This article was written by Natalie Orenstein and first appeared on remakelearning.org. Republished with permission.

In Pittsburgh’s Hill District, teenagers are working to improve their neighborhood. But some think in order to do so, they need to get as far away as possible.

A teenager from Pittsburgh's Hill District relaxes seaside in Northern Ireland.
A teenager from Pittsburgh’s Hill District relaxes seaside in Northern Ireland.

In Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a strong network of community groups is working to make sure the neighborhood’s younger residents have the opportunities their parents might not have had. Once a thriving community of middle-class African American families and black-owned businesses, the fabric of the Hill District was decimated by urban renewal in the 1950’s. Today, 40 percent of residents still live in poverty, compared to 20 percent in the ZIP code just to the north. Only about 15 percent have a college degree.

Community groups here believe that a concerted focus on young people is the key to positive neighborhood change. A newly renovated youth center offers enrichment programs to local kids and teens and a new nonprofit research lab has begun providing vocational job training in the Hill. Groups are working to engage young people in changing their own neighborhood for the better. But for organizers at Amizade, a Pittsburgh-based global exchange and service learning organization, that change begins by giving teenagers the chance to go as far away from the neighborhood as possible.

Who gets to go abroad?

Since its founding in 1994, Amizade has partnered with other community-based organizations in 12 countries and some domestic sites to create volunteer opportunities for individuals of all ages, schools, and community groups. Amizade practices what it calls “Fair Trade Learning,” meaning that its global exchange programs are reciprocal. The organization sends Americans abroad to volunteer, but also hosts foreign young people in the United States. The mission? To produce “global citizens” whose time abroad will foster increased cultural awareness as well as lifelong civic and community participation.

“We’re not trying to create a citizen who can go abroad and simply cross-culturally communicate for a couple weeks,” said Amizade executive director Brandon Blache-Cohen. “We’re trying to create a citizen who becomes a better neighbor and an active, engaged learner in their own community.”

Today, experts say that learning global competencies is a key 21st century skill. To be successful in the future, today’s young people need to be able to work and solve problems as part of a diverse team.

Blache-Cohen has watched students come home from these trips with new perspectives on their own neighborhoods and their roles within them.

This, Blache-Cohen believes, is especially important in the region’s low-income neighborhoods, where children are less likely to have the opportunity to participate in enrichment activities and where increased civic participation is needed to improve neighborhoods.

Education researchers Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane have studied the growing “opportunity gap” between American children from high- and low-income families. They find that affluent families spend more on educational enrichment activities like afterschool programs, summer camps, and global exchange trips—the kinds of activities that better prepare students for college or a career. Between 2005-2006, they report, higher-income families spent $8,000 more per child on enrichment activities, compared to $3,000 more in 1972-1973. Racial disparities in study abroad programs exist as well.

How will the Hill District change when its youth go abroad and come back with a new desire to engage in their community and broader world?

The gap in access to global exchange programs is “a serious issue of equity,” Blache-Cohen said.

For the past few years, Amizade has focused in on the Hill District, opening up opportunities for teenagers from the neighborhood to go on trips to Ghana, Jamaica, Northern Ireland, and next year to Puerto Rico. Currently, three partner organizations—the Hill House Association, the Center That Cares, and the Ujamaa Collective—help recruit Hill District youth to go abroad with Amizade. Trips usually last around two weeks. While abroad, students visit cultural sites and stay with local teenagers, who introduce their visitors to local customs and issues of local importance.

In addition to support from Amizade, the students and organizations raise their own funds to cover costs through personal donations as well as sometimes philanthropic and corporate support.

In 2015, Amizade took Pittsburgh youth to Northern Ireland, where they visited cultural sites with Irish teens. Photo: Hill House Association

Blache-Cohen says these trips are meaningful and transformative for the individual participants. But the organization is interested in understanding the effects of their trips on the community at large. They are asking: How will the Hill District change when its youth go abroad and come back with a new desire to engage in their community and broader world? Ideally, Amizade would like to eventually bring one out of every four or five Hill District teenagers on a trip abroad, and then measure the impact on neighborhood-level metrics like crime and graduation rates over time.

Amizade is far from achieving its ambitious goal. That will require a deeper level of foundation support or a public investment, Blache-Cohen said. But the organization is pouring the resources it has into the area. Over the past few years, 50 Hill District teenagers and adult mentors have gone abroad, and dozens more have welcomed young people from Northern Ireland, Bolivia, Peru, and Kenya to Pittsburgh.

“It’s incredible to watch young people look at their place in a larger global ecosystem,” said Terri Baltimore, director of community engagement at the Hill House Association, a social service organization with a long history in the neighborhood. “The world becomes a place where they belong. You see young people thinking about how they can influence the world around them.”

“The world becomes a place where they belong. You see young people thinking about how they can influence the world around them.”

Baltimore brought some of the youth she works with to Northern Ireland with Amizade last summer. None of the students had traveled outside of the country before, and they gained a new understanding of how the Hill District was connected to the world beyond its borders. When some of the teenagers returned, Baltimore said, they got involved with environmental and social organizing locally.

Amizade is exploring how to better help trip returnees turn their experiences into action. One idea on the table is offering community engagement grants, Blache-Cohen said. A participant who has learned about food insecurity on Amizade’s trip to the Navajo Nation in Arizona, for example, could apply for a grant to start a community garden in the Hill District, where some residents also suffer from food insecurity.

“As far as we can tell, there’s never been a community that’s invested this heavily in this type of global experiential education anywhere in the country,” Blache-Cohen said. “No neighborhood has gotten together and said, ‘We believe this is a pathway forward for our young people.’” Leaders in the Hill District may be the first.

Drawing connections across borders

The Hill District youth who have had the chance to go abroad have learned that their own hometown is simultaneously special and ordinary.

Qui Ante Anderson, an 18-year-old who has lived in the Hill District her whole life, said she felt less alone when she discovered the striking similarities between her hometown and the Irish communities she visited with Amizade in 2015. That summer, she and several peers and adult mentors spent 10 days touring Northern Ireland, staying at hotels, homes, and retreats, learning about local customs, and giggling with Irish teenagers over culture clashes. They were exposed to both beauty and hardship.

Anderson was startled to find that a version of discrimination and segregation existed in the largely white Ireland as well. The clashes between the Catholic and Protestant populations were impossible to miss, she said.

“I felt like I was going back in time in my own history”—to the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras, Anderson, who is African-American, said.

She and her peers from the Hill District were also surprised when they were taken on a tour of a public housing complex.

“A lot of students had the stereotype that literally only black people live in housing projects,” she said. “But we saw a housing project full of white people. We heard some of their stories and saw an effort to create change, and that’s what’s going on in the Hill District too.”

The connections she’d drawn on her trip made Anderson more curious about the rest of the world, but also importantly renewed her interest in how these issues played out in her own history and community.

“You should want to travel not just with the intention of leaving home and running off,” Anderson said, “but with a love and appreciation for your home.”

Young visitors from Bolivia and Peru tour the Hill District. Photo: Daniel Alexander/Amizade
Young visitors from Bolivia and Peru tour the Hill District. Photo: Daniel Alexander/Amizade