Community building at home and abroad
By Jennifer Coffman
Originally published in Fall 2010 Madison magazine.
(Above center): Jennifer Coffman founded and directs the successful Field School in Kenya. Students live with and learn from local families, while also exploring sustainable projects with their community hosts.
Each of us has the ability to contribute positively at home and/or abroad, although how best to do so may not be immediately obvious. When I was a junior in college, I didn’t know that my travels to East Africa would open a lifelong commitment to Kenya. Likewise, when I moved to the Shenandoah Valley a dozen years later, I had little idea that I would be so involved in issues of local food production and land use. How these opportunities unfolded for me underscores the fact that we need not set out with grand plans to have our lives changed, nor must we outline in advance our specific contributions to the lives of others. Being aware of and open to possibilities enables us to discover paths worth following. When we do, great things can happen.
In both Kenya and our local valley, I examine the politics of land access and ownership, sustainable food production, and resource distribution, and I share these experiences with my students and other people who have greatly enriched my life. I merge many interests and duties through the JMU Field School in Kenya, which I created in 2003 and direct. It is an intensive summer program focusing on Kenya’s history, cultures and environments. The program’s founding values include a strong commitment to social responsibility, and it is designed to ensure that the majority of in-country costs directly benefit our host communities in Kenya.
For part of the program, students stay with Kenyan families and immerse themselves in their daily lives. “Not only was this the happiest time in my life, but it was also the most interesting and broadening experience,” says Ben Wilson (’08) about his 2007 trip.
The students’ experiences have long-term impacts. Katie Imbriglia (’10), who participated in 2009, says, “Kenya continues to be one of the most amazing experiences. I constantly think about what we learned.”
Through the Kenya program, and with independent fundraising, my students and I contribute to school and community projects, including school scholarships based on merit and need, supplementary food programs for three primary schools (we purchase and supply Kenyan-grown beans and maize to under-resourced schools), academic and sports supplies for at least four primary schools, and other community-based projects in our homestay areas. We strive to buy locally produced goods (desks, food, uniforms, books from East African publishers), hire local laborers to construct things like community wells, and patronize local, family-owned shops. By favoring local goods and labor, our investments provide even more benefits. Further, students reflect on their own practices, and often some significant changes result. One student wrote on her program evaluation: “My experience in Kenya has certainly made me more conscious of my daily consumption and daily activities I take for granted like turning on the tap and knowing there will be water. I encourage more students to embark on this program.”
The Kenya Field School has also led to grant-funded work. With support from a 2006 Fulbright-Hays Award, I took 15 K-12 teachers and three JMU teachers-in-training to Kenya to study pedagogic practices. We learned how to teach with minimal resources, lived with host families, learned about student and community relationships within the educational system, and expanded our own knowledge base while producing specific projects and curricula to benefit students and teachers in Virginia and Kenya.
Many of the Virginia teachers continue to support the Kenyan schools, connect students and teachers in Virginia and Kenya, and help Kenyan communities achieve more educational goals. A current grant from Project GO provides opportunities for ROTC students to participate in the Kenya program and carry skills that enrich their cultural understandings into their military careers.
Closer to home, my students and I pursue environmental work mainly through collaborative research on local food production in the Shenandoah Valley. I am a member of the Staunton/Augusta Farmers’ Market Board of Directors, and I participate in the Local Food and Farm Work Group, hosted by the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office. I’ve learned an incredible amount about the local agriculture scene — rules, regulations and the woes and triumphs of various small-scale farmers. In collaboration with these groups, I created a farm internship program for JMU students, sponsored by the JMU Office of International Programs and ISAT. Students work on local farms and earn academic credits while learning about the ecology and politics of farming. With a variety of partners, I’m working to expand collaborations focusing on sustainable food systems, and thus further greening Virginia farms.
Those who choose to study abroad or volunteer already have empathic tendencies. A willingness to remain open to this empathy keeps us connected to our former hosts and mentors and sheds light on new paths and exciting engagements at home and abroad. Volunteerism succeeds when relationships are good and we practice loyalty to those who do much for us. Our support contributes to changes greater than we can imagine.