Reflecting on my USES Experience:

December 3, 2019 | 0 Comments

The Importance of Building a Strong Community

My name is Cynthia Ordoñez Salguero, and I’m about to graduate from University of Massachusetts Amherst with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. My passion for social justice and creating long-lasting social change deeply evolved during my college career. Last year, after realizing I only had 16 credits left until I could graduate, I decided to join the College for Social Innovation.  CfSI is a nonprofit organization that gives undergraduate students the opportunity to live in Boston while interning in the social sector. This program is designed to be an integrated and holistic learning experience. We spend 30 hours a week working at a nonprofit, and 10 hours a week taking classes that explore concepts, methods, and practices in the field of social innovation from a systems-level, multi-sector, and cross-disciplinary perspective.

I had the opportunity of spending my last semester interning at United South End Settlements, a nonprofit with over 125 years of experience. The idea behind settlement houses in Boston started around the 1890’s. Newcomers moving into the city were looking for work, freedom, and opportunity. Instead, they found poverty, bad housing, and prejudice. In hopes of addressing these issues, settlement houses were created to give people of means an opportunity to live in underserved neighborhoods and work alongside the residents to solve these issues. As time evolved, so did United South End Settlements. Nonetheless, the same principle exists today. At its core, USES aims to unite its diverse community to strengthen and uplift one another. In practice, if done right, it can be the most sustainable way to create long-lasting social change, especially with an ambitious mission of disrupting the cycle of poverty for children and their families.  

During my time at USES, I was tasked with a multimedia project that showcased our tight-knit community. I decided to interview a wide array of stakeholders and community members to get a deeper understanding of the different elements that  represent USES.  Parents, staff members, directors, board members – all from different walks of life – talked with me about their perspective and experience in the South End and at the organization.

Here are some direct quotes:

“People who move here are seeking that connection and are seeking the diversity. That’s what makes this community so special. -Joyce Lee, USES Board Member and Parent

“What makes me feel safe is when the teachers and my friends are around me” -Valeria Claudio, club48 Participant

“To not assume that they had all the answers, but they had to come live alongside one another and try to figure out what was the way to address those issues.”  -Frieda Garcia, USES Executive Director from 1981 to 2001

If you would like to read their full stories, go to www.uses.org/usescommunity.

Our USES Community web page design

As I reflect back on all of the knowledge I’ve gained, I begin to circle back to the idea of humans being social creatures and depending on one another for survival. However, through industrialization, democracy, new technology, and other powers that be, the United States has developed an individualistic culture. There are many benefits produced by this culture. We’re able to express ourselves without  harsh social repercussions. We have the ability to choose different career and life paths. There’s a great sense of autonomy that comes with individualism. Yet, there is this underlying feeling of isolation.

Individualism also has its faults, especially when creating social change. There is a norm that demands the social sector be the cure for all social issues around the world. There isn’t a lot of dialogue around the barriers they face, such as lack of resources, funding, human capital, and so on. Individualistic culture allows diffusion of responsibility to occur. Instead of thinking as a collective, “what kind of world do we want to live in and what are some steps we can take,” there is lack of accountability and victim blaming. I often struggle with this reality; we live in a social system that we’ve created and reinforced. Yet, it feels like everyone is unsatisfied with the world we live in and are always striving for change yet not always committed to action. 

I’m always amazed by all the innovative ideas created to increase equity, quality of living, and sustainability. However, the process to make those ideas into a reality can be very complex and fragile. I think an important component is the idea of intent vs. impact; human beings want to do good, but sometimes forget that it takes more than good intentions to establish positive social impact. 

In my opinion, the solution is not in giving “handouts” or disseminating this idea that undeserved communities need our charity and input to strive. It’s about empowering communities to have a voice, to be part of the conversation and to determine what they think it’s best for them. If we believe in an individualistic culture that promotes self-sufficiency, independence and autonomy, then we need to create a system that allows underserved communities to do that for themselves. We need to give them the power, and join them in disrupting the status quo. Sustainable change takes shared responsibility and accountability. Together, as we work toward these goals, we create a stronger bond – a community

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