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School for New Learning: Promoting Healthy Communities


Reed notes that students often come to her class with a distinctive background: they are typically working adults, and many also hail from Chicago communities. She says that the course is partly about “developing civic engagement skills in adults.” Marisol Morales, Associate Director of the Steans Center, adds that “the adult student population brings experience, knowledge and resources to this class, as well as an openness about wanting to do this kind of work.” “To me, it is very important for the university to be engaged with communities,” asserts Reed, who is a member of the SNL Faculty and Associate Dean for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. “It also happens that community-based service-learning is a tremendous learning methodology. I believe we can learn more about issues by being actively involved in problem-solving with a community.” Through the class, students work with Greater Humboldt Park Community of Wellness, a coalition of small health promotion groups on the city’s northwest side. Reed works closely with the organization to develop a project well before the ten-week class gets underway.

This past fall’s assignment: to put together a resource guide for people who have HIV -- a guide that includes information about an array of resources in Humboldt Park. The idea is to get this information in the hands of service providers, who can then give it to their clients. The information will be also available online, and will be presented in both English and Spanish. In addition to HIV services, the guide will also include information about medical, legal, housing, education and other needs. One early step students took while developing the guide was researching what others have done in this field.​​​​


Students learn through experience that Humboldt Park is rich in community-based assets. Early on in the term, students took a tour of Humboldt Park led by Morales, who is herself a resident of the community. Through the tour and their work in the community, students learned about the importance of cultural preservation, the community’s resistance to gentrification and, in general, its proactive response to neighborhood issues. “I didn’t know what to expect,” says SNL student Maria Gallegos. “The first things you see are the Puerto Rican flags, businesses, then a community organization, a restaurant. Then we saw murals that depict the community, which are pretty amazing. You get the sense that there’s something at stake -- people are trying to hold on to what they have.” In the process, faculty and students say the tour and the service learning experience that follows counters negative views that may be held by those less familiar with the community. The community’s assets also include three hospitals, several low-cost clinics and a myriad of nonprofit agencies as well as after-school programming, food pantries and a satellite branch for one of the City Colleges of Chicago. In addition to its many assets, Humboldt Park faces a range of pressing issues, including health-related challenges identified in two studies of six Chicago communities conducted by the Sinai Urban Health Institute in Chicago. The studies not only asked residents about incidents of diabetes, heart disease or other health problems, but also about their perceptions on health-related matters. What research found, says Juana Ballesteros, Executive Director of the Community of Wellness, “was a startling disproportion of many illnesses in Humboldt Park.” HIV in the Humboldt Park community was identified as one of eight areas the community should make a health priority. Reed suggests that in some ways the experience of residents in Humboldt Park reflects the experience of people in many communities around the country. “Our country is experiencing a growing gap between rich and poor, and that is reflected in the growing gap in health care for rich and poor,” says Reed. “Humboldt Park has a high rate of uninsured people, and residents tend to work in low-wage jobs where there is no health insurance. There is a tremendous need for people to be covered – and for culturally competent care.” Students in the class learn about these health disparities – and what the community is doing to address them.


The project, both Reed and Ballesteros say, starts with the community, which sets the agenda for this effort. It also emphasizes community-based primary prevention, an approach Ballesteros says is “something we don’t hear enough about.” While readings for the class lead to discussions about mental health, lack of insurance, racial inequities in healthcare access and other topics, development of the resource guide gives students a hands-on understanding of these issues. “It’s important to have easy access to information that is condensed and centralized,” says Ballesteros. “Students are working to centralize information about local HIV services. The wonderful thing is, there are services in Humboldt – but they have never been centralized. The last thing someone with HIV needs when trying to locate housing or get food or access other services is to have a problem finding information.” Like many service learning classes, this class exposes students to a community and experiences they might not otherwise have. “In a sense, this class is about crossing what some may perceive as a boundary,” says Reed. “But many students are excited, not resistant. They are likely to say ‘OK, I’ll make it work.’” “This class is mutually beneficial,” adds Ballesteros. “I couldn’t produce these materials without students, but there is also this sense that this experience heightens the awareness and understanding of students.” That thought is echoed by many students in the class, most of whom have had little or no experience in the Humboldt Park community. “This is a rewarding experience -- it can benefit the community, makes you feel better as a person and I’m getting college credi​t for it,” says Cathy Puchalski, a senior majoring in communications.“Getting the word out there is key; and this class also applies to my major.” 


While students focus on their project for Community of Wellness, they also have an opportunity to examine their experiences by keeping journals and participating in reflection sessions and discussions in which they talk about community engagement and other subjects. SNL student Jeanette Harris praised the team-oriented aspect of the class. “We have really come together, and everyone has brought something to the table,” says Harris, who is an assistant teacher at the Abraham Lincoln Centre, which provides a range of social and educational services on the city’s south side. “In the past, I have been the type of person who sat back and liked to listen a lot in class. You cannot do that in this class -- you must come to the table with your ideas and feedback.” Students also must be willing to explore a new community on its own terms. “Based on things I’d heard in the news, I was practically scared to go into the area,” adds Harris. “But once I went on a tour and visited the community, I found that people were friendly. I gained an awareness of what is going on around the community, but also learned about how I can find resources and present them through this project.” Harris suggests that there may also be ways to use this information and present it to her community. “I can incorporate what I’ve learned into my job – the place where I work is like a community, and people of all backgrounds bring their kids there.” ​​The value of service learning also stood out for Andrea Baldwin. “If you don’t encounter anyone directly, you go by what you’ve heard and read,” says Baldwin, who is pursuing a degree at the School for New Learning while working as a project manager for the Chicago Housing Authority. “I’m finding that some of the struggles people face are the same as those people face in my neighborhood on the south side.” Meanwhile, Maria Gallegos says she learned about how to respect the Humboldt Park community through her experience. “We can’t go in and say, ‘here, we’re going to help you’ -- you have to go by the guidelines of what they want. My goal in this class is not only to learn, but to make sure the resource guide is exactly the guide they want. At the same time, I love to interact with people – that’s the way I learn,” adds Gallegos, who has been active as a volunteer in her own community. “I would do it again and take another service learning class.” Gallegos adds that her experience in this class and others at DePaul has “solidified” her thought that she might consider running a nonprofit organization in her own community. “Why not start where you live?” she asks. “Of course the resource we are doing for this class will be used in Humboldt Park, but maybe it can be a stepping stone for other communities. Learning about this community was encouraging. One of the messages I heard was ‘Maybe we have this problem here, but we are doing something about it. This is our reality.”