A diverse group of Bowdoin faculty spent two days over spring break getting to know an often invisible side of the community.
During their intensive “field trip,” 11 professors met with representatives of a number of Brunswick- and Portland-based nonprofit and civic organizations that work on behalf of immigrants, refugees, children, the poor or the homeless.
The faculty participants come from a range of academic fields: government, Spanish, education, anthropology, theater, dance, music, economics, math, history and chemistry.
The McKeen Center for the Common Good Director Sarah Seames and Associate Director for Courses and Research Janice Jaffe, with Senior Faculty Fellow Nancy Jennings, organized and led the trip. One of the priorities of the McKeen Center is to help professors explore topics of public concern through connections with the community and to assist faculty who are interested in incorporating community issues into their teaching or scholarship. This recent field trip was a pilot program that Seames hopes to continue offering to faculty members, particularly recent hires.
“The goal was to give faculty the opportunity to get to know the community better, the issues in the community, and the partnerships we’ve developed with community organizations,” Seames explained. “Beyond thinking about courses, we wanted to just give faculty the chance to make connections based on their own interests in the community.”
Katie Byrnes, a visiting assistant professor of education who went on the field trip, said she benefited from meeting many community partners that serve disadvantaged youth and adults. “My take-away was that there are endless possibilities to incorporate community engagement in courses,” she said, “and it reinforced how powerful it is for us and for students to connect theory and practice in the learning process.”
Assistant Professor of Economics Erik Nelson said the trip was an opportunity to hear about and temporarily glimpse some of the conditions under which the more marginalized members of the Midcoast Maine/Portland community live. “These are human stories that I would have never experienced otherwise. Also, as someone who never spent any time in Maine before accepting the Bowdoin position, it did give me exposure to some of the equality, cultural and public policy challenges in Brunswick and Portland that as an “outsider” I was not aware of,” he said.
The trip started off with a presentation at the Brunswick Housing Authority by Executive Director John Hodge and Craig McEwen, Bowdoin’s Daniel B. Fayerweather Professor of Political Economy and Sociology Emeritus. The Authority helps find affordable housing for low-income people. Over the years, McEwen’s students have provide it with surveys and data on its clients and programs.
“[McEwen] was able to talk about how he incorporated research into his courses and built this long-term relationship with John Hodge,” Seames said. “It was good to hear from a faculty member who has done this and hear what he saw as the reward for his classes.”
Seames said she consistently hears positive feedback from students whose classes become engaged with the community. “Students appreciate being able to connect theories and philosophical concepts they’re learning in the classroom with concrete situations,” she said. “They are able to apply this knowledge to ‘real life.’ The students volunteering in the soup kitchen and also taking a class in economics start to make stronger connections.”
The rest of the field trip included meetings with representatives from Tedford Housing, Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program, ArtVan and the United Way of Mid Coast Maine, all Brunswick organizations. The group also heard from staff from four organizations that help immigrant and refugee communities in Portland, including Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, Portland Adult Education, Community Financial Literacy, and the City of Portland Refugee Services Office. They also went on a tour of Preble Street, a homeless advocacy and assistance organization in Portland, with Executive Director Mark Swann ’84. And they spoke with the Portland mayor, the Portland superintendent of schools, and a staff member of The Mitchell Institute.
The group spent the night in Portland and ate out at local restaurants. “It was a really full two days,” Seames said, likening the program to the community-service trips that students go on during Orientation or for Alternative Winter and Spring Break trips. “We tried to make the whole experience our version of community immersion for faculty.”