Alumni give back to Salve students enrolled in civic engagement class

Photo: Dr. Laura O’Toole with recent alumni Jessi McNeil ’18, Kimberly Dennin ’18 and Rebecca Forsythe ’17

Students enrolled in Dr. Laura O’Toole’s Food Matters class have much to be thankful for – not the least of which is the valuable resource of recent graduates who took the civic engagement course and are now actively engaged in careers and/or graduate pursuits that are advancing many of the important themes presented in the class.

Three alumni – Rebecca Forsythe ’17, Kimberly Dennin ’18 and Jessi McNeil ’18, all sociology and anthropology grads – met with current students in the Department of Cultural, Environmental and Global Studies on the eve of Thanksgiving break to share their work as budding experts in the field, which is rife with social, economic and political challenges. They connected what they learned in the class with how they are taking those experiences into their young professional lives to develop community partnerships aimed at solving the chronic condition of social injustice, particularly food insecurity.

“Over time, food has become defined as a commodity rather than an individual right, ensuring that some segments of our global community encounter food insecurity sporadically or as a chronic condition of their lives,” O’Toole said. “Our focus in civic engagement projects in this course is on social change/social justice work, and the fact that our projects are collaborative with our partners through community development that is attentive to our partners’ needs. Clearly, these three students’ VISTA and grad work is all focused on this pivot point.”

Rebecca Forsythe

Forsythe, one of the first students to take Food Matters during its pilot semester, shared her experience partnering with Newport Health Equity Zone (HEZ) to collect and examine data assessing what community members wanted in the form of programs to address food insecurity. Collaboratively, they researched ways to implement those programs and after completing the class, Forsythe continued the research through an internship for credit with Newport HEZ.

After graduating, she took a job with AmeriCorps VISTA in Salve’s Office of Community Service. There, she helped to expand the office’s partnership with God’s Community Garden in Middletown. “In my position, I conducted needs assessments and SWOT analyses, researched future programs they could offer, created a sustainability report and proposal for the organization, and redesigned their website,” Forsythe said.

She also conducted focus groups with Salve students to learn what kinds of service programs they’d like to see in the future. “I developed a program that operated each semester called ‘Service Week,’ geared toward underclassmen without cars,” Forsythe said. “I also ran the service aspect of the Martin Luther King Day events in 2018. Toward the end of my year of service, I conducted surveys and recorded interviews with the Service Advocate students to create an evaluation report of the program.”

Forsythe is pursuing her master’s degree in sociology at Illinois State University, where she is also taking interdisciplinary courses in the Applied Community and Economic Development fellowship program in addition to being a teaching assistant for an Introduction to Sociology course of about 300 students. The fellowship program, for both AmeriCorps and Peace Corps alumni, includes a practicum in her second year that will place her in a nonprofit or government organization for 11 months as she works 35 hours a week and earns the rest of her credits.

Though she doesn’t know yet where her placement will be, she’s confident her experience in community engagement classes and with VISTA will help her wherever she ends up. “I do hope to be placed in an organization that deals with food justice, food security, and equitable food access because it’s where my passion lies,” she said.

Kimberly Dennin

Dennin is currently employed by AmeriCorps VISTA, working specifically in the community development department of ONE Neighborhood Builders in Providence. Her projects are focused on creating organizations for community members so that they can take on a greater role in the decision making process.

“My current work relates back to the work I did when I was in Dr. O’Toole’s course because the organization I work for is the backbone of the Olneyville Health Equity Zone (HEZ),” Dennin said. “The HEZs were formed to create a platform for neighbors and community partners to come together in new ways and address the root causes of uneven health outcomes at the local level.”

She told current Salve students that the experience she gained working with Newport HEZ prepared her for working and advocating for underserved populations, as well as providing insights on how to empower these populations to advocate for themselves. “For me, the most important aspect of the HEZs is that they are community driven, acknowledging that it is the members of the community who know what the most important issues are, and that they have to come up with solutions to address the issues,” Dennin said.

Looking forward, Dennin hopes to attend graduate school and pursue applied sociology work in the nonprofit sector, likely an organization focused on food justice in some capacity. Ultimately she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology.

Jessi McNeill

McNeill shared how her current job with AmeriCorps VISTA is focused on the Bridgeport (Conn.) Farmers Market Collaborative and the Bridgeport Food Policy Council.

The Farmers Market Collaborative – a network of seven independently run farmers markets that work together on joint programing, fundraising and advertising – works to ensure that Bridgeport residents, regardless of income, have the physical, financial and educational access to fresh, locally grown produce.

Each of the markets accept WIC, SNAP and Senior Checks. “Since the market season is over, we are currently working on improving SNAP outreach to ensure that all SNAP recipients are aware they can not only use SNAP at every market in the city, but that they get their SNAP benefits doubled,” McNeill said. This benefit, she said, is not guaranteed from year to year.

The Bridgeport Food Policy Council is a citizen advisory board comprised of both residents and city officials who advise the city on food policy, covering a wide array of topics from issues in urban agriculture to school wellness.

“Currently, the policy council is aiding in an Urban Agriculture Master Plan that will be brought to city council,” she said. “They will put forth a number of policy recommendations that will allow Bridgeport residents to have better access to fresh foods and improve the health of their communities.”

Some of these recommendations include revising zoning ordinances that currently prohibit land use for agricultural purposes and expanding potential agricultural sites throughout the city. “The council is also working on improving the application process for micro food businesses – food entrepreneurs who run very small businesses,” McNeill said. “Often, they rent space in commercial kitchens or use their homes to prepare food. This unique class of small business owner faces a number of hurdles like a discombobulated application process. The policy council will be looking into the current process and, if it proves as inefficient as thought, will begin working on a new process that is fair and easier to navigate.”

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