Community Engagement During Month of Service

Written by
Oyin Sangoyomi ’23, Pace Center Student Correspondent
Jan. 28, 2021

The Month of Service, hosted by the John H. Pace, Jr. ‘39 Center for Civic Engagement, aims to recognize the importance of civic engagement and the different ways that it takes place within the Princeton community. This year, Month of Service occurred virtually over the month of January, and this event featured remote workshops that ranged from informative sessions about what service looks like, to insightful conversations between members of Trenton Arts at Princeton(link is external) and the creative projects that they have undertaken for the benefit of their communities.

Given the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Pace Center acknowledges that service is not happening in the same way. Oriented around virtual engagement, Month of Service focused on a theme inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of "a beloved community" and sought to connect members of the Princeton University community with the communities around them.

In addition to a Community Guide, the Pace Center launched Meet Trenton, a new video series modeled after the Pace Center's previous in-person conversations with members of the Trenton community. In the first pilot episode, Assistant Director David Brown explores the slogan "Trenton Makes the World Takes" with Bradd Jackson, director of operations at the Trenton Circus Squad(link is external), and John Hatch '84, a developer and architect with Trenton firm Clarke Caton Hintz, to serve as a touchstone to understand more about Trenton's industrial past and its impact today. 

No matter what community you are a part of – on campus or off –  taking care of each other and supporting one another is more important now than ever. That is why, in the Engage at Home workshop, the Pace Center offered a variety of tips as to how people can safely engage with others in their home community. The point that the Pace Center most emphasizes is investing the time to understand your own community. When it comes to making a meaningful impact, the quality of one’s work is a far more important factor than doing a lot of work in many different areas. Change can only be brought about when there is intention, even if the steps taken are seemingly small.

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Rebecca Stenn, a lecturer in dance at the Lewis Center for the Arts and Elizabeth Zwierzynski, dance educator at Trenton Central High School.

And there is nothing more niche than beginning with one’s own community, something that Elizabeth Zwierzynski, understands well. During the Community Arts Conversations: Dance, Zwierzynski highlighted her experiences and values as a full time dance educator at Trenton Central High School(link is external) in a conversation with Rebecca Stenn, a lecturer in dance at the Lewis Center for the Arts(link is external). As members of Trenton Youth Dancers(link is external) (TYD), in which they teach dance to high school students, both Stenn and Zwierzynski are passionate about making dance education accessible to students who are less often included in the dance world.

Zwierzynski was the first full time dance educator in her district, and this is now her seventh year in that role. In her years of teaching dance in a public school setting, her goal has been to reimagine what dance education is, and to focus less on what accolades are garnered and more on uplifting student voices. She accomplishes this by giving them both an outlet in which to showcase their artistic intention as well as a community where they can celebrate themselves. 

“Being a teenager is incredibly hard,” Zwierzynski says, “and in the most holistic way, I want to be a really good dance teacher but also a good teacher, who shows up and listens.”

She has especially had to draw on this empathy in the past few months that she has been teaching dance virtually. Attendance has been challenging for her students, whether due to tech problems or childcare responsibilities, and whereas her students are used to dancing in a gorgeous studio, now Zwierzynski finds herself teaching students who are dancing in their kitchens, living rooms, laundry rooms, and whatever spaces they can find. Nevertheless, she values her students’ persistence, and she affirms that the most important thing is that, even through it all, her and her students are still dancing.

Dance is not the only performing arts that has built a community for young creatives. In another workshop, Community Arts Conversations: Theater, faculty fellow Jane Cox spoke with Felicia Brown. In addition to being a member of Trenton Youth Theater(link is external) (TYT) alongside Cox, Brown runs the theater program(link is external) at Trenton Central High School, where she introduces students to the world of theater, oversees theater productions, and develops community partnerships.

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Jane Cox, Trenton Arts at Princeton faculty fellow, and Felicia Brown, with the theater program at Trenton Central High School

Brown often uses musical theater to teach, for she values its ability to bring history to people in diverse forms. Since a very young age, Brown has been interested in this storytelling aspect of theater, and how such a feature helps people understand one another. 

“Theater is in everything, and everything is in theater,” Brown says, an adage that she constantly tells her students.

It is for this reason that Brown is a firm believer of having theater available to students at a secondary level. Not only does theater create a unique way to learn about the world and different histories, but it also gives a sense community for her students, a reminder that they are not alone. This, she states, is something that she has seen help the shyest of kids boost their confidence.

Ultimately, Brown hopes to make theater a space that is even more inclusive for students by shifting her teachings from works that are traditionally taught, which are almost exclusively by white men, to works that come from artists of a wide range of backgrounds. 

While teaching theater virtually has presented its obstacles, Brown optimistically affirms that “All that has really happened is that our stage has changed.” As such, she remains undeterred from her goal of seeing more inclusivity in theater, from race to levels on the spectrum to ability.

Throughout the month, the Pace Center offered participants several opportunities to come together to reflect on their experiences in and with communities. As David Brown, assistant director at the Pace Center, noted in one of the reflection sessions, “It’s important to digest our experiences. In reflection we focus on the three ‘w’s’: what happened, why, and what now.”

Taking time to pause and reflect enables people to learn from their experiences. “It gives people a chance to know that service is a combination of action and reflection,” said Brown. “Hearing from others ensures no one has any unanswered questions and everyone gains a broader understanding of the community or communities they’re working with.” 

Knowing how to advocate for various forms of inclusivity is certainly a valuable skill, one that the Pace Center elaborated on in Allyship Through Service and Mutual Aid, one of the final workshops in Month of Service. In the workshop, facilitator Geralyn Williams, a program coordinator at the Pace Center, emphasizes that allyship is a verb, not a title. When participating in allyship it is important to remember that it is less about the titles that one can give themselves and more about the actions that they take towards the betterment of the communities they choose to fight for.

This type of awareness was certainly presented in each of the workshops in Month of Service through the actions of the arts educators and their projects. It is something important to keep in mind, now more than ever because, as Williams points out, this pandemic has unveiled a lot of cracks in the world, and it has presented the world with a choice: gloss over said cracks as we move forward, or make the effort to fix them, a process that can begin at the local community level.

Meet Trenton: Links to Learn More

Interested in digging deeper into the slogan "Trenton Makes the World Takes" or understanding more about Trenton's industrial past and present? Use these resources to learn more: