|"The New International Center (...in Exile)", Spring 2012, NYC|
After the International Center (IC) declared bankruptcy and subsequently vacated its location on West 23rd street, hundreds of immigrants and newcomers to the United States lost an invaluable resource for learning English, receiving advice on living and working in the city, and -most importantly- a sense of community. As a volunteer ESL instructor at the IC, both while earning my Certificate in TESOL at NSPE (and long after...), I discovered a unique place, which sought to “Make citizens of the world feel at home in New York.” So when I learned the IC would be closing, I joined forces with other dedicated volunteers and staff to ensure a “New” IC would persevere.
Like many newcomers who immigrate to the United States, we refused (despite the many challenges and let downs) to not quit on our dreams and aspirations. At first, we held a fundraiser, then we used social media sites to organize our efforts, and finally we reached out to former members and volunteers of the center for much-needed financial support (I even agreed to use my NSPE office as a temporary mailing address). Eventually, letters and checks begin coming in and we inched closer and closer to our intended fundraising goal.
While fundraising and logistical planning took place, the exiled members of the IC were still without a proper location to meet. Before the IC closed, many members wrote letters describing a center that felt like “a second home,” where “friendships were made,” and a place where people could go to not “feel alone” or “hopeless” in this new world - America.
To fill in this void, some volunteers began meeting with “exiled” members of the New IC in cafe’s and apartments across the city. At this point, I decided to e-mail Dean Scobey to gain permission to use one of our unused classrooms for two hours, a week, on Friday nights, so that fifteen students could continue to meet and learn English. I wrote Dean Scobey, saying I would take full responsibility for whatever happened. Fortunately (as you can see from the above photo), what happened was a Public Engagement success story!
For ten weeks, I met with fifteen students (sometimes individually to give advice on adjusting to life in New York, write letters for college applications, and to give ongoing encouragement to keep up the hard work and the good fight). Our class was called “English in Action.” Each week, the students came to the NSPE eager to learn English and (even more eager...) ready to present, discuss, and even debate the political issues, news, and cultural events of the week. Some of the topics students presented on were on stereotypes, the American Dream, Noam Chomsky's theories on mass media, Martin Luther King's "Dream", Grace Lee Boggs, etc.
Each class, I sought to out "English into action" by applying Scott Thornbury’s “dogme” approach to ESL language teaching and the results were always a success - our class was consistently lively, dynamic, and purposeful. Accordingly, during and after each class session, I was able to experiment and reflect on my own pedagogy as an ESL instructor. Thus this experience was not only useful for the students, but also for the teacher. It is my hope that more projects like this (and those that take place during our summer ESL outreach program) will continue to take place at the NSPE.
After all, although we often wish to pretend otherwise, our society is an unforgiven and ruthless place mostly concerned with profit and personal gain. Indeed (as Tierno, one student from class, observed regarding America), “Nothing is for free!” Nevertheless, it is refreshing to see a glimmer of hope in places like the New IC and the NSPE, where something is truly for free and where the only thing to gain from the experience is collaborative communication, educational enrichment, and a chance to engage with real world problems so as to reach real solutions.
(As of this writing, I’m pleased to report that the New International Center is no longer “in Exile” and is now temporarily located in the Catholic Charities building on the East Side. Where they will stay until moving into a more permanent location this fall.)