By Professor Vanessa Marie Fernández
“My main takeaway from the field trip was the excitement behind the diversity and creativity of the city itself expressed through food, art and local businesses”
(Hillbrook School 8th Grader, Social Impact and Leadership Class)
In the above images, Hillbrook 8th graders chart the path of Art and Activism in San José by mapping how art, along with local eateries and businesses, shape the city’s design and cultural landscape. They explored how the “spaces in between” artworks are just as important as the murals and sculptures themselves.
We often think of art as detached representations, especially when it is housed in a museum. But, by walking to and through the spaces that art inhabits in a city, we come to understand that it is very much anchored in the cultures and communities that together make up the fabric of our city. This lesson illustrates how social impact work in education needs to reach beyond establishing relationships with community partners. While the relationships are crucial and must be built reciprocally and sustainably, as I will explain below, the space in between is just as important.
Driven by my passion for community engaged teaching and research, I recently joined Hillbrook School in Los Gatos, CA as the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship’s Program and Research Lead. Each day in this role brings me new opportunities to challenge my practice as an educator committed to social impact. In my over two decades long career as a Spanish language, literature, and culture educator, my classroom has always extended beyond the confines of its walls. Whether teaching 7th graders or Master’s students, my curricula have always connected student learning with our surrounding community – I take great pride in designing meaningful learning experiences centered on establishing reciprocal relationships between my students and community partners. These experiences are effective because they create an equitable learning exchange – students in my classes have as much to learn from community partners as community partners have to learn from them. My new role at the Scott Center, however, has challenged me to reach beyond this perspective.
Establishing reciprocal partnerships is certainly a key component of developing successful community engaged learning experiences. However, in establishing these relationships, I had not considered the broader community within which each partner organization exists; the space in between.
As a professor at San José State, I developed a relationship with 3rd Street Community Center and its director, Rosemary Baez, in downtown San Jose when we created a social impact learning experience for college students. In a reciprocal exchange of learning support, San José State students helped elementary school students at 3rd Street learn English, while elementary school students helped SJSU students with their Spanish. Yet, even during the many walks I took between 3rd Street and SJSU, I didn’t stop to consider the communities I traversed between the university campus and the St. James Park community where the center is located. I was so focused on the relationship between San José State and 3rd Street community center that I did not consider either 1) how each entity fit into the broader downtown San José community, or 2) the implications that creating this partnership might have.
“New SAP Mural by the Draculas written by Sal Pizarro of the Mercury News” This mural showcasing what the SAP brings to the SJ community is located between San José State and 3rd Street Community Center.
Two recent experiences as the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship’s Program and Research Lead have dramatically shifted my perspective: 1) participating in an Anchor Labs workshop, and 2) contributing to Hillbrook’s Upper School expansion.
Anchor Lab is an Anchor Schools workshop that provides educators with a blueprint for rethinking their institutions’ role within the community that they inhabit. Working with a dynamic cohort led by Sara Mierke and Paul Kim, my Anchor lab experience challenged me to reach beyond what I thought was possible and understand “impact as a collaborative action that builds community wealth and health.” (Sara Mierke, Anchor Schools) Throughout the workshop, we were encouraged to seek answers to questions such as, How does my institution fit into its community? Likewise, how does my work shape my institution and how does my institution shape my work? How does the relationship between my institution and its community connect to my work?
By using anchor institution strategies to resize and reconfigure K-12 organizations today, schools will become even more powerful in their efforts to create systemic change in the world, especially when they collaborate with other institutions. (Sara Mierke, Anchor Schools)
Part of the Anchor Lab journey asked us to take a 60 minute walk through our school’s neighborhood – I decided to explore the Downtown San Jose community where Hillbrook’s Upper School will open in fall 2023. It happens to be one block from 3rd Street Community Center, so I rang the doorbell hoping I might catch up with Rosemary.
Reconnecting with Rosemary, I asked her about “the space in between” that I had overlooked during our previous collaboration. She helped me gain a new perspective on 3rd Street as an organization grounded in and actively shaping the Downtown San Jose St. James Park Community. While Third Street educates and supports a diverse student population that lives in the area, Rosemary also makes sure that her organization engages community matters and supports neighbors’ initiatives. It is a non-profit organization truly anchored in its community.
My Anchor Lab experience and my talk with Rosemary Baez at 3rd Street Community Center have significantly impacted how I approach my role as Program and Research Lead at the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship. I now understand that my approach to Reach Beyond was limited by the places I was walking to, instead of the places I was walking through. I need to, in a sense, anchor my approach to reach beyond. Establishing reciprocal relationships between students and community organizations becomes more meaningful when one takes the time to evaluate how each participant in this relationship is also anchored in its community. I applied this lesson immediately when I designed a “City as Classroom/ Art-Activism” field trip in downtown San Jose for 8th graders in our Social Impact and Leadership course. As part of the experience, I created a “Scavenger Hunt” geared towards helping students gain an understanding of how local businesses contribute to and shape the fabric of our city. As they explored the city as a classroom, I also wanted them to understand how businesses and organizations – coffee shops, book stores, muffler shops, LGBTQ centers and hotels – play a key and unique role in our city’s present design and community.
The lessons I’ve learned about “anchoring reach beyond ” inform how I play my role in Hillbrook’s Upper School expansion into the St. James Park Community in Downtown San Jose. The neighborhood around me is both familiar and brand-new, as my work is guided by new questions and a broader view: How can I play my part in helping us be more than an institution of learning within our community? How can our school be a good neighbor and an anchoring institution in our community? How can our students learn to look for those in-between space and the stories they might hold? A first step could perhaps be how we approach residing in the buildings that will house our Upper School. Both buildings are historical landmarks in our city. As such, it might be tempting to see them as “museum worthy,” “detached” representations of past eras and architectural styles. Yet, applying the lessons I have reflected upon in this piece, we might consider digging into how these buildings have been anchored in the cultures and communities that have, and continue to, shape our city. Their stories can shed light on how we can honor and build upon their legacy going forward.