Hunger and Homelessness

hunger logoThe college environment is known to start many groups and clubs, on topics ranging from politics to yo-yos. Some are just for fun and others have a mission. At colleges across the country, groups are fighting the devastating effects of homelessness and hunger. It is a difficult topic to address, and in order to make a change, students must stay informed. The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness is dedicated to making sure that students have the resources to tackle this difficult issue.

The Campaign, independent of the universities, is run by a full time staff of adults who work to bridge the gap between student organizations and the information that they need. The Campaign teams with organizations already in action on over 600 college campuses.

I spoke with Meg MacWhirter, a 20-year-old student at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., who told me about her experience having the National Campaign working with Hoya Programs and Education (HOPE), a direct service organization on the Georgetown campus.

bowl and spoonIf you want to know more about the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, or what you can do during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week (November 16 - 22), visit the Campaign's website:

WireTap: What is the mission of the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness?

I've seen it as a group that really helps educate the community of students about work that needs to be done, and also find ways for them to coordinate and improve the effectiveness of their programs and efforts by working together. That's something really valuable for college students because that kind of information isn't always very accessible in the normal academic setting. You don't have access to the most current legislative issues, or the best ways to reform policy. Campus communities aren't connected in a very efficient way... to have a group that really pulls them all together, I think has been really beneficial for all the students who have worked with them.

WT: What projects do you do in order to accomplish this?

I work with student groups at Georgetown, and attended the conference with the National Student Campaign last fall, so that was the first time I was introduced to them. For me it was a really great experience because I'd been involved with charity work on campus for the past couple years and in high school and it was something very familiar; but to attend the conference and to learn more about the advocacy issues was a really great step for what to work on next. I learned a lot about the legislative issues, the challenges faced by large nonprofits, and the efforts that other students have made.

students in ohioWT: What have you accomplished so far?

One thing that I felt was successful – or at least an exciting step in the right direction – was after the conference last year we made some connections with some student groups in the area. [We are] starting to figure out ways that we can work together and support each other in our events, send our members to each other's events, try to look on a broader level of what are the actions that people are taking. We had some students come down to an event we had here and I was able to attend the 24 hour camp out and fast up at Loyola [College] in Baltimore. After attending that I came back and started one here at Georgetown, so it was through learning from their experience and their planning contacts that we were able to start that here. The way that the campaign has been able to connect us all together has been really great. The conference itself, all the energy that is there and all the enthusiasm and optimism of the students when we all get together and get excited about what can be done, and then our willingness to act on that when we get back to campus. The way that the campaign brings everybody together really is good.

WT: Do you work with any other organizations?

On campus I work with a student service group called HOPE, an outreach program on education. And in terms of the other organizations that [The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness,] works with, they are very closely associated with the National Coalition for the Homeless, because they have a very grassroots approach and access to lots of research. Making that connection between the biggest advocacy network for the homeless and direct outreach for campuses and students is important.

WT: Would you consider what you do as part of an activist movement or would you just consider it community service?

Well I definitely think that what I did before last year's conference was community service based. We had our distributions [of food and clothes]. It's a great student service activity, it's definitely great to get classmates involved, but after the conference, I definitely learned much more about the way the homeless people are being treated and what the next step needed to be... it really changed the experience for me to see that there are ways we should be responding outside of the food and shelter. We are looking at the legislative issues.

One of the things that I did when I returned was we added some advocacy components to HOPE, but I also worked with another group to create a web site that tracks housing in DC and communicates with the housing authority and local landlords trying to find available housing. It was a really interesting experience to invite volunteers to get involved with structural issues and take action in non-traditional service opportunities. Once individuals become connected to the individuals they have met through direct service, the realization is often made that structural challenges lead to many social issues. Some people begin to see that feeding hungry people and working at shelters are not the best solution we can find. To be able to shift from the perspective of a volunteer into that of an activist includes the thought, "There should not be people to go out and serve" and plays a central part of the movement towards advocacy. As students we have a role to take action and to use the information we have available to us.

students at uclaWT: I work with Food Not Bombs, so I definitely understand the side that it is great to do it, but it really needs to not be needed. Why is it important for youth and students to be a part of organizations and community service for this struggle?

I think it is important because it helps keep things in perspective in terms of living on a college campus, having all the resources you need very accessible, everything comfortable, everything set up to be very safe. And you aren't always put into situations where you see this broader scope of what's going [on] outside of the campus, and you don't always get a sense of problems of the city... how different programs are funded or politics of the shelter system.

I think by getting yourself off campus by seeing some of that, or by looking at legislative issues or by reading the newspaper more closely for those things, students are able to connect to those issues in a more realistic way.

I also think that the direct service components in particular help us keep perspective in the choices that we make after we're finished in college. How do we wanna be vacationing? You know? (laughs) Would we consider being involved with service after we graduate? Would we consider making a commitment to philanthropy or to work in non-profit and I think that having direct service experiences and advocacy experiences during college helps people to set that as priorities and to see that as something that is part of who they are.

mittensWT: What are the challenges that your organization faces?

[With] HOPE, since we don't ask for a commitment from any of our members (basically we just give them a list of the activities that are going on and then send out an email to a huge number of people), that there is not really a sense of, "They are expecting me to be there, I have to show up." [On the other hand], we get a lot of people who have never tried these things before, who play a sport and have a double major, but still find the time to come out for one event a semester or one event a month. And we think that is really valuable, but it also does limit us in terms of building a community around it because we don't always know everyone's name at the event because people are shifting all the time.

And with such a big group it's sometimes hard to make people feel connected to that cause; also we have a wide range of activities so there is sometimes a disconnect between the people who care more about the direct service stuff and the advocacy issues. We work hard to rebuild that connection, but it's definitely hard, because it's a lot easier to articulate when it's from the framework of going to a conference, getting tons of information available. It's a little more challenging when you are posting up fliers or trying to petition people at a table in the middle of campus. I think that to serve many people we need to really click and it's hard for that to happen if they are not going to make a big commitment.

And in terms of the National Student Campaign, the challenges may be that it is at college campuses that are all over the place and it's not a common occurrence for them to talk to one another about these things. Very valuable and very necessary, but it doesn't happen a lot. Another challenge is that with college populations it is shifting all the time, people are always graduating, and group leaders are always changing and people study abroad and people graduate. And so when you have that turnover I think that can be a limitation. Those would be the challenges I guess.

WT: So what got you interested? You said you did some stuff in high school, but what got you interested in the Campaign?

Well, I was just really lucky. I had a faculty member at school who found some information on it and said she was willing to pay for me to go to the conference last fall, and so I went to that conference and that was the first time I had heard about it or anything, and just had an incredible time learning about the resources out there and learning about ways to connect this to the school and be part of this larger movement.

WT: What about with HOPE?

With HOPE I participated in the program my freshman year. And they had programs similar to things I did in high school so it felt familiar.

WT: How has it impacted you?

I think for me it's been a good way to keep balance in [my] college experience, because when you are in situations when you are realizing the challenges that people in our community face, it's just a lot easier to just head back to the library and study, or a lot easier to figure out a way to get over a roommate issue, or a lot easier to get to sleep easy. You have some sense of how lucky you are to go to college.

Darla Walters Gary is a WireTap staff writer. She lives in Oakland, California and is a senior at Far West High School.

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