November 3, 2015

Fostering Spaces of Genuine Community Work: Digital Inclusion Fellowship Voices

In May 2015, NTEN and Google Fiber launched the Digital Inclusion Fellowship, a new national program investing in local communities and nonprofit organizations to address the digital divide. Sixteen Fellows are working this year on projects that include setting up basic computer skills courses, increasing home internet usage, and volunteer recruitment and training. Alonso Reyna Rivarola shares his recent work as a Fellow in Salt Lake City, working for the Salt Lake Education Foundation.

Photo credit: Keri Taddie
Photo credit: Keri Taddie

Working in the Glendale/Mountain View Community Learning Campus (CLC) in the Westside of Salt Lake City is an absolute privilege. The CLC is one of the few spaces in Salt Lake City where I know genuine community work occurs. The people who work and volunteer at the CLC are individuals with great energy and a common goal: a long-term commitment to the vitality of the community and the people who compose its diverse fabric.

Every day, the individuals and families involved in the CLC exemplify the meaning of community. Their approach? Hard work, dedication, and attention to fostering spaces of reciprocal learning where meaningful relationships are nurtured. At the CLC, relationships are nurtured from the smallest gestures, such as brewing and sharing a carafe of café con canela and panecillos, or an elaborate dish of calabacitas made with fresh ingredients from the co-built and now co-tendered community garden, to coming together as a community to support an individual who just experienced the passing of a loved one.

Relationships are at the center of the work that happens in the CLC. These relationships form and extend far beyond the scope of a one-year, or a one-time project. What makes the CLC a special place is the energy that children, youth, parents, support systems, and dedicated staff bring to the work they do every day with and for our communities.

Photo Credit: Wendy Morse
Photo Credit: Wendy Morse

As a Digital Inclusion Fellow working for the Salt Lake Education Foundation, I feel very fortunate to be placed in a space where I know meaningful work is happening. While raising awareness of the Internet is a central objective to my position, a more important part of my work consists of fostering genuine relationships with the people in my community, and what better place to do it than the CLC?

The CLC is full of learning opportunities for all members of the community, and I love being there. For instance, one of my favorite ongoing efforts in the CLC is The Learning Lab. The Learning Lab operates Monday through Thursday from 3:30 – 7:30 PM. It is an open program for students in the neighboring schools. Each day, approximately 45 elementary school students come to The Learning Lab to work on their homework and receive support from bilingual tutors, who include middle school to graduate student—volunteers from the community, and professional tutors from partnerships, such as Utah Reads. In addition to bilingual homework support, The Learning Lab offers enrichment labs and activities where students engage in hands-on projects. The majority of projects focus on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics). For example, this year, students had the opportunity to develop and race balloon rockets to test physical theories of momentum; most recently, students engaged in a biological research project, where they utilized cotton swabs and Petri dishes to collect samples and develop contained bacteria colonies to understand how diseases and sicknesses can spread.

Adult education is also an important part of the CLC. Every day, during and after school hours, parents and adults congregate at the CLC to collectively participate in community-based adult education courses. The CLC hosts an array of courses offered by community nonprofit organizations, such as the English Skills Language Center, which offers classes in three community-identified areas of interest: English Language Learner (ELL) courses, citizenship courses, and work-development courses. Before, during, and after these courses is where, again, genuine community relationships are fostered. The parents and other adults enrolled in these courses then have an opportunity to learn in a collective environment and build community in a meaningful way.

Through my experiences, I have realized many people hold a different view of community work. While some view community work as community service, and others as philanthropic efforts, I like to view community work as a reciprocal relationship between members of a community who share a common space and connect for authentic care for one another and the collective betterment. Some might call doing genuine community work a best practice; others might call it human nature; all I know is that an authentic commitment to doing community work is centered in fostering genuine relationships with community members. This means enacting a genuine commitment and active participation in the reciprocal process of building long-term relationships, which often start as acquaintanceships, transform into friendships, and finally, develop into the cohesion and formation of a larger familia, which to me is what community work should be all about: family.

In doing digital inclusion work, I would encourage everyone to (re)consider the meaning of community work, and reflect on ways in which their work is and may not yet be genuine. I would encourage everyone truly invested in community work to continue, and those who feel change needs to happen, to start building genuine relationships with all the individuals who make up the community: children, youth, young adults, adults, and elders. We can all do meaningful work and work collaboratively toward a long-term vision, which includes the vitality of all members of our communities. In other words, I trust that through genuine community work, we can all work collaboratively for the long-term vitality of our community as a family.

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Alonso Reyna Rivarola
Alonso R. Reyna Rivarola is a second year DACAmented graduate student at the University of Utah. His passion for working with community ignited in 2008 with the Mestizo Arts & Activism Collective, learning the transformational impact of working closely with community to achieve positive social change. Through the Digital Inclusion Fellowship Alonso seeks to engage with community members to imagine and implement digital literacy as a powerful tool and catalyst for educational access, political agency and community change.