In previous years, Freshman Service Experience participants were placed into sites according to their preference of wanting to work outdoors, in offices, or direct service. This year we decided to try something new and to let participants be placed into volunteer sites according to the issue area that they are either most passionate about or one that they wanted to learn more about. It is our goal to make incoming students to American University aware of the issues that impact the Washington, D.C.-Metropolitan community. The issue areas are homelessness and housing, art for social change, community health, environmental justice, and urban education.
Homelessness and Housing:
Poverty is the deprivation of food, shelter, money, and clothing that occurs when people cannot satisfy their basic needs. Nearly 20% (110,000) of D.C. residents live in poverty. These individuals cannot afford basic needs such as food and shelter. In the capital of the wealthiest nation on earth, one in eight households faces a constant struggle against hunger. This is the worst rate in the nation. Many children go without healthy meals, adults wonder if they have enough food to last the week, and seniors must choose between paying for food or for medicine. Even when families can scrape together enough, a balanced and healthy diet is often beyond their reach as a result of food deserts, or areas with little or no access to large grocery stores that offer fresh and affordable foods. Instead of such stores, these areas contain many fast food restaurants and convenience stores. For example, Wards 7 and 8, which have the District’s highest poverty rates, also have the city’s highest obesity rates due to large food deserts. Another byproduct of poverty is homelessness. In D.C., families comprise nearly 40% of the homeless population and the average age of a homeless person is 9. Although hunger and homelessness are issues of great concern in the city, organizations such as D.C. Central Kitchen, and Thrive D.C. prepare thousands of meals every day, offer job training for unemployed individuals, and serve as support systems for individuals to help get them back on their feet.
Art for Social Change:
Art is a very constructive way to revitalize communities and empower individuals. In Washington D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8, the nonprofit organization Life Pieces to Masterpieces is using art to help young African American males succeed in their education. In this part of D.C., only 33% of community members will graduate from high school (the national average high school graduation rate is 68%). Art can help develop reading, language, and mathematical skills and has been shown to have a positive impact on students’ SAT scores. On a community level, public art projects help promote cultural diversity, build ties between community members, and even reduce crime. The nonprofit organization City Arts has been working with young people since 1997 to paint murals in neighborhoods throughout Washington D.C. This mural of Duke Ellington at 13th and U Streets NW has helped to transform the U Street neighborhood into a vital entertainment district.
As opposed to the general term of public health which refers to the big picture in terms of health, community health is focused on more focused populations of people who live together, identify the same way, or are facing the same challenges. However both public and community health aims to protecting the health of the population, preventing disease, and promoting healthy behaviors and lifestyles. What is important to understand about community health issues is that they can range from diseases and illnesses like HIV/AIDS and asthma, to including non-traditional health concerns like gun and domestic violence. Whatever the problem, the end goal is to create a better and healthier community for the people to reside in it. Organizations like Women’s Collective and Damien Ministries work to combat the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus in addition to helping those who have been diagnosed to maintain their health. Washington, DC has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the United States, and with 3% of its population testing positive, makes it comparable to rates in countries in Africa. Another health concern in DC is the asthma rate, which claims the most lives of children in the 7th ward. It is through the recognition and elimination of health disparities in communities that will make preventative and routine health care more accessible for everyone regardless of ethnicity, race, or socioeconomic status.
Environmental Justice is a concept that means fair treatment and involvement of all people, regardless to race, sex, national origin, economic class, sexuality, immigration status, when relating to environmental matters. Washington D.C.’s environmental agenda has the appearance of being extremely progressive and environmentally friendly with the “Sustainable D.C.” initiative presented by Mayor Gray in 2011. The city aims to be the “greenest, healthiest, and most livable city in the nation.” Strides have been made in building projects, like incorporating solar panels, yet the city lags to address the poor air quality and water pollution that disproportionally affect lower-income, black communities in the Northeast and Southeast quadrants. Disregard to water and air pollution does affect everyone, as it is detrimental to health and adds to climate change.
Urban education is mostly defined as schools being located in the metropolitan area, having diverse students, and having large enrollments. The urban education system right here in DC has both advantages and disadvantages. While being in a city, many students are able to connect knowledge they are learning in the classroom to the streets of DC. Some outcomes or challenges of urban education include: having a lack of resources, socioeconomic status, race, cultural challenges, and low expectations of students. DC has one of the highest achievement gaps in terms of socioeconomic status and race between students depending on where they reside in the city. Higher Achievement, Next Step, and Centronia are all education organizations that strive to allow students the chance to obtain an equal education. Most importantly, these organizations help to bridge the gap and allow the students that attend their organization to be prepared for their future. It is important that we get involved with educational organizations, so we can make sure every student is getting the best possible education.