“Not in my backyard” is not in College of Charleston alumna Samantha Sammis’ vocabulary. The 2011 graduate’s backyard is Charleston’s urban Eastside neighborhood where she lives and works, applying the principles of asset-based community development to identify and engage her neighbors and strengthen the neighborhood.
Her commitment to the neighborhood started in 2011 when Sammis recruited some friends from the College to join her on Friday afternoons on an Eastside basketball court to play ball with neighborhood children –a commitment they continue today. In the process, she met their families and began to understand some of the issues in the neighborhood. As a result, she developed a commitment to the neighborhood and its people – and decided to move into the neighborhood.
Sammis, who graduated with a degree in sociology, notes she is “fascinated by the power of culture, religion, and society and how these social norms can influence our daily lives, actions, and decision making skills.”
As she goes about her everyday life among her neighbors, she is energized because as she says, “I’m fascinated by the intricacies of the neighborhood and am becoming more familiar with the depth of life that exist in this community just like any other. I love living life with my neighbors. Chatting with them on the sidewalk, going to kids’ birthday parties, knowing people by first and last name, being invited into families’ homes, going with them to the dentist, to church, the grocery store — the potential for positive change in any neighborhood is unattainable until genuine relationships are formed and trust is built among neighbors. Only then can a community be mobilized and empowered through the residents’ own gifts, talents, strengths, and stories.”
Using asset based community development (ABCD), which is not “them helping us” but “us working together,” Sammis is working toward a fully-funded non-profit organization (hopefully by August 2013). Through the relationships developed between people and groups, Sammis expects her neighbors to see new possibilities and opportunities. Sammis says, “I want to focus on the strengths instead of the weaknesses of the neighborhood.”
Amanda Chicago, is one of the volunteers involved in the “Love America Street” ABCD work. Chicago is mentoring children in the Book Buddies program at Sanders-Clyde elementary school. Thus far, two children have progressed two academic grade levels and one of the students has recently been accepted to Charleston County’s School of the Arts.
Each week Sammis and Chicago hold Thursday open house study gatherings for two to 20 people. They have also become active members of Eastside Community Development Corporation. Sammis also volunteers with the Charleston Clemente Project at Trident Technical College’s Palmer Campus. According to Sammis, “we’ve connected with leaders at St. John’s Chapel, Neighborhood House, Memorial Baptist Church and Ebenezer AME church.”
Charleston’s Eastside neighborhood is one that is historically poor. It is one of the neighborhoods indentified as a component of the Charleston Promise Neighborhood. According to the nonprofit organization of the same name, children attending schools in the neighborhood do not make adequate yearly progress, many have developmental delays and 40 percent of households subsist at the poverty level and 60 percent of households eek out life at 200 percent of the poverty level. But in Sammis’ view these are resourceful people possessing talents which can be used to change their community, not deficient, poor individuals.
Sammis says her Sociology studies at the College allowed her to, “Learn how to form genuine relationships with people who are different from myself, how to be sensitive when speaking with the ‘gatekeepers’ of a new community, how to ask questions and integrate into a new culture, group or situation with which I am unfamiliar.”
College sociology professor Heath Hoffmann recently invited Sammis to be part of a sociology alumni panel speaking with current sociology majors. Hoffmann said of Sammis’s work, “She has built tremendous relationships with residents and organizations in the community and is doing really inspirational work.”
While at the College, Sammis gained “interpersonal and communication skills.” Sammis points out that her skills were “developed through my internships at College with People Against Rape, Communities in Schools, my research with Citadel cadets, outreach work with the Baptist Collegiate Ministry, and additionally my study abroad experience in India and my humanitarian aid work in Haiti. By immersing myself in different groups of people, cultures, and situations, I am now better able to start conversations with new people, develop easy rapport, and connect with people whom I may have never otherwise met.”
Sammis offers guidance to current College students who wish to find work that challenges and motivates them, “Purposefully put yourself out in the world, you won’t know what you want or what you’re good at until you do.”