Sarah Baker, a non-traditional undergraduate in her mid-20s, found that she didn't need to go far from home – where she is the parent of a third-grader – to have a transformative cross-cultural experience. After spending May exploring the African-American history of Harrisonburg and African-American neighborhoods in Washington D.C., she declared herself "changed forever." (Photo by Annie Diller)

Near-home “cross-culturals” prove to be life-changing too

For most EMU undergrads, cross-cultural study entails deepening their knowledge of humanity in such settings as South Korea, Eastern Europe or the Galapagos. Yet others find equally life-changing experiences in their own backyards.

Since 2001, EMU has offered the “local context cross-cultural” program for students whose work and/or family responsibilities preclude lengthy travel, says Deanna Durham, assistant professor in the applied social sciences department and the program’s course leader.

Sarah Baker, starting her senior year at age 26, was one of 13 this May who explored diverse communities locally during evening sessions, and in Washington, D.C., for a weekend.

Perfect for single parent

“It was perfect for me because I’m a single parent,” says Baker, who had wondered since entering EMU how she would complete the cross-cultural graduation requirement. She and her son, in third grade, live with her parents in Rockingham County. Having never traveled further than Florida, she hopes to go overseas someday, but not without him now.

However, Baker told fellow-students in a recent chapel service that having been raised locally, when the class studied Harrisonburg history, “I thought I couldn’t learn anything new. How wrong!”

She explained, “Without this class I would never have heard about Zenda or Newtown.” Newtown is the historic name for the northeast Harrisonburg area settled by former slaves. “We’d always considered it the ‘bad’ part of town. I had no idea why,” Baker recalls, although her aunt attended school with Newtown’s basketball icon, Ralph Sampson. Studying Newtown and Zenda (a historic black community in northern Rockingham County), meant enjoying a home-cooked meal and hearing residents’ stories. Learning about “urban renewal” decimating Newtown in the 1960s, Baker empathized, recalling woods and fields of her childhood being razed for development.

Discovering “bad” part of town. . . isn’t

Students visited a Newtown church and a local mosque – both “different, very different, but good,” says Baker. And although raised in the Brethren church, she encountered fresh history when visiting the Valley Brethren-Mennonite Heritage Center.

Carrie Allen McCray’s book, Freedom’s Child: The Life of a Confederate General’s Daughter, served as a reference, Durham says – giving perspective from black descendants of Gen. J.R. Jones, buried in Harrisonburg.

More lessons came with viewing the locally produced documentary, The Latino Underground, and meeting EMU alumna Isabel Castillo, who advocates nationally for the Dream Act proposal to allow a citizenship path for undocumented youth such as herself, brought to the United States as a child.

“She is amazing,” says Baker, who grew up observing immigration changing the local community. Early in elementary school, Baker met her first, lone Hispanic classmate, while adults complained, “They’ll steal our jobs.”

Eager not to be narrow minded

She says that mindset had been a “single story” for her – referring to a video the class saw in which Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie addressed The Danger of the Single Story. Starting with childhood memories of reading, and trying to emulate, British tales containing snow and ginger beer, Adichie said such a “single story” may crowd out other perspectives. “We form our own opinion from others’ stories. It makes us narrow- minded,” explained Belinda Hinkle, of Grottoes, who also spoke in chapel about the class, calling Durham’s teaching “awesome.”

Baker – who had only seen one large city (D.C.), and that only with her son to visit museums — shared a poem it inspired her to write:

The city created beggars and riches.###Starvin’ people in line for soup kitchens. . .

The students visited D.C.’s Mennonite Central Committee office, studying its work of public advocacy. They stayed at Church of the Pilgrim and visited the multicultural St. Augustine’s Catholic Church.

Exploring non-touristy D.C. on foot

Durham, sending them off in small groups to explore city neighborhoods, advised sampling ethnic foods, adding, “Don’t go as a tourist. Go to feel and see.” She reported, “They walked their legs off” – estimating 15 miles for many.

“It was real,” Baker recalls. When she suggested her group visit the historic Ben’s Chili Bowl, and two young men realized they would be the only Caucasians present, she says, “They freaked out.” She smiles: “I told them I was going in, so they had to follow me.”

She recalls an earlier “wow moment” when employed in the EMU cafeteria during a Summer Peacebuilding Institute. Clearing tables as an African group finished dining, she realized she was the only white person there. “I was sticking out like a sore thumb,” she laughs. “It was humbling.”

Changed forever

In the class and on the trip, conversing and keeping journals, she feels “a lot of us learned from each other”– often from sharing uncomfortably different reactions. Some, herself included, were moved, but others not, by the film, Chocolate City, depicting black residents displaced by gentrification. Seeing homelessness troubled most classmates. Baker observed, “When you’ve got the super rich, you’ve got the super poor.”

She’s determined to attend graduate school. The local context class, Baker says, “changed me forever.”

Discussion on “Near-home “cross-culturals” prove to be life-changing too

  1. Suggestion: Is it possible for someone to submit the above information to “The Mennonite World Review,” newspaper? And, please recommend that it be among the frontal headlines for those of us readers who receive MWR in E-mail format.

    This kind of innovative university program provides enrichment experiences for an entire world of single parents, men and women, a population that Mennonites traditionally have not needed to attend to within their own culture.

    And, more obvious, it raises the level of awareness that within every community, there are hidden cultures, some of many generations, whose presence currently enhances the lives of everyone, of all backgrounds. within that community.

    And, in terms of terms of contemporary immigration issues, what if these historic, but currently present, peoples had not come?

    Thank you for creating a model of finding and affirming them, via the academic community.

    1. Thank you for your note. We typically submit our news stories to the Mennonite World Review – along with several other news outlets depending upon content. From there, it’s up to the outlet where/when/if it gets published, but we love your idea about front-page coverage!

      Thanks again.

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