Conversations That Count

Wagner College has deepened its commitment to civic engagement through a new community partnership. In this story, one class reveals the difficulties, the delights, and the dreams of making a difference.

By Laura Barlament

Cass Freedland is running her fingers through her thick, black hair. She sighs. Freedland is a person of seemingly endless patience, but she does have these outlets for releasing tension when her job gets a little complicated. Today, her task is to coordinate the schedules of eight urban policy students, from freshmen to seniors, including one member of the baseball team; eight Staten Island residents, recent immigrants who have families and jobs and businesses to run; and another group of students from an advanced Spanish class, who are volunteering as interpreters so that the urban policy students can conduct interviews of the Spanish-speaking immigrants.

They are all very well-intentioned and committed to this project — but to get them all in the same place at the same time?

It would take a miracle.

This scenario exemplifies the nitty-gritty reality behind what Wagner College calls “civic engagement”: getting the College and the Staten Island community to work together in a way that benefits everyone involved. That is, to provide meaningful educational experiences for the students, and address the needs and wishes expressed by the College's neighbors.

Civic engagement, in fact, is about no less than fulfilling the dreams that students, faculty, administrators, immigrants, citizens, parents, senior citizens, and everyone else involved hold close to their hearts: dreams of creating a better life, of making of our world a better place.

No wonder Freedland is running her fingers through her hair and sighing.

'That's Real Life'

Cass Freedland is the director of Wagner's Center for Leadership and Service. This relatively new entity at the College represents the increasing role that civic engagement is playing throughout the Wagner curriculum.

Freedland came to Wagner in 2006, when the College received a major grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service. The three-year, $450,000 award was given to start the Civic Innovations program, which would link Wagner's academic departments with organizations that serve underprivileged youth on Staten Island. The idea was to move away from one-shot service projects, and instead create long-term partnerships between Wagner and the community in a way that would make a real difference for student learning and for local needs. Freedland was hired to help make it happen.

“It had all the elements I loved — grant writing and working with faculty, students, and the community,” says Freedland, a Michigan native who has a doctorate in wood chemistry and whose diverse résumé includes creating chemical safety policies, coordinating student interns, and fundraising. “I loved the idea of being back in an academic institution. I firmly believe in learning by doing.”

Freedland has helped faculty from five Civic Innovations departments — nursing, business, sociology and anthropology, government and politics, and history — develop and coordinate projects with partners that range from an entire neighborhood to organizations such as the YMCA.

It's a great idea, and it has seen a lot of success, but it hasn't been easy. To make this program work, says Freedland, the community organizations have to become equal partners with the faculty in creating learning opportunities for students — a developing dynamic that both sides have enjoyed. But students also have to change their expectations of the classroom experience: When civic engagement becomes a part of a class, they are dealing with real life, not with books and problem sets with definite answers.

And the community partners face many challenges that can distract them from working with the students. Chronically understaffed, they sometimes have to drop all other priorities in order to focus on survival: a grant application is due; a client is in crisis; someone becomes ill or leaves the organization.

“A million things can cause a partnership to fall apart,” says Freedland. “What I try to get students to understand from the beginning is that even if it didn't go as planned, you've still learned something.

“In fact, having everything not go to completion can be more informative,” she insists. “It doesn't always work the way you've planned — but that's real life.”

A Partnership in Port Richmond

At 7:30 p.m. on a Monday in February, Freedland is sitting in a conference room in the Wagner Union. Behind her, a large bank of windows reveals a breathtaking view of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and Brooklyn — a powerful symbol of the College's connection to greater New York City.

This room serves as the classroom for an honors seminar, The City and Citizenship: To Be a New Yorker, team taught by Wagner's premiere experts on urban studies: Abraham Unger, assistant professor and director of urban programs, and President Richard Guarasci.

This demanding seminar requires students to read their eyeballs out on some of the major academic studies of urban issues. But that's just the beginning: Not only will they learn history and theory of cities, globalization, urban policy, and so forth, but they will also see how these forces are played out in real life today, just a few miles away from Wagner College, as they interview recent immigrants in Port Richmond, Staten Island.

This project arose from a new phase of Wagner's civic engagement effort, the Port Richmond Partnership. Based on the successes of Civic Innovations, Wagner decided to focus its efforts on a single neighborhood. In 2009, Wagner entered into a five-year agreement with seven community organizations in Port Richmond. This economically struggling area is heavily populated by new immigrants and has recently been victimized by hate crimes, but it enjoys a strong network of social support led by the churches, schools, and social service agencies.

The partners decided on four areas where they have the potential to make a measurable difference: health care, economic development, education, and immigration.

This seminar will be addressing the last area. The students' interviews will enable them to write compelling accounts of the immigrants' stories, which one of the Port Richmond community partners, El Centro del Inmigrante (the Immigrant Center), will use in its advocacy work.

“Wagner students have been coming to El Centro and tutoring our clients in English since the partnership began,” explains Gonzalo Mercado, director of El Centro (as it's colloquially known). “But President Guarasci told me he wanted a more in-depth approach to student involvement.”

Mercado saw an opportunity to use student labor to help get out the word about the stories of today's immigrants. “For migrant workers, coming to America is their last resort. I want to make sure people understand that,” says Mercado. “I want them to listen to stories from a person who is a father, a son. It gives a different dimension when you make a personal connection.”

All agreed that it was an idea with a lot of potential. But making it work would require additional resources. Who would work with the students to write the immigrants' stories effectively? This type of writing is closer to journalism than social science, Unger and Guarasci's area of expertise. And what about the language barrier? Only one student in the seminar spoke Spanish.

A combination of Freedland's good connections with the Wagner faculty and the enthusiasm on campus for the Port Richmond Partnership filled all of these needs. Claire Regan '80, adjunct professor of journalism and associate managing editor of the Staten Island Advance, volunteered to work with the students on interviewing and writing. Wagner's Writing-Intensive Tutors, under the direction of Professor Mary Zanfini, were willing to help as well. And Margarita Sánchez, associate professor of Spanish, was eager to involve herself and her students as translators.

So, on that Monday night in February, as Freedland explains the arrangements she has made for the students' interviews, she is optimistic about the chances of this effort coming off well the following night. It's the workers' usual meeting time at El Centro, translators from Professor Sánchez's class are available, and Claire Regan is helping the students prepare for the interviews.

“You never know what can happen, but it looks good!” Freedland says, smiling.

Two Stories

The following night Freedland is back on campus to drive the students in a Wagner College van to Port Richmond.

Soon after their arrival at El Centro, the students and their interviewees have paired off in the corners and cramped offices of the brightly painted converted storefront near the intersection of Castleton and Port Richmond avenues. The miracle of civic engagement begins to unfold.

Avery Miller '11, a smiling brunette from West Newbury, Massachusetts, says she was worried going into the interview. “I was so nervous that I'd get someone who wouldn't talk,” she admits. “But I didn't have that problem at all!”

Appropriately, the business administration major is paired up with a business owner, Maria Morales. Originally from central Mexico, Morales is the proprietor of Los Potrillos restaurant in Port Richmond. “As she walks into El Centro,” Miller later wrote in her profile of Morales, “still wearing her hairnet and apron from the restaurant, all those at the center's weekly Tuesday night meeting warmly greet Maria.”

That comfort level and warmth set the tone for Miller's interview. She and Morales quickly establish that they do not need the help of a translator — after all, Morales originally came to the U.S. to learn English, a goal she has accomplished. But instead of returning to Mexico after a short time, as she had intended, she has stayed in the U.S. for 15 years, earning her citizenship, raising a child who was born here, and opening Los Potrillos several years ago.

The interview flows on and on, touching on Morales's dreams for her daughter, Kimberly, who attends a local parochial school; her reasons for coming to the United States; her daily routines; her work history; public safety problems in Port Richmond; and opportunities for immigrants in the U.S.

“What was the biggest disappointment you found here?” Miller asks. “Or what has disappointed you, what was not what you expected?”

“No,” says Morales. “Nothing.”

Her dream is to improve her restaurant and expand her clientele. She'd like to replace her mismatched tables and chairs, and she would especially like to acquire a functioning air conditioner, so that her facility would live up to the expectations of the American consumer. The Mexicans don't mind the heat, she says; laughing, she pantomimes how they eat her delectable tamales and tacos with the sweat running down their faces. “I want to have one of the best Mexican restaurants,” she says. “I just need some capital.”

First-year student Kevin Ferreira of Elizabeth, New Jersey, hears a very different kind of story from his interviewee. The son of Portuguese immigrants, Ferreira spent his last two years of high school at an international school in Costa Rica and speaks Spanish fluently. He began volunteering in Port Richmond on his own last semester, teaching a literacy class and working on public advocacy campaigns for El Centro.

Ferreira sits down with Carlos [not his real name], age 27, who came to the U.S. from Honduras eight years ago. Wearing a white baseball cap pulled down low on his face, and a jacket with the collar raised, he speaks in a soft monotone, never smiling or making eye contact as he tells his story.

“He said, 'At age 6, I felt different,'” Ferreira later recalled. “When I heard that, I suspected this wasn't going to be the usual immigration story.” At age 13, Carlos says, he spoke to his mother about his homosexuality, pleading for her help. She made him tell his father, who beat him and poured boiling water on him, telling him it would purge “the faggot” inside of him. He ran away from home, and so began a life marred by abuse in both Honduras and the U.S.

“There is a great emptiness in my life that I cannot fill,” he says, in Ferreira's translation. “They only come looking for me with those things. I am the hardworking type, but I do not know why I haven't gained anything in so much time.”

“For me, it was interesting to see how his immigrant story paralleled his sexual identity,” Ferreira says. “But it was not what I expected. It was shocking. I was overwhelmed.”

One Part of a Concert

As Freedland said, when it comes to civic engagement, you never know what is going to happen. When you are confronted with real life, with the precious burden of people's true stories and real experience, outcomes are uncertain and answers are not necessarily clear. Students can feel confused or question what they've been asked to do — but in the midst of it all, they learn something, and they contribute something.

“Our work might seem minimal,” Guarasci acknowledged during one of the final class meetings. But, he tells them, the work they did was only one part in a concert of Wagner involvement in Port Richmond this semester. For example, master's-level nursing students held classes on nutrition, laying the groundwork for sustained clinical support at El Centro; anthropology students mapped community resources, information that will help refine communications about social services; and TD Charitable Foundation presented the College with a $10,000 gift to fund a financial literacy initiative being spearheaded by Wagner's business and government departments.

“The wave of change in Port Richmond has been incredible,” adds Freedland. “It feels like momentum is building.”

Gonzalo Mercado of El Centro also expresses his satisfaction with the Wagner students' work. For him, everything they're doing is, to use a Spanish idiom, “el granito de arena,” a grain of sand — just one small element in the much bigger picture of integrating new people into new places, an ongoing project that stretches back into history and encompasses the whole nation and the whole world.

“Don't underestimate these conversations,” are Guarasci's concluding words to the students about their interviews. “It opens up doors.”

READ MORE: The students' profiles of Port Richmond immigrants.