Geraldine is entering her senior year, majoring in human development and family studies. She wants to work with children with neurological disabilities, specifically those in the black community who are struggling with learning disabilities. Growing up in the Greater Region of Ghana, Geraldine was first inspired to work with overlooked populations when her neighbor, a successful medical doctor, started a clinic to support people living with HIV/AIDS. A McNair Scholar, Geraldine plans to pursue her doctoral degree in Occupational Science so that she can work as an occupational therapist and as a professor. She also hopes to follow in her neighbor’s footsteps to start her own nonprofit one day. To meet that goal, Geraldine has been working with Dr. Shardé Smith for the past year on the Community Healing and Resistance through Storytelling (C-HeARTS) Collaborative.
Geraldine is continuing her work with Smith, C-HeARTS, and Driven to Reach Excellence and Academic Achievement for Males (DREAAM) House to address gun violence as a form of racial trauma. C-HeARTS captures the perceptions and processes of healing community gun violence trauma through focus groups and digital storytelling approaches. Geraldine has also been reviewing the literature on the effects of community gun violence in African American communities and working closely with DREAAM House to implement the Youth Empowerment Solutions (YES) program, an evidence-based curriculum that empowers African American youth to prevent violence by fostering community engagement and strengthening relationships with adults.
Fostering campus and community partnerships is a high priority of DREAAM House Founder and Executive Director Tracy Dace—he holds DREAAM House programming on the University of Illinois campus. By “bringing to the community to campus,” Dace hopes to “create a space where there are no divisions between campus and community,” so that DREAAM House participants see themselves as part of the campus and can envision themselves as college students. One priority of DREAAM House is for its students to develop a college-bound identity, not just so that they gain admission to college, but so that they also graduate. “That requires more than pure academics. It requires resiliency, healing, and critical consciousness: how they see the world and how they see themselves as part of that world. We want DREAAMers to be leaders, thinkers, and change-makers. And we are intentionally developing the skills for their future life opportunities.”
Resiliency, healing, and critical consciousness are also central to the community healing framework created by the C-HeARTS Collaborative, in which Dace, Smith, and Geraldine are also involved. Smith’s research focuses on the relational implications of race-based stress in African American families and communities and how the strengths and resources that families and communities possess have the potential to foster and sustain healing. The C-HeARTS Collaborative is seeing that community gun violence is a manifestation of racial trauma that has reverberating effects through families and communities. The YES program addresses community violence by engaging young people and helping them develop and lead community change projects. Central to those projects is how participants frame the stories they tell. “We hope that everyone involved has the opportunity to tell their story and can feel validated and heard when they do. Often stories are told about African American families and communities and the dominant narrative repeatedly includes struggle, adversity, and hardships. We believe storytelling is a form of narrative medicine and that telling one’s story is a form of resistance. Thus, by working with C-HEARTS and DREAAM House, youth, parents, families, and larger communities can tell their story as a form of resistance to existing racial injustices,” says Smith.
Smith hopes that Geraldine gains critical consciousness from her involvement with this project. “I believe the perspectives and experiences that she is gaining now will be transformative and will fuel her future aspirations and community involvement.” Geraldine is also gaining basic and applied research experience to support her aspiration to earn a doctoral degree. Smith explains that community collaboration enriches the undergraduate research experience. “Geraldine is learning the intricacies of community-based research by participating in meetings and forming relationships with community members in Champaign-Urbana.” For Geraldine, the whole experience has been valuable. She derived great satisfaction in working with the DREAAM House boys. “Every day they come to class energetic and ready to receive whatever we have to teach, and I commend them for that.” She notes that she has developed a deeper appreciation for what students and faculty can learn from the community. “These opportunities offer you experiences that you do not get in your classrooms or textbooks. These opportunities push you to think critically, be more concerned about your community, and ignite the fire within to create change.”