By Diana Dawson
Editor’s Note: Journalism instructor Diana Dawson has taught three courses grouped under the classification, “Communicating the Human Side of Social Issues.” These classes take students out into the Austin community to see how the issues they’re learning about are being lived by real people, often those who are the most vulnerable, marginalized and voiceless in our society. Students have completed community service at Workers Defense Project, a community incubator project of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and one with which DDCE Faculty Fellow Bob Jensen is involved.
On the walls of the Workers Defense Project at 5604 Manor Road in Austin are posters of Dolores Huerta and signs touting “Legalizacion Ahora!” Fists pump in the air as everyone chants “el mismo derechos!” Senior Fellows students are wedged into folding chairs beside construction workers, maids and restaurant cooks who have been fighting for wages they were owed but had not been paid.
Only a 14-minute drive on Manor Road separates The College of Communication from this East Austin community center and the traditional classroom from “life’s laboratory.” In my Senior Fellows classes, like this one on immigration in East Austin, students get to see for themselves what life beyond campus is like for people living today’s issues.
When I was a social issues reporter for newspapers, I had wholeheartedly embraced the mission to shine a light in corners of the community that readers might not see without me. That’s where I’d found the soul of journalism. I’d interviewed a man digging in the trash for his next meal, followed a crack addict who wanted to stay clean through her pregnancy and told the stories of teens foraging for survival on the streets.
When I began teaching, I wondered how that experience could be taught in the classroom. That’s when I realized that the Senior Fellows program allows both professors and students to color outside the lines, transforming the “what if’s” to “why not’s.”
As I brainstormed with Bob Jensen, who was Senior Fellows director at the time, we realized that getting students out of the classroom would be a meaningful way to examine various topics in depth. So we created the umbrella title, “Communicating the Human Side of Social Issues,” deciding to offer these classes in a three-hour block that would give us time to travel “field-trip” style to corners of the community students passed but never really saw.
For two semesters, I took students into East Austin, where we learned about longtime residents who were paying the price of gentrification. They met people who had lived there before it was hip, who had formed a community, but were now seeing family and friends forced out by higher taxes. Those folks told them that the shiny new businesses might look good from the street, but the tacos and lattes sold there were unaffordable. As the students dived into independent projects, they discovered that most of the jobs provided by sprucing up the area went to people living outside the ZIP code.
This semester, we’ve begun looking at the experience of immigrants living in Austin and already have come to a much deeper understanding of the difference that a piece of paper can make in someone’s life. Senior Fellows have met other students on this campus who study as hard as they do but under current laws face a future no brighter than washing dishes at a local restaurant. They’ve heard about women forced to work as sex slaves to repay those who helped them relocate to America to seek a better life.
At the Workers Defense Project, students met a father of three who has worked 13 years installing sheetrock. When he complained that the contractor refused to pay him the $1,700 he was owed, his boss threatened to call police, who would contact immigration.
“I want to come back and help here,” one of the students said, as she left the table. “I need to do something.”
We’ve added community service to our coursework this semester. Everyone will devote some time to a project benefitting an immigrant community. Some are working in free clinics, tutoring children and adults trying to learn English, or capturing the story of a mission statement for a nonprofit.
Immigration is a complicated issue, and students are encouraged to find their own political positions on immigration policy and reform.
But in our efforts to bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world, we’re hoping students become well-informed citizens and responsible communication professionals with a better understanding of those living the issues we all debate.