Author Archives: Connor Wertz

Poverty on Trial

Interns spend summers immersed in legal systems, share flaws of privileged access to justice

This is the third in a series highlighting the work of our CCE Privilege & Poverty Interns this summer, who are working in organizations, nationally and locally, that intentionally engage in issues of poverty.

In 1963, Gideon V. Wainwright expanded the universal right to an attorney to include any criminal case, not just capital cases as was the norm at the time. The need for public defenders was born in earnest. 

At around the same time, Harper Lee mythologized the righteous lawyer as an advocate who speaks truth to power, even in defeat. Pop culture has scooped up this glamour for a century, from juror eight’s unofficial and unpopular stand in 12 Angry Men to Batman’s childhood love interest, the public defender Rachel Dawes.

This summer, P&P Interns locally and nationally are learning the grittier reality behind the legal system, a reality far, far away from the scripted battles of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Exorbitant lawyer fees that drive people to legal aid clinics. Criminalization of socioeconomic status and race. Archaic and esoteric legal jargon. Yet for all of the systemic faults they’ve seen, they continue to be hopeful about the future.

Mariel Edokwe ’20, was caught off guard when she began her work in Sunbury, Pennsylvania as a legal aid intern for northern Penn Legal Services.

“This summer I’ve been incredibly surprised to see, firsthand, just how flawed our legal system is,” Mariel wrote to me in an email. “Law enforcement agencies are supposed to be impartial and I’m finding that, a lot of the time, it proves to be quite the opposite. This isn’t a fact that’s irreversible, but it’s something that more people need to be aware of in order for change to happen.”

Diana Diaz ’21, an investigative intern for the trial division of a public defender office in D.C., has noticed that, more often than not, navigating the legal system successfully comes down to an issue of privilege.  

“The legal world is complex and inaccessible in many ways– it might be possible to learn the jargon and more with Google, but even then it is difficult to understand and manage. There are many issues people in poverty face in the legal system, [starting] with the language of the system they should be able to navigate.”

There are many issues people in poverty face in the legal system, [starting] with the language of the system they should be able to navigate. – Diana Diaz ’21

And the solutions? Not an easy sell, either. 

“It’s a resource driven issue,” said Jena Santa Maria, a legal advocate for WomenSafe, a service here in Addison County that regularly steps into the courtroom for its clients. “We live in a political climate where resources for those in poverty are not given any priority.” 

And yet, despite the surprise and disappointment from interns witnessing the injustice of our justice systems, despite what seemed like grim resignation at times, throughout our conversations elements of hope kept arising – driven, in large part, by the individual interactions of every day.

“Working within this system is far more than just investigating– there is an importance placed on client interaction. My partner and I spend hours talking to our clients, learning about their lives and at the end of the day trying to encourage them,” reflected Diana. “I feel confident to say that I am not the only one at that office that feels like this kind of ‘work’ is quite possibly the best part of the job.”

Mariel Edokwe relayed a similar experience – and placed a similar emphasis on human interaction: “Our clients come in wanting to be heard without judgement, and when we listen, it’s a win-win for everybody. I think that at the end of the day, it comes down to us all needing to be much, much better at humanizing one another.”

I think that at the end of the day, it comes down to us all needing to be much, much better at humanizing one another. – Mariel Edokwe ’20

Reporting and working in and among social service providers this summer, it is undeniable that the same struggle that Diana and Mariel express runs across the board. A lack of resources for those who need it most is simply the expression, the tip of the iceberg, of a culture unwilling to confront its societal flaws, its greatest failings.

We live in one of the wealthiest nations in the world: we don’t have to pull these resources out of thin air. My experience from this summer makes it increasingly apparent that our societal priorities have been off-kilter, and that we aren’t ready to confront the powers making that so. Yet, again and again, the social service workers I have interviewed relay that connecting with the people they work with is a great source of fuel for the fight. That might be a good place to start.

Hungry for Change

P&P Intern Imran Ganda works to alleviate food insecurity this summer

From left to right: Lily Bradburn, Isabel Lubitz (Middlebury Foodworks Intern), and Imran Ganda

If every food insecure child in Addison County tried to get a meal at the Grille, the line would fill up capacity at Middlebury college’s student restaurant, then spill out into the auditorium and occupy every seat. And that would only be half of the total amount of kids.

CCE interns are learning the far-reaching grasp poverty has on food insecurity this firsthand this summer. One of our P&P interns, Imran Ganda, is working at HOPE, one of the leading food access providers in Addison County. Hope, short for Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, runs a number of programs, from housing and heating assistance to a resale store and – of course – a really, really big food shelf.

“We consistently get folks coming up from Rutland,” says Lily Bradburn, HOPE’s local access food coordinator. “There really isn’t an equivalent surplus area anywhere else. Every day you can come here, and walk away with a bag of groceries.”

What’s the difference? HOPE is open Monday through Friday, an accessibility which is rare for a food shelf. But the quality of the food is a deal breaker.

“Once I sign up clients, they just get blown away by the food shelf in the back, the kind of variety there is,” says Imran, who helps every client who walks through HOPE’s doors get the specific help that they are looking for.

Once I sign up clients, they just get blown away by the food shelf in the back, the kind of variety there is.

HOPE doesn’t wait around for people to come to them, either. Its food access program delivers nutritious, fresh food to a variety of different places, like the Addison Central Teen Center, an afterschool and summer program for teens.

“It’s a program where we can have different levels of engagement with clients, volunteers, donors – it [has] really well balanced access points,” says Lily.

Interns with HOPE aren’t just learning about food, however. They’re also learning about a different work environment, and how to see Addison County in a different way.

When asked about takeaways from this summer, Imran replied “Learning how to work in an office culture, seeing how people interact across organizations at meetings, seeing our [Privilege & Poverty intern] discussions reflected in the work.” 

But, perhaps more powerful than an understanding of offices and meetings, was the feeling of familiarity that developed around the work.

Imran at his desk at HOPE

“These past three years I haven’t really been able to interact with regular locals in the area,” says Imran. “One of the biggest takeaways from this internship is the experience of feeling a little more normal again, of feeling like myself.”

One of the biggest takeaways from this internship is the experience of feeling a little more normal again, of feeling like myself.

It might only take a well-stocked food pantry to diminish that line of hungry children. But there is a common thread of a subtle intensity behind the people I talk to; a determination hidden behind friendly personalities.

Our interview, on early Friday morning, was one of the few things Lily could do that day, before she hit her 40 hour work week and had to go home.

“I’m bumping up on forty again,” she said, in a tone that felt more frustrated than grateful that the long week was coming to a close. It looks like she has found her familiarity in this work as well, and Addison County can only be the better off for it.

Homelessness away from home

Middlebury Privilege & Poverty interns stay the summer in Vermont, engage with issues of poverty throughout Addison County.

This is the first in a series highlighting the work of our CCE Privilege & Poverty Interns, who are working in organizations, nationally and locally, that intentionally engage in issues of poverty. This week I sat down with Cynthia Ramos (intern) and Samantha Kachmar (co-director), of Charter House in order to enrich my own reflection about what it’s like working around poverty.

Photo courtesy of Charter House website

Cynthia Ramos is one of several Middlebury students who have been thrown into the daily operations of various social service organizations throughout Addison County this summer. From homelessness, to access to nutritional food, to advocating for women and migrant rights, Privilege and Poverty Interns are engaging with manifestations of poverty on a daily basis, and gather weekly to reflect and discuss their experiences. 

Cynthia is working at Charter House this summer, a non-profit, volunteer based organization that provides basic necessities like food and shelter. Though her job description might sound simple at first – cooking and cleaning, checking in residents – it has quickly become much more than what it seemed at the beginning.

“This job has been both easier and harder than I expected. I don’t have to know calculus to do it, but I have to have endless willingness to always do more, take on more. I have to be generous with not only my time, but my emotional availability…it’s exhausting, but not in a bad way. I feel more fulfilled now than I do during the school year,” says Cynthia.

Exhausting, yes. 

Worth it? Definitely.

Samantha Kachmar, Co-Director of the Charter House, agrees that the experiential learning that Privilege and Poverty Interns are receiving is unique in its own right – and difficult to digest at times. “It gives [students] a chance to really see it – in its reality. And it’s not always a pretty really. Sometimes learning and knowing something from material you’ve read or watched is much different than when you’re faced with that reality.”

“It’s exhausting, but not in a bad way. I feel more fulfilled now than I do during the school year.” – Cynthia Ramos

There’s a quote that hangs, pinterest style, next to the front door of my parent’s house that says “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.

That’s about as corny as they come (right behind “Live, Laugh, Love”, “Family is FOREVER” and “You can find me at the beach”). Nevertheless, I have always felt unduly motivated by its message. This summer as a Privilege and Poverty Intern through the CCE myself, I am beginning to understand not only the value of living into that quote, but the value of the home that holds that sign up.

At times the John Graham Shelter in Vergennes, where I have been placed, seems not twelve but twelve thousand miles away from the housing, dining, and education that I often take for granted in the middle of a semester at Middlebury. But perhaps the most valuable lesson I’m beginning to learn is that these “different worlds” are not so different; all it takes is intentionality and effort to connect the two.

That connection, perhaps tragically for the more bookish of us (myself included), takes place beyond the essays we read, the money we donate or the “likes” we give on Facebook. Ultimately, however, that connection gives us the chance to discover universal aspects of human nature. 

“It allows people to see that though we come from different backgrounds and different walks of life, we have a lot in common. And everyone has the same desire for a stable life, and just different ways to go about it, different resources to attain it,” says Kachmar.

As my first full year of living in Middlebury draws to a close, I have become more and more conscious of the divisions between college and community, wealthy and poor here in Addison County. Whether you are from “up the hill” or “down the hill”, or whether you shop at the co-op or Hannafords, has tangible consequences on how you perceive Middlebury – and how you are perceived by others. Undoubtedly, there are some parallel realities of experience here, just like in many other places.

But (as I’m beginning to see, thanks to my work this summer) more often than not the effort it takes to bridge these divisions is smaller than we think. And I’m grateful to be given the chance to try.

CCE Roots, Fulbright Wings

Experiences in community-based learning though the Center for Community Engagement supported the majority of this year’s Middlebury College Fulbright Fellowship winners. I connected with a few of them to learn about what got them on track for their Fulbright adventures!

Class of 2019 Fulbright recipients with CCE connections, left to right.
Top: Rebecca Brown (18.5), Mikaela Chang, Emmanuel Duran
Middle: Pharibe Pope, Tiffany Martinez, Ariana Hernandez
Bottom: Masayuki Sakamoto, Melisa Topic, Mary Trichka

Type in “best skills for success” and search for the key words. “Professional communication”, having “business acumen” and “grit” – all pretty predictable. From listening to Mozart in the womb to dropping out of highschool to pursue your genius passion, there is no shortage of unsolicited advice over what hacks are going to help you succeed.

And even though Google may not know it, we can now put down “caring for the community” as one of the best.

Eleven Middlebury seniors and five recently graduated alums will be spreading across the world with Fulbright fellowships for the 2019-2020 academic year. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Middlebury grads will be teaching or conducting research alongside more than 1,900 other recipients worldwide.

Looking at them, something stands out for me. One of the common threads across many of the recipients’ experience at Middlebury? Deep involvement in their communities, via CCE programs.

Eight of the 11 graduating seniors, and 11 of the 16 overall recipients were connected to the CCE in some capacity over their time here at Middlebury. From experiencing the larger world as a result of programs like Middlebury Alternative Break (MAlt) trips and the Cross Cultural Community Service Fund grants, to bringing that world back to Vermont with Language in Motion or being a Community Friends mentor, it is clear that Middlebury’s Fulbright recipients have no shortage of willingness to engage in their communities. Several name those experiences as factors that put them on the track to a Fulbright.

Mary Trichka, ‘19, who led a MAlt trip focused on urban farming in San Francisco, is hoping to engage with her new community as an English Teaching Assistant in the Republic of Georgia this upcoming year.  She reflected about how she came to value the reciprocal nature of community partnerships: “The sort of ideals associated with MAlt definitely apply to and will inform my Fulbright experience…this idea of service-learning stems from my MAlt experience. I hope to both give to and learn from the community I will be engaging with.”

Melisa Topic, ‘19, who will be heading to Argentina this fall, considered a lesson she learned from her time studying abroad and, later, using that experience to inform her role as a Language in Motion mentor here in Middlebury. “Getting out of your comfort zone can benefit you more than taking another class or getting an institutional internship,” Melisa says. “Push yourself to be uncomfortable, until it is comfortable.”

Along with the opportunity to pursue research and teaching, the Fulbright grant gives its recipients the opportunity to build a cross-cultural perspective, in order to build relationships that otherwise might have been impossible.

In a political moment increasingly defined by nationalism and xenophobia, Trichka’s idea of reciprocity in service learning and Topic’s motto of embracing the uncomfortable might be just what the global community needs to expand and rebuild our relationships. Here at the CCE, we’re honored to spark those kind of mindsets and look forward to hearing how these recipients deepen their commitment to intercultural learning around the world!