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Service Learning

TCU Women and Gender Studies Students Partner with Fort Worth’s Ladder Alliance

By: Margaret Lowry and Amanda Irvin

In Spring 2015, two sections of TCU’s Introduction to Women and Gender Studies course, taught by Margaret Lowry, Freyca Calderon-Berumen, Amanda Irvin, and Adam Nemmers, partnered with Fort Worth’s Ladder Alliance in a Service-Learning project designed to help apply the academic concepts of activism and social change to our local community. Ladder Alliance is a local non-profit organization with the mission “to provide women victims of domestic violence or low-income women with the tools to lead self-reliant, independent, and successful lives.”

A major goal of Service-Learning is that students help meet the needs of a particular community partner. The Ladder Alliance staff was in the process of developing a new Professional Office Skills Training (POST) program, which founder Sharon Cox describes as “a second tier of training.” Cox says, “The skills taught in the POST program were identified through focus groups with graduates as well as conversations with employers. Students participate in three core subjects: advanced computer skills, business English and customer service (skill needed by employers).” Instructors from the Ladder Alliance created the computer skills course, instructors from Tarrant County College provided the curriculum and instruction for the customer service component, and students from WGST created the 14-week Business English course.

The collaboration began with a class visit to the Ladder Alliance, which is housed in One Safe Place, the Tarrant County Family Justice Center. Students learned about Ladder Alliance’s clients and toured One Safe Place, a brand-new facility that includes intake rooms for new clients, a mock courtroom used to prepare clients and their children for court appearances, and the “Success Store” where clients can buy appropriate business attire with credits that they earn. Many students reported that the tour was one of the highlights of their semester. One student wrote, “During the site visit we discussed four major barriers those in poverty must face: no childcare, no GED, no professional clothing, and no access to legal help for CPS/custody cases; 76% of the Ladder Alliance clients fell in poverty range. The Ladder Alliance addresses all these barriers.” Another student reflected on the impact of organizations like the Ladder Alliance saying, “the site visit challenged me to consider the way that grassroots organizations can have huge impacts on the surrounding community.”

After the site visit, the classes worked together to create the POST curriculum, which included units on topics such as business emails, business letters, workplace etiquette, and workplace rights. Ladder Alliance Director of Programs Donna James-Harvey notes, “It was a pleasure to have the Business English curriculum written by students from TCU. The curriculum was well thought out and addressed the areas of professional communication that we all agreed is so very important in today’s office environment.” Students developed assignments that were inspiring and unique, for example, asking the Ladder Alliance clients to listen to Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman” and then journal about how they are phenomenal. Adriel Long, the Business English Instructor (and TCU graduate ‘12) explained the participants’ past experience saying, “A lot of the participants had limited experience communicating professionally both verbally and written. The curriculum provided by the TCU class was comprehensive and detailed. The women especially enjoyed aspects of the curriculum. “

Students reported that the project was very impactful and deepened their understanding of the concepts they were learning. One student wrote, “When we analyzed the situation of the Ladder Alliance clients and why they are in the position they are in, I became aware of my bias. Before this course, I thought women like those at the Ladder Alliance were lazy and did not really want to get out of their position; I did not realize that our societal structure has them almost trapped….This project allowed me to witness institutions of oppression and a way of life I had never been exposed to.” Another student reflected on the importance of feminist community service, saying, “Being part of the [curriculum development] process provided my group with ideas of what was necessary to aid women who are victims of domestic violence in bettering the lives of themselves and their children.”

The first class of POST clients graduated on August 5, 2015. There were 11 students in all, and two had already had job interviews. One client spoke for all of them when she said, “We did it, ladies!” They had not only completed the POST program, but had also developed a strong support network of women who will continue to support them as they return to the workplace.