SPARTANBURG, S.C. (courtesy smcsc.edu) — “First thing you need to know: this is not a poverty tour,” said Dr. Jonathan Keisler, Professor of Business and Chair of the BA Program. He was behind the wheel of a parked and swelteringly hot passenger van, his body turned to face the students sitting in rows of seats behind him. “This is not about looking down on people. This is about identifying the cause of a problem and finding ways to fix it.”
Keisler, along with 15 bachelor’s degree students from his Community Discovery and Engagement classes (part of Spartanburg Methodist’s Camak Core), were setting off on a hot August afternoon for a 30-minute drive through the Una, Saxon, and Arcadia neighborhoods north and west of SMC’s campus. It’s the first of four back-to-back round trips for Keisler, who will take 15 students at a time. “We planned to use a bus so we could all go together, but some of those streets are so narrow that it wasn’t going to be able to turn around in a few places,” he explains.
Named for the textile mills that employed neighborhood residents for most of the 20th century, the Una, Saxon, and Arcadia areas were once home to churches, schools, restaurants, and grocery stores. When the South Carolina textile industry began to falter in the 1970s, the neighborhoods declined as residents left to find work elsewhere. When their customers left, stores and businesses closed or moved to more prosperous areas. The textile industry never recovered, and today, Una, Saxon, and Arcadia are communities in distress.
The first step to a good solution is to make sure you understand the problem, Keisler says. “When we see a neighborhood that is struggling, it’s human nature to make assumptions about what happened there,” he says. “But assumptions may not lead to good solutions that address the real issues. When we have so many distractions at our fingertips these days, paying attention, listening and observing are skills that have become more valuable than ever.”
The van tour, says Keisler, is the first step in teaching students how to take the fundamental skills they’re learning in their academic courses (such as critical thinking, researching, and analyzing information) and use them to solve problems in the real world. “There are opportunities in the Una, Saxon, and Arcadia communities to develop new businesses and nonprofits that could serve the residents and help revitalize the area,” Keisler says. “By coaching our students through the process of starting those organizations in a project-based course like Community Discovery and Engagement, they’ll learn to be the kind of self-directed, investigative problem-solvers any employer wants on their team, no matter what type of career the students choose.”
Community Discovery and Engagement is one of the first Camak Core courses students take as part of the bachelor’s degree. By the end of the class, they’ll present detailed plans, complete with timelines and budgets, for neighborhood projects that will be carried out during the remaining two years of their bachelor’s degrees. As they work on their projects, each of the six Camak Core classes will teach them the skills needed to make their projects successful.
Driving slowly down weed-choked streets bordered by decaying wooden cottages, Keisler encourages the students to look beyond the disrepair to notice what’s missing from the landscape. “Where do the people who live here get their food?” he asks. “There aren’t any stores,” a student volunteers. “That’s right,” Keisler returns, glancing into the rearview mirror. “And if you don’t have a car, how do you get groceries if your only option is to walk a few miles?”
“It’s pretty hot,” another student says. “I wouldn’t want to be walking and carrying a bunch of bags right now.”
On this trip, the students learn to “see” the neighborhoods. The van passes blight, but also many bright spots, including churches and a community center. “Allies,” Keisler says, as they drive past. “Note the churches; they’ll be a good resource for you.”
At the end of September, the students will visit again. In between the bookend drives, they’ll learn about the history of the neighborhoods, talk with residents, and hear from representatives of county and community organizations who can provide insight into the issues associated with daily life in impoverished areas. Keisler expects the second drive to be a different experience from the first.
“After doing some research, including readings and talking to the people who are the experts on these communities, we’ll take them back again,” he explains. “If it goes the way we think it will, the students should see a very different landscape that’s full of possibilities and not just hopelessness.”
“The work students do in between visits to the communities will give them the context they need to develop neighborhood solutions,” says Courtney Shelton, Vice President for Professional Development and Design and the Camak Core Coordinator. “More importantly, we’re modeling for them how they tackle a business problem.”
Later that day, Alyssa Hill, a junior from Gaffney, South Carolina, concentrating in business and English, reflected on the tour. “What really drew my attention was the community center,” she says. “I noticed they offered dance classes at the center; they’re making an effort for the kids.” Pausing for a moment, it’s clear she’s considering what she saw. “I was president of my drama club in high school,” she continues. “Maybe it would help to do plays, too, with costumes and sets.”
It’s too early for Alyssa to know if a children’s theater will become her Camak Core project, or even for her to really understand how the work she’ll do over the next two years will translate into career success. But a 30-minute tour was all it took to get a good idea started.
“I’ve driven past that neighborhood, but I never really paid attention to it,” Alyssa says. “The tour really helped make it real for me.”