July 23, 2014 at 3:00pm

Sociology undergrads explore the communities and cultures of Chicago

Millikin University's Summer Immersion session offers a wide range of courses for students to experience. One of the unique experiences offered this year was a sociology course titled Chicago Communities & Cultures, developed in collaboration with the Chicago Center for Urban Life and Culture. Taught this past May, members of the Millikin Sociology Club spent a week at the Chicago Center facilities in Hyde Park and experienced Chicago in a whole new way.

"This course, like most Millikin immersion courses, offers informal and unique learning opportunities," said Dr. Kenneth Laundra, Millikin associate professor of sociology. "For example, our experience at a spoken word event in South Chicago, that allowed us to see inside the lives and minds of young adults in the inner city, could not possibly be experienced in a classroom. To actually hang out in a neighborhood we only read about and talked about in the first week of class was a powerful moment for all of us, and not something any of us are likely to forget soon."
The course focused on the ethnic, religious, economic and lifestyle diversities of Chicago's neighborhoods and the social dynamics of the city. The students visited city neighborhoods, major political and economic institutions, and met with community leaders. The students also studied the role of artistic expression in community development, including blues and jazz music, museums, poetry, art galleries, dance, film and theater.

"I really enjoyed visiting different Chicago neighborhoods and meeting with the community leaders because each place had its own little story," said Iman Egwaoje, a sophomore sociology major from Matteson, Ill. "It was interesting hearing from the community leaders."

One of the first stops during the course was the Pilsen neighborhood, a predominantly Hispanic community. The students took a walking tour led by guide, Jose Guerrero, a local artist and activist, who showed many of the neighborhood's famous outdoor murals that represent the stories, lives and people of the neighborhood. The students also experienced Paseo Boricua, the largest Puerto Rican neighborhood in Chicago.

"I think the most significant thing we all learned about these neighborhoods is that they exist, and are amazing public spaces to visit," said Dr. Laundra. "When most people go to Chicago, they go downtown to the Magnificent Mile area. We were given tours of several ethnic neighborhoods and spoke with community leaders in those neighborhoods. You can't directly observe the effects of gentrification on a neighborhood by reading the textbook."
The Millikin students continued their experience by visiting People for Community Recovery (PCR), an organization that enhances the quality of life for residents living in communities affected by pollution. The students also worked with Growing Home, a local, non-profit organization whose mission is to operate, promote, and demonstrate the use of organic agriculture as a vehicle for job training, employment, and community development.

The students spent a day with Growing Home gardening and learning about "Food Deserts," which are low-income urban areas without access to a grocery store or fresh fruits and vegetables.

"While working outside thinning the carrots and cutting strings for the tomato plants, it made me think about the workers that do this on a daily basis for their community," said Taana Latu, a senior sociology major from West Bountiful, Utah. "You appreciate the workers who spend their time picking vegetables, it was eye-opening."

Dr. Laundra added, "The day of urban gardening was a nice break from city tours. It was a chance for us to work with a community to help provide a real benefit to real people. The Growing Home garden project we worked at provides the only fresh fruit and vegetables that residents in the community can find for miles around."

The students finished the week by exploring the historic sites of South Chicago, as well as attending an open mic night at a community center in Hyde Park called KLEO (Keep Loving Each Other).

"This course was a remarkable experience for me and it makes me appreciate Chicago a lot more," said Latu. "I got to experience all kinds of new food from every culture and also got to experience most of all the cultures that are established in the United States. Sociology is all about finding the truth and I found some truth on this visit to the city."