Building a community, right in the courtyard of La Salle

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Associate Professor of Religion and Theology Maureen O’Connell, Ph.D., guides first-year students on a social justice tour as part of the Welcome to Belfield course.

Students engage in the history of the city’s Belfield district through a unique course setting.

Each year, students representing nearly 40 states – and as many international countries – descend on the La Salle University campus. For nine months, they formed a racially and geographically diverse sub-community in the Belfield neighborhood, housed in the La Salle pocket of northwest Philadelphia.

What do La Salle students know about their home away from home?

“For the record, they told us they didn’t know much,” Maureen O’Connell, Ph.D., associate professor of religion and theology, said of her students. “Then they have this epiphany. “

For a select group of students, their shared moment of clarity stems from a Together and By Association (TABA) course co-led by O’Connell and Candace Robertson-James, DrPH, assistant professor and chair of the Department of Urban Public Health. and Nutrition.

TABA courses are developed regularly and introduced annually in the La Salle course catalog. The TABA course framework brings together La Salle faculty members from multiple disciplines to provide unique and interrelated undergraduate studies. Instructors approach a particular topic from different academic perspectives, while adopting similar materials such as textbooks, speakers, and classroom experiences.

The Classroom Social Justice walking tour takes students to College Hall, where in 1969 students staged a protest sit-in.
The Classroom Social Justice walking tour takes students to College Hall, where in 1969 students staged a protest sit-in.

For three years, O’Connell and Robertson-James led separate but connected cohorts of freshmen in a TABA course called “Welcome to Belfield”. Using a community-driven learning model, the course introduces some of La Salle’s most recent students to the University’s historic Belfield district. The O’Connell section delves into the religious identity and sense of belonging of the neighborhood, while analyzing its history, beliefs, values ​​and diverse cultures. The Robertson-James seminar invites students to explore urban life through the lens of public health challenges and concerns. These include housing, transportation, faith, crime, and access to health care, as well as their transitive relationship to health.

“The students realize pretty quickly that this course is so different than anything they’ve ever taken, and they tell us regularly,” said Robertson-James. “It doesn’t happen by accident. The richness of Welcome to Belfield, the ability to examine the same problem across multiple disciplines, requires collaboration and commitment to innovative teaching methods and the University’s teaching and learning mission. These TABA courses are an example of what sets La Salle apart.

La Salle moved its campus to the Belfield neighborhood of northwest Philadelphia in 1930. Welcome to Belfield challenges La Salle students to see the university venue as “a place where people come, rather than ‘just one pass,’ O’Connell said, using this to explain how the course came about. “We have a lot to learn from the luminaries who have lived here. “

The course is designed to explore uncomfortable topics.

realize pretty quickly that this course is so different from anything they’ve ever taken, and they tell us regularly, ” Robertson-James said. “It doesn’t happen by accident. The richness of Welcome to Belfield, the ability to look at the same issue across several disciplines, requires collaboration and commitment to innovative teaching methods and the teaching and learning mission of the University. These TABA courses are an example of what sets La Salle apart.

They discuss the reluctance of banks in the 1930s to grant loans and mortgages to Philadelphians from minority and immigrant communities. This practice, more commonly known as redlining, has historically helped to slow down the integration of neighborhoods, catalyze the racial wealth gap and prevent the creation of cosmopolitan gathering spaces.

They open up to institutionalized racism and the determinants of health. They examine how religious communities shape the neighborhood and how La Salle can positively influence the way its residents live, learn and work.

“One of the most difficult, but most important things we attempt to do in the course is to recognize the University’s connection to the policies, structures and cultures that have fractured the Belfield neighborhood”, O’Connell said. “When we talk honestly about our past, we are better able to imagine different futures. “

As a reference, in the early days of the course, students are encouraged to share what they know about Belfield.

“We are pushing against the grain,” said Robertson-James, “and, in just 15 weeks, students are unboxing the neighborhood and community stories that carry on and, by the end of the semester, become more involved and more. connected in their neighborhood.

The class and its activities “awaken students to inequality and instill in them a sense of action, to become agents of social change,” said Maureen O’Connell, Ph.D., associate professor of religion and religion. theology.

Skylar Gunthrop, ’22, originally from Baltimore, took the course in 2019, upon arriving at La Salle. Too often, she said, students get used to what Gunthrop calls “our cozy bubble.”

“As students, I think we often forget that there is life just outside of our campus,” the public health major said. “(This course) was a wonderful opportunity to talk to the residents of Belfield about their experiences living in this area. I learned from this course that Belfield is a neighborhood with a rich and deep history that must be protected and respected… and that I attend a university that is committed to fostering change and making a positive impact.

Bethany Evans, ’21, MS ’22, used to think of La Salle as a college campus “on a small island,” with separation from the surrounding area. Enrolling in the TABA course “changed my mindset,” she said, and made her aware of the university’s impact on Belfield.

“Belfield is the home of La Salle,” said Evans, a native of Jim Thorpe, Pa., Who is pursuing a master’s degree in speech-language pathology. “In order to create a flow instead of causing a divide, the University and its neighbors must continue to come together to create goals for the common good of our community.”

Students walk east on Olney Avenue along the La Salle campus on a social justice walking tour as part of their Welcome to Belfield course.
Students walk east on Olney Avenue along the La Salle campus on a social justice walking tour as part of their Welcome to Belfield course.

In the fall, O’Connell and Robertson-James led their respective students on a social justice walking tour that included stops on and around campus. The tour led the students through La Salle College Hall, where, in 1969, students staged a sit-in to protest a university policy that required the participation of the ROTC, and out the door of the University 20th Street on Hansen Quad, the site of the student-run Black Lives Matter events. in 2016.

They visited Kemble Park, near Ogontz and Olney avenues. The park is named after British actress Fanny Kemble, who lived on a farm near what eventually became the La Salle campus. She is considered one of the first feminists and abolitionists. After divorcing her husband, an unrepentant slave owner, she wrote and published anti-slavery journals.

Next, the group took to 20th Street and Conlyn Street to view a mural by Belfield community leader Philmore Johnson, who died in 2005. The tour also included stops at the Belfield Recreation Center; Good Shepherd Hall, the former site of an orphanage that had been established by Saint Katherine Drexel; and the University Alumni House.

“These activities awaken students to inequality and instill in them a sense of action, to become agents of social change,” said O’Connell.

“It helps students make the connection and empowers them to take an activist role in their community, rather than just being a bystander,” added Robertson-James.

Christophe A. Vito


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