In the fall of 2020, Cassie Kearney ‘22 participated in the Center for Community Engagement’s first Community Connected Learning course. Here is the reflection she shares on her learning experience from the semester.
Last fall, Cameron Weiner (2020.5) and I engaged in service-learning through a partnership with the Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE) to complete a final deliverable/product for the Community Connected Learning course. Founded in 2004, CAE is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that strengthens the Hardwick and greater Vermont food system by implementing programs that increase farm and community viability. Our interests and aspirations to diminish food insecurity while forming intimate connections with Vermont communities aligned well with CAE’s mission. For our final project, we constructed a COVID-19 impact assessment, which we titled, “Voices of the Pandemic: Perseverance, Hope, and Community.” We wove together personal narratives and published research to identify successes of CAE’s impacts on Northeast Kingdom (NEK) communities, specifically Hardwick, and to recognize needs and gaps where individuals were lacking/slip between the cracks. Our deliverable only contains one small glimpse of CAE’s COVID-19 response and impact, featuring the voices of farmers who have received resources and support from CAE, participants in the Hardwick Community Meals program, garden bed recipients, Grow Your Own workshop leaders, and community organizers involved in the Hardwick Area Food Pantry (HAFP) and the Hardwick Area Neighbor to Neighbor (HANN) group. By discussing personal narratives and pandemic data, we hoped that it would become evident how relief programs had been fruitful thus far and how these initiatives could be more diverse and effective as the COVID-19 crisis continues.
I loved my experience in this class because of how service was naturally intertwined within an academic curriculum. Understanding why communities are in need of resources, specific assistance, or care is the first step in deconstructing dominating power structures and dismantling the inequalities that sustain them in the first place. The overall success of the partnership made me so grateful for the opportunities provided by Middlebury, and working with CAE has been one of the most enriching, rewarding experiences of my college career so far. I was able to have an unparalleled, immersive semester in collaboration with CAE and community members despite never physically being present in Hardwick. I believe that this success speaks to the significance of the two-way street and reciprocity inherent in service-learning. Accountability and a shared knowledge of each side’s capacities, limitations, strengths, and weaknesses are critical in forming partnerships. If students are not wholly committed and focused on how they can best contribute to a specific community’s needs and strengths, then the organization can suffer detrimental effects – ultimately, the partnership could develop into a time and energy sink. Fortunately, that was not the case at all in my work with CAE.
My favorite part of the course/my project would definitely be forming relationships with the CAE staff and Hardwick community members. The enthusiasm, generosity, and mission of the CAE staff, along with the passions and excitements of my course instructors, made this service-learning experience so fun and fulfilling. The workload for the class never really felt like actual homework – I enjoyed what I was doing and realized I could actually help others in a virtual manner. In general, community engagement is so important to me because I love helping other individuals. Also, all of the community members that I interviewed or spoke with were so welcoming and receptive even though I was the outsider. I was very careful when navigating this line between learning about the community for my project and intruding on the good of the community/studying the community for academic obligations. Published literature shows many issues with short-term service-learning and the goals of higher institutions of learning. My supervisor, Lylee, once mentioned: “The best partnerships are the ones when both sides feel like they got the better deal.” I always tried to maintain reciprocity in my collaborative work with CAE, and I think that our partnership turned out the most fruitful that it could have been in COVID-19 times.
Seeing what I was learning in class being put into action or experiential learning was so valuable for my future goals to do nonprofit work in the Public Health field. I could witness how academic principles played out in my own experiences with community members and the CAE staff. Throughout the course and my partnership, I learned how to best identify and describe self-reflective practices, active listening, social location, privilege, and positionality. Fully comprehending how these personal factors impacted my perspectives and evaluations of a community separate from my own challenged me and pushed me to analyze common judgements and stereotypes. I learned to never take anything at face value; assumptions often automatically create barriers and further exclude members of society who are discriminated against or disadvantaged. Lastly, I have become mindful of the dangers of shaping communities as entities in deficit and shifting my frames of references to understand the situations of individuals divergent from my own situation here on campus and in the broader Middlebury community.
After Middlebury, I plan to get a higher degree in Public Health with a concentration in community or behavioral health. I would love to engage in nonprofit collaboration, so this course and partnership definitely prepared me for my future endeavors. This summer, I will also be working in a similar partnership program through the Forest Foundation. I will be making my own project by working with a nonprofit in the Boston area (organization is TBD). In addition, this course taught me how to concretely explain my goals and intentions (even when they aren’t fully formed!), to have confidence when facing obstacles or uncomfortable interactions, to utilize my creativity without fear, and to research and examine issues independently with a great deal of freedom.