When I first started teaching in the 1990s, a community-based research and learning movement, aimed at undergraduates, was well underway in US universities. Long admiring innovative community organizations designed to serve and empower poor, often racially stigmatized urban residents, I embraced the idea that students could (and should) learn from community-based organizations and those who use and serve them.
Cut to January 2015 – I arrive to NYU Abu Dhabi to teach Urban Poverty and Social Policy (UPSP) and Race and Ethnicity, and meet with Carol Brandt, Associate Vice Chancellor for Global Education and Outreach. Brandt who shares my love for community-based research and learning, felt compelled to tell me about Ethiopia’s Medhen Social Center (MSC), located 7 kilometres southwest of the capital city, Addis Ababa. The story she told moved and impressed me, so when she invited me to go and see MSC for myself, my passion for visiting new places, deep desire to support innovative community-based organizations, and love for Ethiopian food made this an easy and enthusiastic "yes!"
Joined by one of my UPSP students and two NYUAD community members who’d visited MSC the year before—our four-person team headed to Medhen at the beginning of spring break. During three intense days of learning from MSC staff, we were able to complete a project that had begun last year and develop new projects my UPSP students are working on this semester.
The highlight—aside from enjoying outstanding Ethiopian food prepared by an MSC-supported women’s co-op—was joining a collective case-management session run by the social workers, who spoke in English rather than Amharic, so that we could understand their careful deliberations about how best to serve families with whom they are working. Our team left humbled and in awe of the model of care, interactive decision-making, mutual respect, and love staff showed to their clients, one another, and to us, their NYUAD partners.
Last year’s NYUAD team developed narrative profiles that illustrated the innovative strategies MSC uses to assist and empower community members seeking help. Those profiles, now complete, will help us bring MSC’s inspirational story and research-grounded efforts to larger publics. My students are developing strategies to assist MSC in digitizing their work by creating a website to gain greater visibility; exploring unique, new, passive-funding options that won’t distract staff from their core service commitments; and helping develop stronger ties with former clients, or "alumni". Already we’ve found a summer intern to help with digital and alumni-development tasks and we expect to be able to provide the website prototype by late summer.
Our team left humbled and in awe of the model of care, interactive decision-making, mutual respect, and love staff showed to their clients, one another, and to us, their NYUAD partners.
MSC provides a host of linked, wrap-around services and support designed to address any and all immediate crises a family may be facing, which is why many folks show up to MSC in the first place, then helps stabilize a family’s overall situation by identifying and building upon existing skills and strengths. A family might arrive with an adult who is unable to provide care because of untreated HIV, with children malnourished and falling behind in school, and with neither home nor source of income. Then, within several months of MSC intervention, the parent could recover sufficiently to work full-time, secure housing, and provide adequate nutrition for their children. MSC also provides educational support through its Montessori-style kindergarten and non-formal education programs: tutors for youth, and after-school tutoring for the community, open six day a week year-round.
But as Sister Senkenesh and her energetic young staff are quick to point out—the successes of their non-clinical family support model would be impossible without the active participation of Medhen community members, many of whom have benefitted, at some point, from MSC’s help. Community members foster children; allow those who are sick or disabled to rent rooms in their homes; volunteer and “pay back/(forward)” through labor offered in dedicated service to new MSC clients; and many other ways community members serve as the backbone of MSC. Perhaps most important of all, community members offer psycho-social and other forms of peer support that give hope to those at the beginning of recovery journey, when hope and perseverance are hard to come by on one’s own.
MSC has many, many, victories to celebrate in this, its 25th year; thriving worker cooperatives; several group-based savings clubs; near 100 percent stably-housed community members; and former students graduating at the top of their university classes. But for MSC staff, it’s all about the next family in need—and 100 percent commitment to maintaining the collective effort, combining the skills of every single case worker on every single case and daily drawing upon the community’s vast store of social capital and good will. My students and I—along with our three NYUAD MSC team advisors, Dr. Alexandra Dimitri, undergraduate Gabriel Figueroa, and Global Academic Fellow Sidak Yntiso--are thrilled and honored to extend NYUAD’s reach to MSC, taking on a few tasks that would otherwise re-direct MSC resources away from serving families in need.