Reflecting on Service Learning in Washington, D.C.

by Melissa Nix

Service and learning in DC with Amizade

Nicole Flohr, a senior at Lebanon Valley College, traveled to Washington, D.C. with Amizade just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down cities across the US and the world.

Now, several months after her Amizade program, several months into the global crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and after a week of protests against injustice, police brutality, and institutionalized racism, Nicole shares how her perspective on certain societal issues has changed.  

It is difficult to believe how much the world has changed since I participated in an Amizade service trip to Washington, D.C. at the beginning of March. Our group did not wear masks, took the Metro without extra concern, and served shoulder to shoulder with people all over the city. Since then, COVID-19 has disrupted life as we knew it. The pandemic has also exacerbated the very same societal issues we were in D.C. to address. Furthermore, the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests have once again brought to light deep societal inequality and injustice. As I continue to reflect on my service experience, the events of 2020 have given me new perspectives on homelessness, hunger, gentrification, and their roots within society.

A group of twelve other Lebanon Valley College students and I spent our spring break serving and learning in the nation’s capital. The D.C. program centers around homelessness, food insecurity, and “forced displacement” (gentrification). We served with and learned from ONE D.C., D.C. Central Kitchen, the National Coalition for the Homeless, Central Union Mission, Food and Friends, and Martha’s Table. Additionally, we visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Through service opportunities, neighborhood tours, museum visits, and reflections, we were challenged to think critically about issues and injustices in society and ways that individuals, organizations, and communities can address them. 

The group at a Joyful Food Market

I participate in many volunteering opportunities through my college and have been on service trips before. However, Amizade’s three-pronged focus on learning, service, and reflection made a profound impact on my experience in D.C. 

First, the community tours and museum visits taught me a lot about both local and global issues. Touring the Shaw neighborhood with ONE D.C. helped explain gentrification and how it has become institutionalized in our society. The museum visits highlighted targeted social injustices and the importance of awareness and remembrance. 

The group on a tour of the Shaw neighborhood with ONE DC

Second, the variety of service organizations displayed many different perspectives on hunger and homelessness, as well as ways to address the problems. For example, D.C. Central Kitchen provides meals to people experiencing homelessness, the Joyful Food Market (a Martha’s Table program) allows elementary school students to “shop” for fresh produce, and Food and Friends delivers meals and groceries to people experiencing long-term illness. Each of these organizations takes a different approach to addressing food insecurity. We also saw different methods of addressing homelessness. Central Union Mission takes a structured approach by providing meals, a place to shower and sleep, and recovery programs. However, a speaker from the National Coalition for the Homeless explained how a Housing First program empowered her to change her own life by simply providing housing. Experiencing this variety in service was one of my favorite parts of the program. 

Finally, the daily group reflections helped me unpack the learning and service experiences and better understand each organization’s unique approach. The D.C. program made me think about the impact of service, the institutionalization of injustice, and the complex relationships between individuals, organizations, and society. I am still processing these things, but the reflections prompted me to face these difficult internal and external conflicts. I find myself continuing to consider our reflection conversations as this year’s events unfold. 

The issues we addressed during our service trip are complex and deeply institutionalized in our society and in our history. It is critical that citizens understand the roots of the problems and actively work to fix issues and injustices in their communities. To ignore race when considering homelessness, hunger, and gentrification is to ignore the full picture. I walked through hundreds of years of oppression and injustice at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and then saw first-hand how gentrification has fragmented the Black community and culture in the Shaw district. African American communities are hit harder by poverty, hunger, and homelessness, a fact which must be addressed. 

Since the beginning of March, I have also watched as COVID-19 has impacted the world. Deep-rooted inequalities have been revealed and social injustices have been exacerbated by the pandemic. People experiencing homelessness are especially susceptible to the negative impacts of the pandemic, with shelters facing overcrowding and underfunding. Food insecurity is another major concern, as unemployment rises and access to affordable food declines. Both homeless shelters and food banks are struggling to keep up with demand.

Social action is now more important than ever. The events of 2020 have highlighted shortcomings in our society. They are also offering an opportunity for change.

Advocacy and awareness are the start of social action and, eventually, societal change. So educate yourself, acknowledge your privilege, challenge your biases and stereotypes, advocate on behalf of others, become a change-maker. Do not be complacent.
Take action.

Because of the D.C. service trip, I now have a deeper understanding of homelessness, hunger, gentrification, and their underlying roots within society. However, I know that I must continue to learn and challenge myself to be a driving force of change in my community.

While visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in D.C., one quote caught my attention in particular: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.” Let us all have the audacity to act on this belief and feed each other’s bodies, minds, and spirits.

Thank you, Nicole, for sharing your powerful insights with us. I hope you always keep learning and challenging yourself to be a driving force for change in your community!