DC Schools Project Practices True Student-Worker Solidarity

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Katherine Leopold (SFS ’18) with Tackie Memuna, a long-serving Facilities worker at Georgetown.

Anastasia Sendoun (COL ’18) and Alexa Pereda (SFS ’17) are the coordinators for the Adult On-Campus Program that offers free ESL tutoring to Georgetown University campus workers as a component of the University’s Just Employment Policy . Their work is part of the DC Schools Project, an initiative of Georgetown’s Center for Social Justice. They coauthored this profound reflection about their experience serving the people who keep the University running smoothly.

The Hilltop should be a place where every member of its community feels empowered to learn, including those who we do not traditionally think of as students.

The Adult On-Campus Program is part of the D.C. Schools Project, an initiative at Georgetown’s Center for Social Justice that seeks to engage D.C.’s immigrant community through English-language access tutoring. The Adult On-Campus Program is unique in its demographic. While the other D.C. Schools programs take students off-campus into different neighborhoods, our program hits closer to home by tutoring adults who serve Georgetown every day. As one of the newest programs of D.C. Schools, the Adult On-Campus Program strives to meet the needs of Georgetown employees who desire to improve their English, prepare for the citizenship exam, and feel more confident in their ability to communicate.

As a coordinator for this program I’ve been able to personally experience the extent of the impact that our work can have. I began as a tutor in the fall of 2014, helping a Leo’s worker study for her citizenship exam. At first, I was just helping someone achieve a goal she had in mind. However, for my tutee, taking the citizenship exam was the opening of a door into a greater sense of belonging that brought along with it the possibility of success outside of what she had already been able to achieve on her own. My experience with her is what drove me to continue my work with the program, serving members of our community much like her that lack support. Since then, I’ve been able to witness many others journeys in their efforts to reach what is their American dream. It is a humbling learning experience for both tutor and tutee as they form a working relationship of mutual trust and understanding.

In general, through its work with immigrants, D.C. Schools is compelled to grapple with a variety of issues, from language barriers in the classroom, to rights for undocumented immigrants, to a lack of institutional support for workers. For our program specifically, our focus is the intersectionality of workers’ rights, immigrant rights, and the struggles that come with learning English as a foreign language, particularly as an adult. We see this cross-section of labor, immigration, and language-access rights as an issue of social justice.

Social justice is often perceived by society as something that is a secondary concern and has been relegated to the realm of community organizing and activism by those who do not see it as a fundamental responsibility of all. While organizers and activists do strive to generate a more just world, the truth is that social justice is not exclusive to them. By pulling social justice out of the realm of buzzwords and into a practical context, Georgetown’s Adult On-Campus Program does not necessarily look to advocate on behalf of workers, but rather to create a space in which the workers grow in their own confidence to advocate on behalf of themselves. These workers have voices and stories and ideas that are powerful, but through a failure of the system in which they are situated, they lack the means to be able to express their own narratives. That is the gap that we strive to bridge with our tutoring and advocacy work.

Georgetown, as a Jesuit institution, calls on its students to be “men and women for others.” Yet, day in and day out, we go to Leo’s, enjoy living in clean dorm buildings, and see this campus run, oftentimes without giving a second thought to the people who make that possible. We should not have to look so far to find these “others” whom we are supposed to be serving in the Jesuit tradition. They are sitting at the next table over from us at dinner. They are vacuuming the hallway outside our classroom. They are tirelessly and often thanklessly doing the work that needs to be done in order for us, as students, to be able to live and learn in the environment that is crucial to our success.

Our work can sometimes feel minimal — tutoring for one hour, twice a week. However, our work is invaluable in that is creates spaces that are safe and personal relationships that are strong between the students and workers of this institution. At the end of the day, we might help someone get his or her citizenship or help him or her be able to communicate with a supervisor. But even if that does not necessarily happen in the span of a semester, our work succeeds when we break down the barriers that prevent us from seeing workers for who they are, and all they can be, when given the opportunity and the resources to accomplish their goals.