Sunday, November 9, 2008

"Community Matters" and Rural Communities

On Friday I attended the "Perspectives on Diversity and Service-Learning Reading Group" that Val Werpetinski leads. Our topic for the day: class and service learning. (Click here to see our reading list for the semester.) Our guest speaker: Pattsi Petri. She talked to us about Community Matters, a University of Illinois project that attempted to address planning needs in five Illinois communities.

I won't try to summarize Pattsi's presentation. (Click here to see her slides.) But I will note the interesting intersections between class (our topic for the week) and the projects she described that caught my attention.

Clay County, my home county, participated in the project. (Click here and follow links to see the outcomes of the Clay County charrette.) That's the only community in the project I can claim any knowledge about. Two class issues stood out at me:
  1. Many residents of Clay County are distrustful of intellectuals. Therefore, any planning suggestions from university representatives are immediately suspect, if not immediately dismissed.
  2. Planning is antithetical to the way that many things happen in a rural community with the kind of socioeconomic class profile that Clay County has.

    I gave the example of homes. Many people start out with a piece of land and a trailer. Then, when they have some money, they may add on a room to the trailer, or a carport. Then, when they can afford it, they put in a shed or a garage. They might pour some concrete next to the garage and add a picnic table or table and chairs for when they have people over. Then, when they have some more money available, they put in something else.

In other words, what is considered "planning" by academics is often inconceivable for people who just need to see what they can get with the money they have in hand at the moment.

This example illustrates how things work on the individual level, but the same logic, I believe, exists at a community-wide, town government level. That is not to say that people in rural, non-affluent communities do not have a vision for what they want their community to be like. But when an academic or professional planner takes a look at those communities, they may see a crazy quilt pieced together over the years instead of a "clean" set of projects that come together in one unified plan.

What does this have to do with Spanish community-based learning?

  • Well, more and more US Latinos are living in rural, impoverished communities in Illinois and throughout the US.
  • Our students at the University of Illinois are almost all from Chicago and its suburbs; many have never interacted with US Latino communities nor non-urban communities.
  • Most of the work on poverty that I have heard about at the university is about urban poverty, not rural poverty. Therefore, our students have little chance to be educated on rural poverty before they take a Spanish community-based learning course.
  • And finally, we are not reaching rural Latinos through our program because of transportation issues.

Clay City, IL image:

Trailer home image:

1 comment:

  1. I find the inherent distrust of intellectuals puzzling and interesting. Did you get a sense of it origins at all?

    I can certainly understand the reluctance to focus too much on the future when the immediate future is full of much more pressing issues, though. And it may be seen as hubris to have an academic instruct someone on how they should manage their budgets.

    What was it that you were working on for the service learning portion of the class?