Inequalities and Opportunities in Yonkers Round-Table

Condensed and edited by Katharine Reece MFA '12

In 1985, a federal court ruled that the City of Yonkers, New York, and the Yonkers public schools had intentionally segregated its housing and schools, based on race, for the previous 40 years.

Black and Hispanic children went to the same few schools because their families were forced to live in the same few neighborhoods. The facts were undeniable: The southwest quadrant of Yonkers contained almost all of the city’s public housing and 80 percent of its minority population. To force desegregation, the court placed steep fines on the city and ordered the development of public housing on the east side of Yonkers.

For Kim Ferguson (Psychology), Yonkers represents merely a microcosm of urban America’s struggles. To that end, in 2014, Ferguson helped launch a new interdisciplinary program called Intensive Semester in Yonkers. The fall semester’s theme was “Inequalities and Opportunities in Yonkers,” and students took three courses—in psychology, writing, and politics, taught by Ferguson, Marek Fuchs (Writing), and David Peritz (Politics)—and worked 15 hours a week in a community-based organization.

Ferguson’s course, “Integrating Theory, Research, Policy, and Practice,” introduced students to the methodologies of community-based work and research. Her class also helped start a literacy project at Westhab, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing and support services in Westchester County.

On December 5, Ferguson’s class met at the Sarah Lawrence College Center for the Urban River at Beczak, in downtown Yonkers, where the students discussed the methods of community-based work in general—such as how to use data to improve programs or procure funding, and how to present research to stakeholders—and how to evaluate their literacy program specifically.

“One of the biggest challenges,” Ferguson says, “is that you can contribute to people’s powerlessness if you enter a community and assume you know what they need.”

Under DiscussionUNDER DISCUSSION:

Lisa Belkin, Show Me a Hero (Little, Brown and Company, 1999); Karen Hacker, Community-Based Participatory Research (Sage, 2013); Randy Stoecker, Research Methods for Community Change: A Project-Based Approach (Sage, 2012)

Kim Ferguson: A lot of you, in your reflections, were identifying and having a hard time putting together the fact that everything we heard from the families was, “This is wonderful! We really loved it, it really worked, and we’d like to continue,” with your own discomfort and the challenges we all felt. It wasn’t nearly as participatory as we would [have liked]. … Any thoughts about that piece right now?

Jacob Ready ’15: A program that’s beneficial though maybe not perfectly participatory is better than no program at all.

Augusta Gribetz ’17: I also think that in terms of the evaluation … all of us represented the outside voice. … If the people coming in to do the lesson are also doing the evaluation, I think that’s problematic in and of itself. … All of us were standing in the background, and [the process of our evaluation] was an awkward dynamic in that sense. Some of us were taking notes, some of us were just sitting there—how could they say something negative?

Brady Wheeler ’15: Especially with the power dynamics of what we represent in terms of gender and race.

Kim Ferguson: So this is an important piece, because what we take from this piece very concretely is to say, “What could we have done differently?” Or maybe in that setting, with the options we had, we couldn’t have done something differently, but what could be done differently in the future?

Sachi Shah ’15: We’ve been talking a lot about how the program works better when the groups are smaller. So maybe we could use that and say, “What if we have a slightly more decentralized program?” Instead of having one person running the program, that person could train [other people]. You’re training and empowering [other people] to run the program, so they’re not dependent on other outside organizations or people to run the program.

Brady Wheeler: I think some level of structure can provide confidence … but [we should find a way] to allow much more room for the leadership of the parents themselves to guide where the program goes. During the last class, we got a taste of that, and it was absolutely amazing. … The families were already having the conversations [we had been trying to facilitate].

Rosie Sofen ’15: I agree with Brady. I think that having a structure in the beginning is really helpful, but I think there’s a lot of room to then transition to community leaders being the facilitators.

"I think some level of structure can provide confidence...but [we should find a way] to allow much more room for the leadership of the parents themselves..."

Kim Ferguson: One of my questions is: When you think about entering a community again with a program they would take over, would it make more sense to start from the ground up?

Rosie Sofen: I always think it’s better, or best, to start from the ground up. You don’t really know what community members are going to want or need unless you talk to them. … [In my project] with Linwood Lewis (psychology), it was so apparent that any assumptions I had before going to talk to community members were totally challenged by conversations I had. I feel like it’s almost impossible not to put your bias in.

Brady Wheeler: My question is: What role should the families and parents have in terms of leadership within the program, and what role should outside leaders have?

Sachi Shah: I think that training is really important in situations like this, where the families don’t have free rein completely, but [a facilitator] works with the families to say, “These are certain techniques we use and how you use them. Would you like to try these? Do you think this would be useful or not?”

Rosie Sofen: And starting from the ground up also doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have someone come in and teach those skills. You would ask community members, “Are these things you want for your kids and yourself?” and then, “What’s the best way you want to see that happen? Do you want somebody to come in and train someone in your community, or do you want someone to come in and do a session for you?”

Augusta Gribetz: But I also think we should look within the community. Maybe there’s a teacher within that community.

Blair Mason ’15: I think … you need to focus on where power comes from. … If it were the community saying, “We want you to teach X, Y, and Z,” and [the facilitator] acquiesced to that, then all the decision-making would [come from within]. …

Kim Ferguson: It’s helpful to think right now … [about] three pieces that Stoecker says are important in terms of evaluation. It’s simplistic, but I think it’s really helpful: Are you making a difference? Why or why not? And who wants to know?