March 28, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 12

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    SSA to build community through shared work

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    On the morning of Friday, April 5, nearly 300 students, faculty, fieldwork instructors and staff from the School of Social Service Administration will fan out across Chicago. Divided into groups of 10 to 15 and equipped with tools––from paintbrushes and brooms to hammers and screw drivers––the group will spend the day working for the city’s community organizations.

    One team of students will clean and paint the abandoned field house of a South Side elementary school so that it can be transformed into a family support center, while another will help carpenters repair the flood-damaged basements of elderly citizens living on the South Side. And several teams of students will head to Washington Park to help park district workers trim trees, refurbish picnic tables and fix broken playground equipment.

    It is not unusual for SSA’s social workers-in-training to volunteer or get involved with Chicago’s community organizations; in fact, the school requires fieldwork of all of its students. But this particular day, dubbed “SSA Community Day,” is the first-ever, all-school “fieldwork” outreach effort, and it is not all about hammering, cleaning, painting and helping people in need. After students complete their work, a cocktail hour and dinner will be offered as well as a dance.

    “Community Day’s goal is not just altruistic,” explained Elsie Pinkston, Professor in SSA and a project organizer. “Yes, we want to help the external community, but we’re also doing this to strengthen our internal community.” Pinkston added that each work team is being created with a social as well as altruistic goal in mind. “The groups will be specially selected,” said Pinkston, “so students, faculty, fieldwork instructors and staff spend the day working with people they might not already know.”

    Strengthening its internal community, said Pinkston, is an SSA goal that came out of a meeting last April. During each quarter, Edward Lawlor, Dean of SSA, hosts open-microphone town-hall-style meetings at which he solicits feedback from students, faculty and staff members. During the 2001 meeting, several students voiced a desire to have more interaction with students from different years and concentrations.

    First-year, second-year and evening program master’s degree students typically have little contact with each other. This is because, Pinkston said, these groups have their classes at different times or even on different days––first-year students have their classes on Monday and Wednesday and second-years on Tuesday and Thursday. Similarly, because of the nature of the curriculum in the two-year program, students with different concentrations (administrative and clinical) take different groups of courses.

    The outgrowth of the town hall meeting was simple, said Lawlor. “We wanted to figure out an effective way of bringing the whole school––first years, second years, master students, Ph.D students, evening students––together.

    “Students here have an elite and special peer group. Equally as important as the coursework and training that goes on here are the relationships formed between students,” he said. “We need to expand that network while they’re in the process of making important contacts with people in their year and concentration.”

    A group of faculty and students brainstormed on ways to bring SSA students, faculty, staff and field instructors together. One idea was for the school to sponsor seminars on topics important to SSA students, such as civil rights. But students wanted to “do something hands on––something that would have a direct impact on the community,” Lawlor added.

    Pinkston agreed with the hands-on approach, but for a different reason. “If you want to develop relationships and friendships,” Pinkston explained, “it’s best done around working together.”

    During recent weeks, students and faculty have been busy preparing for “Community Day.”

    SSA students Jessica Ford and Joseph Strickland have been organizing many of the work activities and contacting such community and governmental organizations as the Chicago Park District, the Woodlawn Development Association, the Red Cross and the Bessie Coleman Library.

    First-year student Ginny Cooke has led the internal promotion of Community Day. Cook, who Pinkston calls “amazing,” has visited virtually every SSA class, delivering short presentations and urging students to participate. She and others also have plastered the school’s walls with posters and decorated its lobby with tools to advertise the event.

    Pinkston has high hopes for the event. “I think it will create new coalitions of students at SSA, give them new goals and a new perspective.”