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Turning challenges into opportunities: Georgia Tech interns, partners respond to COVID-19

By Guest Columnist RUTHIE YOW, Service Learning and Partnerships specialist at Georgia Tech’s Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain

This summer, 44 Georgia Tech undergraduate and graduate students fanned out across the city and state as part of their engagement with the Summer Internship Program at Georgia Tech’s Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS). This year’s program had a twist: It incorporated the nationwide protests for social justice and the public health catastrophe of COVID-19.

Ruthie Yow

In partnership with the Center for Civic Innovation, SLS provided a more intensive seminar experience by linking the interns’ work with concepts of racial and health equity, and their connection to the development of sustainable communities. Internships ranged from social impact entrepreneurs just beginning to build their businesses, to nonprofits, to government offices. Interns worked from their homes and apartments (with some socially distant visits to community farms and neighborhoods), but the geographic range of their duties was as specific as Tech’s campus facilities and as distant as the Georgia coastline.

Here, we highlight three teams that illustrate different lenses on sustainability and equity and underscore the pivotal importance of collaboration, especially in a political, social, and economic landscape fundamentally reshaped by COVID-19.

Carrie’s Closet

Mamie Harper, a social worker, founded Carrie’s Closet because she continually saw children re-traumatized by moving into the social services systems with quite literally only the clothes on their backs.

A Georgia Tech summer intern wrote a bill of rights for foster children in Georgia, and established a social media campaign to build support, while helping at Carrie’s Closet, which provides clothing to youngsters in distress or in the social services system. Credit: SLS

Harper explains: “Our vision is to ensure that no child looks like the trauma they have endured and experienced. COVID-19 pressured us to pivot…. [Now] we are not solely just servicing foster care youth. We are servicing children that are in the juvenile justice system who need clothing upon exit. We are servicing our refugee children that were displaced, and children who are LGBT [and homeless or threatened by homelessness].”

Adding that many babies “enter care” – leaving their homes to be placed in foster settings – “without even diapers,” Harper emphasized how important clothing can be to the readjustment and nurturing of a child robbed of any semblance of security. Harper saw in her summer intern, Rachel Dekom, a fifth-year history, technology and society major, a passion that mirrored her own. She described Dekom as “a self-starter” who answered the needs of Harper’s small team: “she has been a blessing to these kids in Georgia.”

Mamie Harper, founder of Carrie’s Closet

The ignorance of the wider public about the nuances of child protective services and foster care, and the racially disproportionate impact of the stresses of COVID-19, meant that Carrie’s Closet embraced a much broader vision than first imagined – and Dekom’s work was pivotal to that broadened scope. As Harper and Dekom explained, a foster parent bill of rights exists in Georgia, but not a bill guaranteeing the rights of foster children. Modeling similar efforts in other states, Dekom drafted a bill for Georgia and launched a social media campaign to build a coalition of support. She elaborated: “As a non-profit that previously focused mostly on direct service, Carrie’s Closet was forced to pivot extensively due to COVID. By introducing advocacy as a central part of their work, Carrie’s Closet is now in a position not only to continue to impact lives during COVID, but to fill needs on a more macro, systemic level than they could by only doing direct service.”

While Harper and Dekom mobilize resources and champions for the most vulnerable children in Georgia, illustrating the intersection of social innovation and equity, a team of researchers, organizers, and government officials have zeroed in on the Georgia coastline – discovering how to energize and equip local communities in their battle against environmental injustice and climate change.

Smart Sea Level Sensors Project

To help with emergency preparedness in a time of rising sea level, two Georgia Tech summer interns helped establish a community profile and emergency response plan for Hudson Hill, a historically Black community in Savannah. Credit: sealevelsensors.org

Scientists and engineers at Georgia Tech had an idea for how to take action amidst the figurative and literal rising tide of climate change on the Georgia Coast: “smart” sea level sensors. That team, in partnership with Tech’s Smart and Inclusive Innovation initiative, reached out to leaders in Chatham County, who were enthusiastic about the idea. When complete, the Smart Sea Level Sensors Project will constitute a network of 50 to 100 Internet-enabled water level sensors across flood-vulnerable Chatham County, via a working partnership between officials from the Chatham Emergency Management Agency (CEMA), the City of Savannah, and Georgia Tech.

Nick Deffley, director of the City of Savannah’s Office of Sustainability, described the work that he and his two SLS interns, Alyson Laura (Masters of Sustainable Energy and Environmental Management, 2020) and Patrick Daugherty (Environmental Engineering, 2021), undertook.

Georgia Tech summer interns Layson Laura and Patrick Daugherty worked on a community emergency response project for an historically Black community in Savannah. Credit: SLS

Deffley noted: “Before COVID, the interns were going to do community engagement [and we have still done that], working with the schools to develop a sea level sensor curriculum and work[ing] with the engineering academies to build out a lot of the sensors.” Despite constraints that meant less in-person interaction with community stakeholders, Laura and Daugherty were able to make strides on two significant projects – the first of which Deffley described as: “a neighborhood specific emergency preparedness and response plan for Hudson Hill, [which is] historically African American [and located] right across the street from 17 major industries.” The second project was a “community profile.” Daugherty, who, along with Laura, poured hours into the project, described the profile as a report that “offers a holistic look at environmental and economic health of the Hudson Hill neighborhood.”

Deffley affirmed: “I was pleased and thrilled with the work that Alyson and Patrick did on this community profile . . . putting data together in a way that is readable for all audiences.” Laura added: “One of the cool things is [the project’s many] partnerships. There are 25 different organizations on our Friday calls, and I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to interact with federal officials at the EPA, and emergency management officials, and PhDs on grant proposals who wanted my input. It inspired me that so much is possible; there is so much passion and energy out there to work together.” The energy that Laura described, and the mobilizing of diverse assets, is visible in the work of another intern/host team, also focused on how to support sustainable solutions specific to the gifts and experiences of community members themselves.

Global Growers

While helping at Global Growers Network, a Georgia Tech summer intern wrote a best practices toolkit that is to be shared with community gardens, particularly those working in multicultural and multilingual contexts. Credit: SLS

Based in DeKalb County, with 22 acres of farm and garden property across eight locations, Global Growers connects local refugees to opportunities to farm and sell their produce. The program draws on practices that supported their agricultural livelihoods in their native countries. Its mission and focus on refugee growers is unique in Georgia Over its 10 year history, Global Growers has answered the demand by new Americans to have the chance to use their agricultural expertise to make a living while nourishing, “cultural diversity, inclusive economies, and regenerative agriculture practices.” Global Growers also provides its farmers with support and coaching in business, market relationships, and associated skills.

Isabelle Musmanno, a fifth-year environmental engineering major and business leadership minor, worked with Global Growers Community Development Manager Yarrow Konig in an internship that normally would have entailed more of her hands digging in soil than flying across keyboards.

An array of flora and fauna, including this tree frog, thrive in a Global Growers farm, in DeKalb County. Credit: SLS

Konig described Musmanno’s contributions to Global Growers work, the equity and resilience aspects of which have become all the more salient in the context of COVID-19: “Over the summer, Isabelle compiled best practices from Global Growers Network partners to create a Community Gardens Best Practices tool kit. The pandemic highlighted the important roles community gardens play in local food systems. Once complete, this toolkit will be made freely available to existing garden leaders and groups looking to start community gardens, particularly gardens working in multicultural and multilingual contexts.”

Musmanno reflected on her time with Konig and the team at Global Growers as enriching both intellectually and professionally: “Global Growers Network has taught me about the refugee experience in Atlanta, the Black farmer experience in the U.S., the best ways to embrace multiculturalism in a growing space, my own capabilities as an employee, and about the social-enterprise model in improving economic, social and environmental sustainability on a local level.” What local sustainability looks like has been reshaped and inequities underscored by COVID-19; as the pandemic has strained food systems and revealed glaring disparities in access to fresh food and the dangers those in food industries face, Global Growers has redoubled its efforts to support local refugee farmers and local, sustainable food systems.

Make a difference

Each of these three internship teams embodies how diverse forms of social innovation—with the common goal of more sustainable systems—can support the resilience of communities that are most vulnerable to what many have called the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and structural racism. If you would like to contribute to their work, you can.

To add your voice to those advocating for a foster child bill of rights, begin by following Carrie’s Closet on Facebook. Support the important community-based environmental justice initiatives undertaken by Harambee House, partnered with the Sea Level Sensors Team. Finally, to help nurture local food systems and food equity through the farming enterprises of Atlanta’s refugee communities, check out the work of Global Growers. The hard-won successes this summer of Serve-Learn-Sustain interns and hosts make clear that realizing a more just and sustainable future rests on working together, hard and creatively, right now.

Notes to Readers:

Ruthie Yow has a PhD in American Studies and African American Studies. She builds partnerships and supports community-engaged courses for the Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain at Georgia Tech.

Serve-Learn-Sustain coordinates internships every summer, focusing especially on nonprofit partners who most benefit from funded assistance. If you would like to sponsor the program and financially support an internship, please contact ruth.yow@gatech.edu for more information.


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