Spotlight on Sarah-Over the Rhine Residency Program

Congratulations and great work to our students who completed the fall 2015 Over-the-Rhine Residency Project as a part of their Social Work Field Experience: Lauren Gould, Stella Norris, Maggie Botts, and Sarah Busemeyer. This unique program allows Social Work students to live for one semester in the Over-the-Rhine community and to complete the first part of their Senior Field Experience at local social service agencies. The program also counts fully toward the thematic sequence requirement. Applications are accepted in October for the following Fall term.

From Thomas Dutton, Director of the Miami University Center for Community Engagement in Over the Rhine:

“Offered through the University’s Center for Community Engagement in Over-the-Rhine, students from many walks of life moved to Over-the-Rhine for a full semester, living together, taking courses, engaging in reflection, and serving deep community need with neighborhood organizations, residents, and organizers… a primary goal is for students and community members, through the relationships and trust they build, to come to see the humanity beneath the narratives that circulate about Over-the-Rhine. Too often these narratives dehumanize; we come together to develop empathy.”

Today we spotlight a reflection from Sarah Busemeyer from the Family Studies and Social Work Department:

Being in school for five years now, I was over-the-moon excited to have an opportunity to live and study in Over-the- Rhine, work with other majors, while completing courses that would work towards graduation. I happily applied, and after acceptance, started to get acquainted with a city that I soon found out that I truly knew nothing about.

I have been well-acquainted with various suburbs throughout my life, but nothing compares to the ever bustling life of the city. Professionals in suits and ties in the bars or hustling down the sidewalk, individuals homeless on the stoops, and vendors on the corners. Once it hit me that this place was my new home for four months, the comfort of familiarity was nowhere to be found. With the exception of some welcome greenery in the trees and lawn of Washington Park as our front yard, nothing familiar welcomed me here in my beginning days. This feeling of discomfort is one that we all came to know, not only in our unfamiliarity with the city itself but what lessons and experiences it had to offer. Soon enough, we would begin to know them well.

Early on in the Program we discussed subconscious biases and past personal experiences, as all good social justice focused efforts should do. Thanks to my psychology and social work background, I was already fairly aware of perceptual misconceptions that can stem from growing up as a child of white, middle-class parents. I began to realize in these discussions that certain things I considered to be a personal preference may instead be a cultural difference. This has become more important to me than any other lesson about race or class. A person shouting ‘Hey baby!’ from the corner does not always mean you’re being hit on, nor do people gathering and talking on sidewalks mean they’re doing a drug deal. It could mean that you’re used to a different way of life, and a different way of communicating. I soon started catching myself subconsciously treating this unfamiliar behavior as confusing, wrong, or something to be wary of, instead of using what I know to make a conscious decision to change how I react to it. As you may have noticed, though, that is a common theme with things unfamiliar; treating it as dangerous is much easier than trying to understand and engage with it.

Fortunately for me, I entered a Program that encourages engagement, so much so that the learning environment here is actually called the “Center for Community Engagement.” Our hours were spent reading and discussing articles that explain and argue disparity, and using the remaining hours to explore the disparity for ourselves in our service-learning environments. Our engagement faces the disparity that still exists in a neighborhood that claims there is none. We would learn a lot about systemic reasons of disparity, who it is coming from, and why it is here. Many questions posed in those articles poked at areas I had never considered before, and made me squirm a little. When we would hear the same ideas posed in a different fashion from people who have experienced the disparity first-hand, everything started to become real.

Originally, I pulled myself away from my ignorance too quickly and walked through the neighborhood with a nose held high and a fiery glare towards everyone white and middle-class. It took me a while outside of the classroom to come to terms with the idea that not everyone who looked the part may have alternative intentions for those lower class. In fact, thanks to deeper reflection in my social work processing, I realized that most of the actions, reactions, or lack of actions from the ‘new’ people of the neighborhood has resulted from my same ignorance, rather than stemming from a brooding seed of malice. This world is not full of fairytale good guys versus bad guys, like we often discuss as a picture of the ‘OTRCH vs. 3CDC’ struggle, but instead, brimming with people who believe their way is the best way to achieve their priorities. We all have different views of what is truly right.

I’m personally still wrestling with a lot of ideas and a good number of questions. Many were too against the flow to feel safe to discuss in the classroom, but many more also wrung my heart out for the people that continue to experience the thrash of “progress.” My relationships with the people that experience the anguish of disparity have opened my conscience a little broader than I came in with, a conscience that will continue to question the consequences of action. I cannot argue that what has happened in this city has been a certain type of progress, even success, for some. After hours in the classroom with Tom and Bonnie, I can also argue that it has created regress and distress for others, and that the city is not unique in its struggles. Some people may choose to push it out, tear it down, repaint it, cover it up, or simply keep focused on their own goals, but the problems people face here are real.

As I gear up to leave this place, at least I can say I am confident that the city and people have made their mark on my life. The weeks have flown by, I have come to enjoy the energy that it gives me and the warmth that I feel from familiar faces and voices, in place of the unfamiliarity I felt before. Yet, there are not only more places to explore, relationships to build, but lessons to learn and questions to be answered. Not having the perfect answer may be the most difficult realization while I’ve been here. I can say that I enjoy Over-the-Rhine, and everything that it incorporates, and also admit that my time has been too short to fully appreciate all that it is. I leave more thankful now to have learned so many important lessons in this short period, and am happy to have called this place home for a time.

For more information on our Social Work Program, please visit:
http://miamioh.edu/ehs/academics/departments/fsw/academics/majors/social-work/index.html

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