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Well Served

Whether it’s helping immigrant families get oriented to American life or helping nonprofits stretch their reach, Meadows students are finding ways to make a difference in the world.

Story by Mary Guthrie, Photos by Kim Ritzenthaler Leeson

With its broad diversity of international cultures, lifestyles, income levels, education and skills, Dallas is a vibrant city of both opportunity and challenge. For Meadows students, the city of more than 1.2 million holds not only the prospect of coveted internships, but also the chance to get involved in “service learning,” taking what they learn in the classroom and using it to help meet real community needs.

Artists Serving Our Community

Minnie’s Food Pantry is a member of the North Texas Food Bank network and one of the largest pantries in Collin County, located just north of Dallas in Plano. It’s also the site where much of the work for the Meadows class Dancer’s Toolbox takes place. Taught by Assistant Professor Millicent Johnnie and part of the freshman dance curriculum, the class takes the current crop of first-year dancers out of the studio and transplants them into the surrounding community, where they haul boxes, scan bar codes and organize food on shelves. Despite an initial reluctance to showing up for community service at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, the students quickly learned the relevance of the endeavor to their craft.

“One of the immediate benefits I realized was learning work ethic and humility,” says Hope Endrenyi (B.F.A. Dance Performance, ’16). “As artists we tend to hone in on ourselves and how we can train to be the best we can be. We forget why we started being artists in the first place. We are just as much a part of the community as anyone else not involved in the arts, so therefore our art should serve our community.”

Minnie’s Pantry is run by Executive Director Cheryl Jackson, who founded the establishment after overcoming a moment of need in her own life. Left feeling belittled and embarrassed by the experience, Jackson decided to create a place of charity that would instead leave its patrons feeling optimistic and uplifted. When recipients come to pick up their food, they receive it in a most unusual way: They walk the red carpet while the dancers dance, food trades hands and the place comes alive.

“The energy was fantastic; we didn’t just connect with the people who needed help, we also connected as a class,” says Endrenyi. “We learned a lot about each other and our strengths and weaknesses; it opened up an incredible level of comfort and trust within our group to work together on future artistic projects.”

The class also utilizes a partnership with creative learning organization Big Thought to send dancers into local elementary schools, where they teach their brand of creative movement-with-a-message. “We take what we’ve learned at Minnie’s and weave it into our lessons with the kids,” says Adriana Fernandez Ibenez (B.A. Journalism, ’15). “We make it positive, with the goal of building awareness and getting them to think about community engagement while they express themselves and their creativity through dance.”

“SMU is such a beautiful community that it’s really easy to feel so blessed and just stay in this little bubble,” says Endrenyi. “The chance to go out and serve the community as part of our dance curriculum was just so unique, and allowed us to experience our art away from our nice, insular campus neighborhood.

“It made me realize that you really can’t make a difference until you’re aware of what difference you need to make.”

Telling the Stories of South Dallas

Shawn Williams has been making a difference since 2006, when he started a blog that covered topics of interest to the half-million people living in South Dallas. As readership grew, the blog became an online publication called Dallas South News; soon, reporters and editors were needed to help cover the multiplicity of overlooked stories south of downtown.

Although South Dallas is primarily a minority population, Dallas South News (DSN) is not a “minority paper.” According to Editor Dawn Mann, it’s a paper from a minority perspective looking at the whole of Dallas. And as the publication continues to grow, it needs even more reporters to help deliver content.

In Fall 2012, the Division of Journalism partnered with DSN and began sending students to cover stories for the nonprofit publication. According to Professor of Practice Jayne Suhler, their work has led to milestones for DSN, such as reaching the highest web traffic day in the publication’s history; numerous top-ranked stories on Google News; 23,000 hits on a story about the death of a prominent African American businessman; almost 60,000 hits on a plan by a local hotel to hire hundreds of workers; and 75,000 hits on a story about the dedication of a new bridge that links South Dallas to downtown.

In addition to bringing journalistic manpower to DSN, Mann says the students bring another valuable commodity: fresh perspective.

“Most of the students who write stories for DSN aren’t from South Dallas. Many aren’t even from Texas. But this is part of their value. They always bring a new way of looking at things.”

The relationship is also mutually beneficial. While DSN gets content from bright, young reporters, the students gain unparalleled hands-on experience.

When senior Julie Fancher (B.A. Journalism, ’13) started writing for DSN, she found that being in unfamiliar territory and out of her comfort zone helped her become a better reporter.

“It’s easy to stay on campus with your friends and write stories,” says Fancher. “But writing for DSN put me where I needed to be: cold-calling people, interviewing people in the street, finding angles that would connect with South Dallas readers and writing articles on deadline.”

In 2011, she attended a panel discussion about the death penalty, hosted by SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program. She was inspired by speaker Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit – a horrific multiple murder – before being exonerated in 2010. Fancher wrote a profile about Graves and explored the Texas judicial system, executions and the heartbreaking aftermath of violent crime.

“That story meant a great deal to me, and it resonated well with the readers,” she says. “It also allowed me to perfect my reporting skills on a complex topic.”

In short, the class was designed for students to get experience doing what reporters do, while serving a community need at the same time. “I love the relationship we have, the mutual level of respect,” says Mann. “There hasn’t been a piece sent to me by the SMU students that I haven’t liked.”

Opening Doors and Raising Awareness

The melting pot of Dallas includes thousands of refugees and immigrants from places such as Burma, Korea, Mexico, Burundi and other countries. Once here, they often start from scratch rebuilding their lives: finding homes, landing jobs and forming new social circles.

Many of the families don’t speak English. The lack of this basic, essential skill can be an enormous obstacle to finding stability and success in America.

To help overcome that hurdle, the Open Door Preschool, housed in Grace United Methodist Church in East Dallas, provides a setting where young refugee and immigrant children can learn English and get ready for the American school system. Often, these young children, ages 2 to 5, are the first in their families to learn English.

Like many nonprofits, there was more need than there were resources at Open Door. The Preschool wanted to help raise awareness and funds in order to expand its services. Through Open Door’s connection with Dr. Maria Dixon, associate professor in Meadows’ Division of Communication Studies, it became acquainted with the student-run “mustangconsulting” agency. Mustangconsulting specializes in working with nonprofits, helping raise awareness, developing fundraising campaigns and mapping out strategic communication plans. Dixon connected the Open Door board with student Michael Graves (B.A. Communication Studies and B.A. Religious Studies, ’14).

According to Open Door board member Reverend Rachel Baughman, Graves’ work with the board helped them clarify their mission. “He helped us ask the hard questions we hadn’t asked of ourselves,” she says. “That, in turn, helped us think about ways to expand our services. His energy and commitment have been motivating and inspirational.”

To help the board, Graves initially took time to get to know the people of Open Door. He spent the first few months observing operations and figuring out the best way to move the cause forward.

He discovered that despite donations coming in from friends of the board and local foundation grants, Open Door was barely breaking even. And much to his and the board’s surprise, they also learned that many members of Grace United Methodist didn’t even know there was such a preschool program right in their own building. Graves went to work creating a communications plan aimed at bolstering awareness and contributions.

“We identified who at the church might be willing to give, but we also expanded that reach beyond Grace Methodist to the wider United Methodist community,” says Graves. “We talked over how to build relationships with new donors and worked on ways to move people beyond being just one-time givers into ‘thoughtful’ givers – those who would not only understand the cause but support it on an ongoing basis.”

Baughman says Graves’ work with the board helped bring in more donations and grants to the point that Open Door is now able to take steps toward expanding its hours of service.

“He helped breathe new life into the school,” she says. “We are encouraged. Working with Graves and mustangconsulting was very helpful for Open Door and the families we serve.”

Helping Aspiring Local Artists

Sometimes help from Meadows arrives due to chance meetings.

Ever since 2002, the nonprofit TeCo Theatrical Productions has held an annual “New Play” competition in which local playwrights compete not only for cash and prizes but the chance to stage their own one-act plays.

It’s been an impressive magnet for local writing talent, but they have also struggled to find enough qualified directors to direct the plays. In the winter of 2011, TeCo Executive Director Teresa Coleman Wash met playwright and performer Will Power, who was in residency at SMU as that year’s Meadows Prize winner. Power was intrigued by the New Play competition and visited TeCo in person. He loved what he saw and volunteered to mentor the playwrights for the 2013 competition. Wash was thrilled.

“That helped us tremendously,” she says. “This year we received more entries than ever before because of his involvement and reputation.”

Wash decided to venture another suggestion to Power. Could Meadows provide some student directors to help direct the plays? Power brought the idea to Stan Wojewodski, Distinguished Professor of Directing and chair of the Division of Theatre. All agreed it would be a perfect fit.

Wojewodski and Power selected six theatre students to direct the plays, allowing the aspiring writers to hone their scripts while the young directors focused on bringing the original works to life. The Meadows student directors cast their productions at a series of local calls in January, then ran regular rehearsals through the plays’ successful TeCo debuts in early March.

Wash says the partnership with Meadows filled a huge need. “We are so grateful to collaborate with the SMU Theatre Department,” she says. “This has helped both TeCo and aspiring local artists in ways we never imagined.”

Numerous other service-learning initiatives can be found throughout Meadows School of the Arts and SMU as a whole. Whether on a purely volunteer basis or as part of new, community- oriented curriculum, Meadows students are actively putting their talents to work and fulfilling local needs.

“Service learning means what we learn in the classroom influences our peers and the community,” says mustangconsulting student Graves. “The most rewarding part of the entire experience is the ability to walk out of the classroom doors and realize the things you’ve just learned are actually going to make a positive impact on your community.”

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