Community as Educator

Enacting a paradigm shift


At first, Si Kou planned to go into business, but after her mother died, she searched for a path that would hold more meaning for her. That's when she found UW's Early Childhood and Family Studies (ECFS) program.

Kou now works at The Children's Center at Burke Gilman Gardens (TCC) as its program manager. She started at TCC as an ECFS intern while earning her bachelor's degree in 2008 and has worked there since graduation.

"So much of society is tied to the gold rush, the 'eureka, I found it! It's mine," says Jondou Chen, a UW College of Education associate teaching professor in the Education, Communities and Organizations (ECO) undergraduate program. "What if instead of maximizing claims and capital as the goal, we imagined other possibilities? Having enough is important, and my enough is tied to the community around me."

The UW College of Education's three undergraduate programs ECFS, Early Care and Education (ECE), and ECO were designed to offer alternatives to a claiming approach to knowledge. Instead, the programs seek the rewards of actively engaging in reciprocal learning with and in the communities around them.

Small Things Add Up

Kou began finding her path after volunteering in the UW Haring Center's Experimental Education Unit (EEU). At first, she felt ill-equipped working with children diagnosed with autism, but by the time she said her goodbyes at the end of the quarter, something had clicked. "Before I turned to go, the kids said, 'Bye, Si." Because the children didn't generally say much, the moment touched her. "That's what got me into the ECFS program," she says.

Looking back more than ten years later, she marvels at how far she's come. "I can do anything now," she says. At TCC, she's experienced just about every role possible, from working in the office to teaching to helping in the kitchen. She's also a parent at the school, with one child graduating into kindergarten next year and another soon to start.

"I feel connected to the community," she says. One of the things that makes this place so special is the diversity the students and teachers bring, with many of the teachers speaking two or three languages. Kou herself is originally from Macau, China and speaks English, Cantonese and Mandarin. Still, it surprised her one day when she saw her daughter sitting and snacking with six other kids and realized that every child in the group spoke a different language. "These are small things, but they make a big difference," she says.

The School of Life

"I see myself as a bridge," says Ruth Ayodeji, who graduated in 2015 from the ECE program and now works as the community-based learning coordinator for ECE and ECFS. "I connect the instructors, the community and the students together. I work hand in hand with them. I help them to not feel overwhelmed and also to get out of their safety zone and challenge themselves to expand their knowledge."

These are things Ayodeji knows something about. Her journey has been full of times when she felt overwhelmed and took steps she never expected to take, all the while expanding her knowledge.

"I have a learning disability," Ayodeji explains. "I grew up in a country with no services for disabled children. When I look at my life, I never dreamed about being where I am today."

The seed was planted when she was a teenager, volunteering at church as an interpreter for people who needed hearing and speech support. Suddenly she had a sense of purpose, and that's when she decided she wanted to be a teacher.

After she immigrated to the U.S., Ayodeji surmounted challenge upon challenge, getting her GED, leaving an abusive relationship, raising her children as a single mother, working as an early learning teacher, making sure children in her classroom and their parents got the support they needed to thrive, earning her bachelor's degree and eventually bringing all that formal education and lived experience to her current position with ECE.

At times on her journey, Ayodeji has wondered where she can make the biggest difference. Ultimately she's decided that it doesn't matter where she is. To her, it's all the same work of supporting whole people. "What matters," she says, "is that people are treated fairly and as human beings and receive every opportunity they can get."

Growing People

"Working here, it's like I'm hugging the inner child in myself every day because I would have loved this program in my school," says Penny Friedrichsen, development manager at Stem Paths Innovation Network (SPIN). A new partner with UW's ECO program, SPIN is about to take on two new interns to help in the work of supporting students in science, technology, engineering, math, and arts fields.

The Southeast Seattle organization orients itself around community needs, building relationships and using what they learn to shape what they offer. "Closing the opportunity gap, that's our mission, and our interns will be a part of that," says Friedrichsen. "Our focus is on learning by doing. As the interns move forward on their career journey, they'll get that experience too."

The partnership requires thoughtfulness in the development and supervision, and Friedrichsen sees this as mutually beneficial. "It's an opportunity for us as a growing organization to help interns while they also help us," she says.

University Heights Center is another Seattle organization partnering with the ECO program. For the past five years, ECO interns have learned alongside staff as the organization promotes life-long learning from a historic elementary school building. “It's not that you stop learning when you are 18 years old, the world is constantly changing, and there are always ways for us to better support our community by learning new things,” says Hunter Uechi, University Heights Center marketing and events supervisor.

The learning even continued during COVID-19 when they had a whopping 11 interns. "We are a small staff, so that was a lot," says Program Manager Shirin Subhani. "It was great. We had a lot for everyone to do, and it was a lot for us to manage, so now we have four."

She goes on to describe the growth that happens. "Within the past two years, we've had interns continuing past their internship dates because they enjoy the community they've built." She gives an example of a student who connected with the weekly senior group, even online and from China, feeling like she had many grandparents. "It felt like home to her," Subhani says.

Part of that sense of home includes connections across generations. For instance, during one of the senior groups, an intern brought in his roommate as a speaker to talk about pronouns. "It was a case where an intern said, 'I have someone in my life who has knowledge," says Subhani. "It was a great conversation that showed intergenerational learning in action where a group of seniors were ready to listen."

The University Heights Center location also houses 12 other resident organizations. "Whoever is looking for help, we let everyone know about the interns," Subhani says.

Within this ecosystem, relationships come first. "We're a small staff with a big mission," says Uechi. "It's not going to start and end with us. We show up fully as whole people. It's messy, and we welcome that.

– Alice Skipton