Lang Opportunity Scholars: Trying To Save The World

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility has chosen several students for its Lang Opportunity Scholars in the class of 2010. Up to six sophomores are selected to “design and implement effective, innovative solutions to significant social problems.” Past projects have included work with AIDS orphans in China, with microfinance (both through the internet-based organization Kiva and in Burma), and with waste-management in Peru, among many other projects.

Six scholars were selected thus year. Five students will focus their projects on youth advocacy while one will create solutions for nutrition issues. The projects range in geographic diversity, from as close as Chester and as far as China. Some scholars were inspired by a class or an externship while others have been entrenched in the issues for longer. Despite their difference, all six scholars have a common passion for social action.

Anson Stewart will create a program called GreenRELAY in his home of Los Angeles. His program’s goal is “transforming youths’ volunteering into activism, to empower them to create policy changes they desire in local government.” The program aims to train local youth in becoming active in city business, to “exercise their voice” in City Council affairs. As part of the program, participants will be involved with “obtaining city approval and accessing city funding resources,” giving them practical experience that will be necessary in order to make a difference.

Stewart has, for most of his life, commuted in from the suburbs to a church in Koreatown, where the surrounding neighborhood is composed predominantly of low-income immigrants. Through the years, he “ha[s] grown increasingly aware of the vastly different opportunities available to privileged families like [his] and families who live in the neighborhood of St. Mary’s.”

In LA, past conflicts with local government have made detachment from local politics the norm among low-income immigrant communities. This practice, however, has led to outside interests having undue sway over Council matters; Stewart says “the Council’s past history of industrial zoning has raised the cancer risk of Los Angeles children to seventeen times the national average, largely because of sprawling rail yards and seaport complexes adjacent to low income housing.” Clearly, low-income Angelenos need to have some political voice.

Other organizations have attempted projects that are somewhat similar, “balanc[ing] theoretical activism and concrete improvements,” but most of them have had a clear separation between those involved in municipal planning and those involved in service. Stewart cites the example of building a local community garden: public health interns and community organizers obtained the funding and necessary approvals, while local residents created the actual garden. Although the garden ended up useful, “the lack of shared focus on the process of working with the municipal government reduced the meaning of the garden for local residents…they were not fully empowered to pursue a future project independently.”

Ellen Donnelly also plans to work on civic competence, in nearby Chester, where Donnelly — who grew up in Wallingford — has been doing service projects for years. She came to Swarthmore hoping to gain a deeper knowledge of this community’s problems with the possibility of working with people in Chester to design policies to counteract those issues. Now, her Lang Opportunity Scholarship will give her the opportunity to institute a project she calls READY: Remaking Engagement, Action, and Democracy through Youth.

READY’s first incarnation will be in the Chester Community Charter school which teaches grades six through eight, and will be consist of three stages. The first, which she calls “Understanding,” is composed of “nationally compatible, but uniquely Chester-based inter-disciplinary lessons” about government and politics integrated into the school curriculum. The next phase, “Practice,” will be a school-wide mock presidential election. Finally, in the “Application” phase a select few students or classes will “initiate their own activities such as voter registration campaigns or community service projects.”

Donnelly, who intends to major in political science and public policy, hopes that a program such as this — although it “cannot possibly solve all the complications associated with youth, democracy, and violence” — could serve as a positive influence in many Chester students’ lives. In the future, if READY works out well at this school, she hopes to be able to expand it to “other schools within Chester, Delaware County, and beyond.”

A different approach to more or less the same issue comes from Joslyn Young, whose project will be called Project REAL, for Reporting, Exploring, And Learning. The purpose is create an after-school journalism project for Chester teens, that is truly a partnership between the two communities” of Swarthmore College and Chester. High school students will create their own radio show, “with a focus on community issues that are important to the students.” In the process, the students will learn about journalism, writing, and radio technology.

Hopefully, the participants’ shows will be aired on local Chester radio stations and maybe WSRN, or community-based radio shows in the greater Philadelphia area. As the project expands, participants will also learn the skills of written and video mediums of journalism as well. Possible related activities include field trips to acclaimed news and radio organizations and journalism conferences.

Although “ the details are still in the process of development,” Young has begun connecting with members of the Chester service community by speaking with the creator of Chester’s online journal Ghetto Print, who is also involved in Chester Youth Perspective, about how she could possibly integrate with those projects.

Although Young has never worked in radio journalism, she hopes to learn the Youth Perspective participants. Young says she is also a novice to development of community youth media with high school journalism as her only experience. Despite her lack of experience with it, however, she “think[s] the whole idea of youth media is incredibly empowering and has a lot of potential.”

Lois Park discovered in an eighth-grade class project that in some parts of the world, the things that most of us take entirely for granted are not at all readily available. Take, for instance, food. At Sharples, there is far more available than any of us care to eat. Even among the poorest parts of the United States, starvation is a rarity. Yet in some places, severe acute malnutrition (SAM) is an exceedingly common cause of death in young children.

Traditionally, children suffering from SAM are given fortified flour or other powders, which need to be mixed with water to be eaten. Yet in many areas in which SAM is most prevalent, clean water is not readily available. Enter Plumpy’nut, a peanut butter fortified with milk, vitamins, and minerals, which needs no preparation. Quips the New York Times, “But [calling Plumpy’nut fortified peanut butter] is akin to calling a 1945 Mouton Rothschild fortified grape juice.”

Park’s goal as a Lang Opportunity Scholar is twofold. First, she wants to use her background in medicine and health policy to develop a protocol for nutrition centers to implement ready-to-use therapeutic foods like Plumpy’nut. After doing so, she hopes to implement this program in nutrition centers, through local production of foods based on Plumpy’nut. She plans to begin with the Yanbian district, in northeastern China. Similar programs are already in place in Malawi; she hopes that hers will begin “in other locations where it can make a big difference.” Hopefully, the project will be successful in Yanbian and even expand to other areas in the region.

In Molly Weston’s home state of Kentucky, “election laws put up a lot of hurdles for those people who are allowed to vote,” and anyone who has ever been convicted of a felon is permanently disenfranchised; Kentucky is one of only three states to do so. One in seventeen residents, including one in four African Americans, is disenfranchised. On top of that, a “long history of ballot stuffing,” long registration lead times, and other voting issues impinge on democracy’s “fundamental right and responsibility” of voting in the state.

Weston plans to do work on voter registration. She originally planned on setting up a project with a “four-fold mission of voter registration, voter information, voter activation, and voter invitation.” Since then, however, she has switched to doing a conference training college students to do voter registration drives, drawing from her experience with the Swarthmore Registration and Voting Coalition.

Weston’s interest in voting rights started in Professor Valelly’s Southern Politics class, during her first semester at Swarthmore. Later, she co-curated an exhibit in McCabe on the Voting Rights Act, which was renewed in 2006, which “really fostered [her] interest in voting rights issues…especially in the South.” She has always been politically involved, however; she is now president of the Swarthmore chapter of the College Democrats, and has continued to take courses about democracy.

This summer, Weston is looking to intern with Kentucky groups working on these kinds of issues in preparation for her project. She says that she has a significant advantage in that these internships will connect her closely with many people doing important work in this field, since she lives in a small neighborhood in a very small state; the entire commonwealth is about the same size as Philadelphia.

During winter break of her freshman year, Tamara Demoor spent a week externing at the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Justice Division in King’s County, New York. “The poignant experience of seeing mere children involved in drugs and living in inhuman conditions,” she said, drew her “to the plight of urban youth.” Based on that experience, she arranged a summer internship with Legal Outreach, a program in New York City where she worked with at-risk eighth graders.

She found that one area where they most related was fashion, one of Demoor’s “life-long passions.” Fashion, however, can also have negative social effects, in that a dominant minority’s idea of “what it means to ‘dress for success,’…can control power based on a superficial assessment”: for example, Demoor saw young women appear in court dressed in tight jeans and t-shirts printed with words along the lines of “flirtatious.”

Demoor also says that although there are many outreach programs for at-risk youth, those who have already succumbed to that risk — juvenile delinquents — feel “that society has given up on them,” and so they “give up on themselves and continue down the path of crime.” In 2006, the juvenile recidivism rate was sixty percent. Demoor, seeing this, “realized that [she] could be their advocate.”

Her project will be a combination of these two things: “an eight-week summer program that teaches young women who are incarcerated in a non-secure detention center the fundamentals of fashion design.” Demoor aims to work with students from the Fashion Institute of Technology or the Parsons School of Design to be instructors. The program will culminate in a completely realized idea, worked on from the start by each student.

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