Keith Benjamin is pretty sure he’s got it figured out, and he doesn’t like what he sees. “Five minutes from Swarthmore is Chester—but it’s night and day,” says the 2009 Swarthmore College grad. “I-95 split that city, and 476 curved around it, isolating Chester from opportunity.”
As part of Chester Community Fellows, Benjamin is spending his summer in one of the country’s most distressed cities—and it’s not the first time. For 10 weeks in 2007, he worked with the Chester Housing Authority. He was also the first student leader of CCF’s Project in Common. “It was enlightening, but I felt restricted,” he says of his pioneering experience. “I saw the issues but wanted to find game changers. I saw it all, but I couldn’t react to it because I didn’t have the tools. Mine was an observational role. But it was a reality check of what the truth is—and what it wasn’t.”
Through opportunities like CCF, Swarthmore College prepares its progeny to work in any space and any field, while still remaining conscious of community. As CCF’s program director and the assistant director for student programming at Swarthmore’s Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, Deb Kardon-Brown guides these social-justice service projects. They’re essentially a practical application of what some students are studying in the classroom. “Swarthmore’s mission explicitly states an interest in having students learn to serve the community across the country, even globally,” says Kardon-Brown, adding that the program helps develop ethical intelligence by providing context.
The process begins each February, when seven to nine applicants are selected. They then pick a host site from an established list of repeat partners in Chester. Independently and collaboratively, they work to make it a better, safer community.
In the summer of 2012, Naudia Williams served Chester Youth Court, where students are trained to adjudicate cases themselves. She’d volunteered there a year earlier, leading a student group that serves CYC throughout the academic year. At graduation this past spring, she received an award for her efforts. “Youth court is the antithesis of suspension,” says Williams, who trained kids, updated manuals, simplified documents, and more. “It’s restorative conflict resolution.”
Chester has a culture that isn’t apparent to outsiders. “It’s incredibly warm and welcoming,” says Kardon-Brown. “It’s also protective. They’re intelligent people caught in poverty.”
Most Chester residents, she says, are dedicated community members who want the same educational opportunities for their kids as those offered through the well-funded public schools. More than a few work tirelessly to find creative solutions to the entrenched inequities. “If hope and dedication were commodities, Chester City would be wealthy,” Kardon-Brown says.
To similar ends, CCF works in concert with various local agencies. “The first thing we tell students is that they have to assess the community and what it needs,” says Kardon-Brown. “Then they assess their own skills to provide what’s needed.”
With their newly acquired and/or strengthened skill sets, students return to Swarthmore and take leadership roles on campus. Two have written theses on their experiences. Another, Adam Bortner, is now in medical school. His CCF tenure helped define his life’s ambition to provide humane, integrated health services to patients suffering from debilitating diseases. He continues to serve Chester’s AIDS Care Group as a volunteer, just as he did when he was a student.
Recent Swarthmore graduate Akunna Uka has a passion for education. During her 2011 service to the Chester Education Foundation, she worked with high school youth, developing academic enrichment opportunities and helping them explore career options. She’s now teaching sixth-grade social studies in Pasadena, Calif.
After her CCF summer, Uka earned Swarthmore College’s Lang Opportunity Scholarship, a prestigious social action award. With LOS funding, she partnered with the Delaware County Literacy Council to design a computer literacy course to help residents study for the GED after it went from a pen-and-paper test to online only.
“For those who don’t know how to use a computer, that’s a huge barrier,” says Uka, who has further developed the initiative and will continue to sustain it while on the West Coast. “That [work] is all beyond the scope of [Swarthmore]. It becomes your baby.”
As CEF’s executive director, Cheryl Cunningham has worked with five fellows. Her year-round nonprofit serves 600 students annually with vehicles like the School to Career summer program. “We’ve found that high school is not too late to help,” Cunningham says.
Every summer, there’s a joint project involving all fellows. This year, it was a survey to help the Chester Upland School District assess how to better retain students and keep privatization from extracting the best and the brightest. It’s the first time that CCF’s Project in Common was used to directly help the school district.
For Steven Fischer, executive director of the Chester Housing Authority, Swarthmore’s CCF students have been an invaluable resource. Fellow Keith Benjamin recently worked with the CHA to publish a 40-page guidebook that simplifies lease agreements for residents.
“What I like is that they’re young and idealistic, and they have this interest in low-income families,” says Fischer, who talks of shortfalls in funding and the never-ending pressure to make ends meet at the CHA. “They’re all hungry for knowledge—and an understanding of a population they don’t necessarily come from.”
A former Peace Corps volunteer, Fischer says Swarthmore students have a similar mindset. “Our kids love their kids, and they’re great role models,” he says. “They provide an influence that our kids might not be getting at home.”
In the end, Kardon-Brown admits that what they’re doing may be a bit subversive—even at Swarthmore. “We’re taking kids out of the [academic] silos and out of class, and placing them in the community,” she says.
For her, though, there’s a real sense of urgency that transcends perceptions. “Why can’t we figure it out?” asks Kardon-Brown, in reference to what she calls the “institutionalization of poverty.” “I’m not one to be defeated or to resign myself to believing that it’s just the way it is. All these bright minds are helping us to figure it out.”
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