"Won't You Be My Neighbor?": Social Work Undergrad Class Challenged To Start A Social Movement

  • News Photo 5029
    Social Work professor Michael Sherr's advanced practice class created a community development movement called Project Neighbor.
  • News Photo 5026
    At First Lutheran, Jeane Dick, a volunteer with Mission Waco, visited with the class about what being a good neighbor to the community might look like.
Dec. 17, 2010

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The students in Dr. Michael Sherr's fall social work class at Baylor University knew their advanced practice class in community development would be challenging. Still, none of them was expecting the assignment he gave on the first day of class.

"Dr. Sherr told us our assignment for the semester was to start a social movement," said Bree Babineaux , one of 16 senior social work students in the BSW class at Baylor's School of Social Work.

The reactions from the students were mixed: some were skeptical, others uneasy about so little structure, still others just glad for a different kind of assignment. Sherr, associate professor of social work and director of the School of Social Work's doctoral program, was ready for something different, too.

"In this class, the students are actually practicing community development and learning how to 'be' an organization," he said. "At this stage, they know what they need to know, and I just try to stay out of their way."

That's how Project Neighbor came into existence. After discussing pervasive social issues such as poverty, homelessness and health needs, the class determined one underlying issue for most of today's social problems: "We don't know our neighbor," said class member Meghan Smith, a senior social work major from Fort Collins, Colo.

Coincidentally, the School of Social Work is getting to know some new neighbors. As Baylor University's 11th and newest academic unit, the School has quickly outgrown its current space on campus in the Speight Avenue Parking Garage. Almost 300 students, faculty and staff moved their entire academic enterprise in mid-December in mid-December into a three-story, renovated building at 811 Washington Ave., in the heart of downtown Waco.

The students mapped out businesses, city and state offices, churches, nonprofit agencies and residences in the census track that directly encompass the Washington Avenue site. Like a Community Welcome Wagon in reverse - down to the basket of goodies the organization is known for bringing - students paired off and began dropping in on their neighbors-to-be to introduce themselves, say hello and chat.

Sherr acknowledged his approach to the advanced practice class was a little unconventional, but he is excited about how the students responded. He does not lecture in class, but he assigns podcasts he develops and readings. Discussion and strategizing happened mostly on the class's blog site. The class also started a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

"This may not work. It has to be organic, and it has to have momentum," said Sherr, who hopes Project Neighbor will be carried on in successive classes. "It's certainly not going to happen in one semester, but already we see ownership in some of the students who will take the class next semester." The advanced practice classes are taught by different professors in the School.

During the fall semester, the students continued their visits to six individuals representing two nonprofit agencies, a city office, two churches and a restaurant. They delivered small baskets of candies mid-term. They invited people from the downtown community and from other academic units to one of their classes on campus to explore what they think it means to be good neighbors. They have visited younger cohorts in the School to generate interest in Project Neighbor. As the semester drew to a close, their final assignment was to develop a plan to sustain their social movement after they graduate and move on from Baylor.

"The traditional model of community practice education focuses heavily on developing a product, whether it's an assessment or a final presentation," Sherr said. "Our goal is to make sure there is enough interest in this project to continue it."

It seems fitting that the profile photo on the class's Facebook page is of Fred Rogers, who for generations opened his PBS children's show by singing, "Would you be mine, could you be my mine, won't you be my neighbor?" It also may be an appropriate symbol because the wisdom of Fred Rogers's approach to children's programming was initially dismissed as too simplistic.

These students have taken the first steps, but they know that relationship must be sustained. They also know that relationship can't begin without a "Hello."

Contact: Vicki Kabat, Baylor School of Social Work, (254) 710-4417

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