Urban Cohort Inspires Radical Empathy and Social Change

Urban Cohort Classroom
Urban Cohort Classroom

James M. Loy, Miami University

Asthma was a big problem in their urban Cincinnati neighborhood. It impacted their friends, their family members, and many of those they loved. So a group of local student mentors, and their Miami University mentee, decided to make an impact.

They took steps to learn what caused asthma, and how the roaches and mold responsible are often present in low income housing. They cross-referenced city-wide asthma rates with area zip codes to identify correlations between asthma, poverty, and disproportionally affected minorities.

They even combed through lease agreements and wrote scripts, which were used to interview and urge leasing agencies to fix inferior housing conditions. Then they developed informational booklets to distribute at an outdoor health fair and encouraged local residents to put rent payments in escrow if housing conditions were not improved.

And after connecting with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s asthma team, these Rothenberg Preparatory Academy 4th graders also met with an advisory committee, where one student mentor was hired on as a consultant who . . .

Wait. These were 4th graders?


Let’s back up.Anna and students at Children's Booth

Welcome to the Urban Cohort

These Rothenberg 4th graders were part of the Urban Cohort, an award-winning action-oriented and highly collaborative partnership between Miami University’s College of Education, Health and Society, urban schools, and civically-minded community organizations.

Today, the program operates primarily in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine (OTR) neighborhood where issues such as poverty, inequality, race, and gentrification all take center stage as participants gain a first-hand look at the lives and lived-experiences that often diverge greatly from their own.

The cohort was originally designed to prepare students to teach in urban areas. And though teacher education majors are still highly involved, the critical awareness the Urban Cohort offers is now starting to attract attention from students across all majors.

The Miami students who participate don’t just learn about various social problems affecting marginalized areas, they literally become part of these communities. The genuinely immersive experience is fundamentally grounded in the day-to-day challenges facing real residents.

Urban Cohort student in community“If you ask, ‘What is really important to teaching?’” says Tammy Schwartz, Urban Cohort Director. “I say it is the relationship, and you can’t do that when you are not in the space, when you are not next to the person with whom you need to be building a relationship, when your body is not in the space of the neighborhood, walking the sidewalks that the children who go to school in that neighborhood use, or being in those places where families live.”

The program unfolds over a three-year timeline and features four components: A preparatory course, experiential learning, reflection, and a culminating course. And throughout this trajectory, college students will also work directly with long-time residents and professional program collaborators, and many will eventually live and work in the neighborhood.

During the first year, the preparatory course is grounded in systemic injustice. Here, they’ll deconstruct their own personal perspectives and learn how many social systems are created to benefit some people and not others. Then they’ll pair up with a youth in a local urban elementary school who will serve as their mentor.

“We’ve flipped that,” says Schwartz. “Miami students are not being a mentor to the youth. The youth is being a mentor to the Miami student. These kids have the life experiences to bring credible assets to the table. And over the course of that year, our Miami students, the mentees, work with their mentors in collaborative groups doing action research on issues that the youths have identified that impact their lives.”

This process directly informs the projects and curriculum-based learning that the Miami teacher education college students will subsequently design. Some years, these projects might center around homelessness, for example. Other projects have focused on violence and another reoccurring theme is economic inequality, which can be manifested in numerous ways including, even, the way the conditions of some low income housing can lead to increased asthma rates.

“Our teacher candidates are witnessing what curriculum can look like when its centered around what’s important to youth in their lives,” Schwartz explains. “So I am not giving you a work sheet on the statistics of homelessness in Cincinnati. You are investigating the statistics using resources that adults would use. That now becomes your text. You don’t separate math from the statistics of homelessness, from that social issue. We are showing our teachers how to do education in a more holistic way.”teaching in the classroom

So, then, when the 4th grade Rothenberg Elementary students first identified asthma as a concern in their lives, it was Miami student Anna Hartman who then figured out how the project would subsequently unfold.

Understanding the causes of asthma became science lessons. Comprehending the lease agreements became reading lessons. Analyzing and correlating city zip codes with asthma rates became math lessons, and so on.

This process is key, and it’s crucial to the learning and development of everyone involved.

For college students like Hartman, it opens their eyes to the many underlying and often hidden systemic problems that can perpetuate cycles of injustice and inequality.

"My experiences in the Urban Cohort have been completely life-changing,” Hartman says. “I have learned a ton about poverty and its impact on children and families, and have developed a strong desire to see a community from the eyes of the community.”

For the youths themselves, it proves that they too have a voice. They too can make a real difference in their own communities.

“Some people say we empower youth,” Schwartz says. “I do not believe that. Youth already come to the table with a lot of power. So we don’t empower people. We are creating spaces for that power to be enacted.”

Critical awareness across disciplines

While the Urban Cohort may currently work primarily with teacher education college students, it is quickly becoming far more interdisciplinary, which is actually more in line with the program’s overall mission. In fact, one of Schwartz’s long-time program collaborators was Tom Dutton, the founder of Miami’s OTR-based Center of Community Engagement and a Miami professor of architecture.

“People would ask, ‘How does an architect get connected with a teacher educator?’” says Schwartz. “Tom and I would have these conversations, and he said to me once, ‘Tammy, I really care about helping to develop a really good architect. But more importantly, I care about helping to develop really great human beings who care about those whose voices are not often heard in our society.’ And that is exactly how I feel about teachers.”

jumping ropeSo throughout their tenure in the program, Miami students go through what Schwartz calls “deep heart work.” And it’s the type of work that can imbue a learning experience and, potentially even entire future careers, with more purpose and meaning, which is becoming more and more attractive to students across most majors today.

According to a recent study from UCLA, titled “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015,” most incoming freshman are primed to find greater meaning from the subjects they study in college and they want to give back in some way.

“They might not use the term social justice, but they are driven toward something that would give meaning to the academic or professional exercises they engage,” says Sara Williams, Miami University Adjunct Instructor and Emory University Ph.D. Candidate. “I don’t think Miami students are any different in that regard. The idea is developing students who are community-based practitioners no matter what their fields.”

“So developing community accountants and community social workers and community graphic designers who don’t see their work in a silo,” Williams continues, “but see it as rippling out and impacting the ecosystem of the community in which they are situated.”student at computer

Because of Dutton’s influence, the majority of these interdisciplinary participants, so far, have had an architectural background. But throughout the cohort’s eight-year history, the program has also welcomed students from speech pathology, public health, and business. This fall, students from marketing, public administration, social work, psychology, and journalism will participate as well.

“It is complex work,” Schwartz says, “to reflect upon their own personal histories and how the system has positioned them to think about the world in particular ways, and in ways that can be harmful. How then do they use that knowledge to fight back against that, in whatever their profession is going to be?”

Schwartz only expects this growing interdisciplinary interest to expand, especially as more students realize that the Urban Cohort opens the door to more meaningful and productive conversations around race, class, privilege, and power, and provides the opportunity to take action as a result.

“That is a highlight for me, watching that work happen,” she says. “There is what Martin Luther King Jr. calls a ‘radical empathy.’ There is a radical empathy that is developed because of this work. It is absolutely amazing.”