are a single mother of two children Mandy, 8, and Tim, 4. Recently you were laid off from your job, and consequently you missed a rent payment on your apartment and were evicted. Your sister lives in the area and has been letting you and your children stay in her extra room until you get your feet back on the ground.

The group arrives from __(fill in university/ school)____, and during orientation I ask them to think through a typical day. Who are the invisible people in your life? Who are the people behind the scenes—the working poor that make your everyday easier? They write down the names of the school janitor, the cafeteria workers, the people who reshelf fruit at the grocery store, the bus driver, the sanitation worker, and all the other people who work like stage hands in their daily world. What does their typical day look like? What would the world look like through their eyes? Then I introduce the theme.

Throughout the week as they’re building relationships, serving, and learning about the needs of this city (going to places that meet immediate needs), I ask the groups to think about the bigger story. What are the systemic problems that cause the existence of these social service agencies?

Each member of the group then gets the story of a person living in poverty in the city. I ask them to write this person a letter, wondering what their life might be like. Questions like: What does your daily routine look like? What community is most important to you? If you get sick what happens? Can you take off work? What makes you feel proud/shame?

In this way, the lens is created and groups continue on with their week of learning and serving, while observing and looking for where their “person” might be. One day during the week, they visit a transitioning neighborhood (NOMA) and walk around uncovering the many stories and layers that exist in this community. Would my “person” live in this neighborhood?How might they feel about the new development?

action reflection model of popular education
action reflection model of popular education

I want them to see the effects of change on a neighborhood full of long term residences. Each morning the group is given a focus word, and asked to look for how the word plays out in their day and in their person’s story. I want to give students a chance to narrow and process the universe.

At the end of the week things look different. We share as a group new noticings, and we begin to understand the lives of the invisible people that affect us on a daily basis. Solutions are more complicated than starting a food drive. The weight of the stories and the daily realities of so many people is heavy. But, hopefully these stories of struggle and structural injustices now have names. The names are of people met in DC during a service project, the name of the character the students walked with all week, and the names on the list of invisible people in their daily life.

My hope is that with these stories and names, group members can no longer cross service off their list of obligations for the year. They must now be more aware and invested in fighting the injustices that cause poverty.