Immersions Teach That Service Begins With Understanding

Written by Edward Carpenter
Blues Immersion

Photo by Barbara Ries.

Injustice in the Blues

Looking out the window of the Revolution Café on Seventh Street recently, Patrick Duffey ’14 studied a trash-filled lot surrounded by graffiti-tattooed fences. It was hard to imagine that the area, near the West Oakland BART station, was once a center of the West Coast blues and jazz scene.

"It was called the Harlem of the West,” said guitarist Ronnie Stewart, executive director of the nonprofit Bay Area Blues Society, who has devoted himself to preserving Seventh Street’s history as a mecca of the blues and its outgrowth, jazz.

How the Seventh Street scene disappeared and where the Oakland musicians who performed there went was the subject of a recent two-week service-learning immersion course—Injustice, Healing, and the Blues—at the University of San Francisco. The philosophy course is one of dozens that USF undergraduates can choose from to fulfill their service-learning class requirement of spending 20 hours learning from and giving back to a community organization or the disadvantaged.

Working with the Blues Society, Duffey, an English and philosophy double major, and the rest of the class mapped out the clubs, recording studios, and restaurants that once made up the Seventh Street scene. In the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, the Seventh Street strip was home to famous clubs such as Esther’s Orbit Room and Slim Jenkins Supper Club, where Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday played, as did Oakland-born blues stars Saunders King and “Terrible” Tom Bowden.

The students also visited musicians’ homes, interviewing the performers with the idea of preserving their oral histories.

Abrol Fairweather, the adjunct professor who developed the course as part of USF’s Arrupe Justice immersion program, called the class a two-week glimpse into the roots of the blues—a unique musical form closely tied to a specific historical injustice.

“The blues came up from field hollers, call-and-response, and Bible spirituals sung in the fields during slavery in the South,” Fairweather said. “Slaves weren’t allowed to speak to each other so they communicated by singing.”

Meeting and interviewing musicians who grew up in the scene put a human face on one of America’s greatest injustices, said Maria Peeples ’15, a politics major. “Before the class, I only thought about the blues as a form of music. Now, I see the blues as a beautiful cultural expression that came out of a dark time in American history and helped people cope.”

Peeples, Duffey, and other students interviewed Stewart, vocalist Bowden, and saxophonists Geneo Landry and Carl Green at their homes and in cafes in West Oakland, hosted them and their band mates for performances at USF’s Crossroads Café, and invited them to speak in class. The performers grew up during the time of Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights Movement, so who better to tell students about the blues? Fairweather asked.

Bowden—in a tailored suit, a giant of a man carrying a bead-emblazoned cane— recalled sneaking out of the house on weekend nights when he was 9 years old to shine shoes, hustle for a buck, and sing on Seventh Street corners. “The blues is a way of life, not just 12 musical bars on a keyboard,” said Bowden, who played on the same stages as the legendary Count Basie, B.B. King, and Aretha Franklin.

The musicians told students about white nightclub owners who tried to stiff them, record label tricks that cut them out of a lifetime of royalties, and their own hometown, under the guise of redevelopment, turning against them. Seventh Street, once the center of so much musical culture and an economic engine, was knocked down in the name of progress.

For some students, the class stirred feelings of guilt or responsibility. What could they do? And yet, just asking that question was a signal that the course’s approach worked.

“Arrupe Justice immersions are not about sending students into a community to offer a quick fix—to feed the hungry, or build homes for the homeless. It’s not about students feeling good about themselves for helping others,” said Enrique Bazan, associate director of social justice and community action for USF’s University Ministry and the director of the Arrupe Justice program. “It’s about students walking in someone’s shoes that has been a victim of injustice; it’s about students grappling with fairness, right and wrong, privilege and poverty, hope and hopelessness.”

Indeed. “Even taking this class, where there wasn’t a single person of color enrolled, caused a lot of conflict for me when exploring injustice within a Jesuit context,” Peeples said.

Stewart nominated Injustice, Healing, and the Blues for a West Coast Blues Hall of Fame education award—which it won. “We need more classes like this that shed light on the injustices,” he said, “and bring attention to the institutions that caused them.”

Photography by Barbara Ries




Phillippines Immersion

Christina Solitaria ’15 (left) with Nazarene Cordero. Photo by Kerwin Go.

Students Learn from Gritty Reality

Returning to the Philippines to study this past spring, Teresa Cariño ’13 anticipated a kind of homecoming. The Philippines is her parents’ homeland, after all. She had visited many times. What she found were families crowded into shanties and children living on the streets—scenes she had previously only glimpsed from the security of her family’s car.

Returning to the Philippines to study this past spring, Teresa Cariño ’13 anticipated a kind of homecoming. The Philippines is her parents’ homeland, after all. She had visited many times. What she found were families crowded into shanties and children living on the streets—scenes she had previously only glimpsed from the security of her family’s car.

"It’s been intense. There is no other way to describe it,” Cariño, a theology and religious studies major at the University of San Francisco, wrote in an email from Manila. For Cariño, Casa Bayanihan has thrown back the curtain on a world of injustice that she knew little about from family vacations.

Thanks to an anonymous donor, six other USF students were with Cariño during the spring semester—all studying tuition-free and accompanying members of underprivileged communities as part of the Casa Bayanihan program.

The study abroad and immersion program—jointly administered by USF, Santa Clara University, and Ateneo de Manila University in Manila—just completed its second semester. Unlike other study abroad programs, Casa teaches by immersing students in marginalized communities and pairing those students with residents or nonprofits working for change. The pillars of the program are accompanying residents of marginalized communities; rigorous academic study; community living, including eating simple meals, washing clothes by hand, and taking cold showers; and spiritual formation.

Students study the Philippine economy, culture, and society; gender equality; Tagalog; and more. Two days a week, and occasionally on weekends, students take what they’ve learned in the classroom into the field at praxis sites, learning from locals about the realities on the ground. The richness of the program lies in the combination of what students learn in the community and in the classroom, and the dialogue that ensues.

Indeed, Casa isn’t about students “parachuting” in to aid needy Filipinos. Historically, that approach has damaged cultures. Students are taught to resist that impulse and reminded that, prior to using the benefits of privilege and power to help others, they must walk humbly with them, and be instructed by their daily reality, said Mark Ravizza, S.J., the Jesuit-in-residence at Casa Bayanihan.

“We aren’t here to help. We are here to learn,” said Cariño, recalling a quote that was recited during her Casa orientation: “‘If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.’” (Lilla Watson)

For Cariño, accompaniment meant building friendships with disabled Filipinos, who often face discrimination, and learning how they manage daily tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and traveling around town. Cariño also tutored special education students and packaged medications from a local pharmaceutical company. For other students, accompaniment meant improving the construction of shanty homes in squatter communities, helping nonprofits educate street children, or learning how micro-loans are administered to small business owners.

Class assignments, community-based research, films, and weekly discussion groups all relate to students’ experiences in local communities. The program’s integration of classroom, real-world, and spiritual lessons are key to students developing an awareness of and compassion for those who experience harsh realities, to advancing a deeper knowledge of themselves, and to living more justly with others, said Grace Carlson, Casa co-director.

Casa challenges students’ thinking about poverty and privilege, the role of faith, the factors that give rise to the suffering they see, and what it means to “help” people. Students stepping outside of their comfort zones is what Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., the 29th superior general of the Society of Jesus, had in mind in 2000 when he issued a new imperative for Jesuit higher education: “Students,” he said, “must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives, so that they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering, and engage it constructively.”

Colleen Curry ’13, who completed Casa in fall 2011, said the realities she encountered in the Philippines broke down barriers that let her close herself off from others’ problems. “It exposed me to a new way of living,” said Curry, an English major. “No longer do I just exist in my California bubble, but in the greater world reality.”

Filipina American Tara Peithman ’12, who also completed Casa in 2011, called the program the most valuable part of her USF experience. “It changed what I want to do after graduation,” said Peithman, who accompanied families living in a squatter community, helping to build homes, teaching art to children, and painting church pews.

Peithman plans to apply for work as an advocate for the Asian community. She’s also pursuing opportunities for development work in the Philippines. “Living in community with others in solidarity and developing a spiritual dimension has completely empowered me,” Peithman said.

Peithman’s experience illustrates Casa’s transformative power.

Through the “gritty reality,” Fr. Ravizza said, students witness the beauty, hope, and faith that, in spite of immense struggles, can remain strong in a broken world.

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