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Learning to Listen to Community Needs

By Katja Kleine

Ms. Kleine is a Teach for America high school math teacher and is working towards a Master’s Degree in Education at Johns Hopkins University.  In 2014, she earned her B.S. in Economics with minors in Poverty and Human Capabilities, and in Education Policy, from Washington and Lee University.  She served as a teacher in Baltimore City through the Teach for America program upon graduation from W&L.

My decision to become a member of the Shepherd community was one of the most influential decisions I have ever made. During my freshmen year of college I had taken Poverty 101 with at Washington and Lee and gotten involved in the Bonner Scholars Program, which included spending many hours volunteering in the area community. Within the first few months of school my perceptions about poverty, education, healthcare, and homelessness had been constantly challenged by my community experience and coursework. When I learned about the Shepherd Alliance Internship, which it was called prior to the formation of the Consortium, and the opportunity to explore community over the summer I knew I wanted to apply.

Katja (W&L 2014) writes, "I view my goal as a teacher to be a facilitator—to help my students develop their own voices, and the skills they need to best advocate for themselves, their communities, ..."

Katja (W&L 2014) writes, “I view my goal as a teacher to be a facilitator—to help my students develop their own voices, and the skills they need to best advocate for themselves, their communities, …”

I spent the summer of 2011 in Washington DC at the Perry School. The Perry School offered comprehensive services for individuals who need support around healthcare, childcare, employment opportunities, and housing. My roles were primarily to work with the youth summer camp and the economic empowerment division. Throughout the summer I develop one of the most important skills—listening. I spent my days entertaining a group of bright, funny, talkative children who had lots of thoughts and opinions to share with me. I realized throughout this summer experience that the children and families who experience poverty are the real experts; their voices are the ones missing in so many discussions that directly affect their lives.

I left my summer experience searching for a way to help individuals feel empowered to use their voices to influence policy and decision-making. Additionally, I wanted to learn more about the policies that were affecting my campers and all people in the United States. I found that my coursework at Washington and Lee was extremely helpful for understanding and comprehending the history, impact, and ethics behind public policy. The more I learned, the more interested I became in the process of changing policies. This interest lead me to an organization called RESULTS, which is an anti-poverty grassroots organization located in Washington, DC.

RESULTS connects constituents to information around poverty related issues and empowers them to form relationships with their elected officials to create positive change. I spent the next two summers working for RESULTS and learning more about how policies and legislation are decided and the power that individuals can have on the legislative process, when they choose to be involved. This experience allowed me to develop even more listening skills as I helped people across the country connect with their elected officials and share their stories of how policies had impacted them. My time with RESULTS was extremely rewarding and eye-opening. I learned so much about the process of how people can affect policy and change.

While back at Washington and Lee the following year I continued to work directly with individuals at a variety of different community based organizations. I loved the connections and camaraderie that is developed from working closely with others towards a common goal. Throughout my remaining time at Washington and Lee the people whom I served and served with became such a solid support system and source of happiness.. When it came time to choose a career path I knew that I wanted to pursue a career that would help me to be a part of a community, while working to empower individuals.

When I graduated Washington and Lee, I joined the 2014 Baltimore Teach for America Corps and started teaching high school math to a group of exciting, hardworking, and creative students. I can trace my passion for teaching all the way back to my summer spent at the Perry School. That experience sparked my interest in working with children and helping them develop the skills that they need to advocate for themselves. It was also where I learned how important it is to listen to the people we work with, which greatly informs how I teach my students now. I view my goal as a teacher to be a facilitator—to help my students develop their own voices, and the skills they need to best advocate for themselves, their communities, and share their experiences, thoughts and opinions with the world.

I am so thankful for the Shepherd Consortium for shaping both my professional and personal life into something engaging, and incredibly rewarding, and I also know from my sister who is involved in the Shepherd Consortium poverty studies program at Furman University that other schools are offering similar opportunities. I am grateful that the Shepherd Consortium has been growing and expanding throughout the past years so that more students all across the country can have a transformational experience like I did. In addition to all the professional opportunities the Program at Washington and Lee game me, I found the friendships and reflection skills I developed have been extremely influential as well. I made friends who were passionate about similar issues and had hard conversations with no clear answers or resolutions. These conversations and the space and time used to reflect have helped me think of issues of poverty, racism, and other societal issues through different lenses.


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