Drs. Bronstein and Blitz on the Malawi Children’s Mission

College of Community and Public Affairs Dean Laura Bronstein and Dr. Lisa Blitz, Assistant Professor of Social Work, spent their winter break working with children, many orphaned and living in extreme poverty, in partnership with the Malawi Children’s Mission. The MCM provides nutrition, education, healthcare, and emotional support to children near Blantyre, Malawi. Founded in 2007, director Ken Mpemba, and co-founders and board members Sean Robinson, and Binghamton native Steven Koffman (who accompanied Drs. Bronstein and Blitz on the trip) determined that the challenges in the rural villages of M’bwana, Jamali and Mwazama were significant. In response, they mobilized a team to develop a Center that supports local children by providing a daily food program, education, psychosocial support and medical care, including malaria and HIV/AIDS testing.

The feeding center started serving lunch to fifty children and has expanded to feed and provide after school activities for 150 children daily. In addition, MCM has now expanded to a school for pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade for 50 children, offering them educational opportunities not available at overcrowded local government schools, and provides after school educational enrichment for all children served by the feeding center. Dr. Bronstein and Dr. Blitz went to see the conditions that the children are living in, and to perform an asset-based assessment in order to create opportunities for Binghamton University students and faculty to play an integral role in supporting MCM’s mission to promote bright futures of the children, their families, and their communities.

Dr. Bronstein discusses some of the challenges she experienced working with a particular family: “There was a one month old baby who cried for an hour straight. The mother, who looked to be very, very young, was unable to nurse the baby because she is HIV positive. There wasn’t any formula for the baby. They were attempting to feed the baby nsima, which is made from maize, though this is not optimal, and was not working. The family didn’t have any money for formula, so we gave her some and the use of a bike so that she could go buy formula. The only feeding bottle the family had to use was unsanitary, and we were able to purchase this young mother bottles and a bottle brush. It was incredibly unsettling to know that this baby was crying for an hour as a result of hunger. It was very difficult.” Another particularly difficult moment came when the team happened upon a woman in her 30s laying on a mat crying. The team stopped and asked a few questions, determining that the woman, who displayed symptoms of malaria, had traveled several miles by foot, sans shoes, to go to the hospital, where she was denied treatment because the hospital had run out of malaria testing kits. The team administered a home-testing kit for malaria and was able to treat the woman for the disease. Had they not been traveling in that area at that time, the woman may have died as a result of this treatable illness.

Besides poor housing, limited food and health care, other hardships faced by many of these families include the lack of electricity, which is only available in 9% of the country, and limited access to clean water. Dr. Bronstein discussed that though the number living in poverty is significant, there are those in the area who have more resources, including electricity and access to clean water, and these Malawians are able to promote community development for the poorer regions. However, due to horrific flooding in the January rainy season, even those who have more access and ability were at a disadvantage. The recent flood engulfed large areas under water and eroded the mud hut homes of many in the areas hardest hit. In the January 2015 floods, over 100,000 people were reported homeless and about 100 people were missing and presumed dead—swept away by the torrential rain and flash floods at rivers. Those in the urban area who had electricity were being told that it could take up to three months before the electricity will function again. The electrical problems also contributed to a water shutdown, and much of the metropolitan area of Blantyre was without running water for more than a week. This also raises the risk of infectious disease like cholera and malaria, as the result of a lack of clean drinking water and sewage contamination.

The problems are profound and need to be understood in the context of history and social justice concerns. But the problems are not the whole story of Malawi. To understand Malawi, Dr. Blitz emphasizes, it is important to see the truth of their national slogan as “the warm heart of Africa.” The generosity of spirit, the resiliency of culture, the strength of individuals and families were also evident. One young man, who has been connected to MCM since its inception and who is now finishing high school, is like 18 year old young men anywhere: vacillating between career ambitions in the broadcast field or a more practical route in nursing. Dr. Bronstein and Dr. Blitz were the first university professors he had ever met, and he had many questions about college. The little kids had a blast playing “duck-duck-goose” and the middle-schoolers loved telling stories in call-and-response style about the clever but short-sighted hare who was repeatedly undone by the persistent and determined tortoise (some stories, it seems, are quite universal!).

Something that struck me when interviewing Dr. Bronstein about her time in Malawi is how important she feels the research is, not just because of what the impact could be, but in that she could play in role in that impact. Dr. Bronstein is a passionate researcher. When an academic and a researcher takes a position such as dean of a college, it can be empowering and rewarding to facilitate research opportunities for the faculty you work with, but often the demands of such a position preclude one’s ability to take on initiatives like this. Opportunities to go into the field have the potential to create a vision and a new way of partnering and increasing not only the visibility for the college and its dynamic programs, but to make a difference in the lives of people, the heart of what it means to be “CCPA.”

True to visionary form, Dr. Bronstein and Dr. Blitz are in the early planning stages of developing an academic opportunity, in conjunction with the University of Malawi and MCM, that hopes to send transdisciplinary teams of students and faculty researchers into rural Malawi. Faculty and students from across Binghamton University are well positioned to collaborate among and with students and faculty from CCPA in order to create an asset-based community development assessment and to support the goals and vision of Malawians for their next generation of leaders. For the greater good of people on both continents.

Community Spotlight: Emily Jablon

Note from the editor: New to the blog this semester is a feature that is near and dear to me. I have lived in Binghamton for a long, long, LONG time and I have seen it grow and evolve into an area that is supportive of public art and small business in ways that didn’t exist even ten years ago. In addition, community initiatives in mental health, access and equity, and workforce development are changing the area in ways that I am only beginning to understand. As a result, I have developed a segment of the blog that highlights local initiatives that take community to heart. The “Communitarian Spotlight” feature will focus on community members and students that are doing something awesome. Not necessarily “bright lights, big budget” awesome, but the kind of work that is impacting the lives of people in positive ways and embodying CCPA values. I find out about these communitarians through an informal nomination process, because that grassroots method of collecting information is something that I believe is powerful. I hope you are as excited as I am to meet these communitarians, and as you read you may ponder ways to connect and support these initiatives as they continue to develop and impact our local area. For the greater good.

Communitarian Spotlight: Emily Jablon

Chances are if you have driven in downtown Binghamton, you have seen her work. Whether on the multi-colored giant flower pots on Water St., or that certain sparkle across from River Read books overlooking the Chenango River, to the beautiful flower boxes across from Burger Mondays, you have seen Emily Jablon’s artistic vision of a vibrant Binghamton. Jablon partners with her mother, Susan Jablon, at Susan Jablon Mosaics and Club Bling, in a 6000 sq. ft. facility on Binghamton’s east side, employing a local crew of artisans that assist in the creation of custom backsplashes (among other things) in what is the largest mosaic tile supply center in the country. Yes, this is happening right here in Binghamton. I recently spent some time over coffee discussing her vision, what motivates her to continuously donate time and materials, and what she wishes to accomplish moving forward.

Emily Jablon is an artist. Her focus is on making art. In conversation, however, you discover that it’s so much more than that. You can hear in her voice and in her words how much she cares about making art accessible. Having worked with the Regents Academy at the Columbus School in downtown Binghamton, partnering with David Sloan Wilson of EVOS at Binghamton University, she began to see the impact that working on these projects had on the students there. She saw the students engage in a way that inspired her to think about mechanisms to avail creative work to local students (her studio, Club Bling, was named by students she worked with at the Regents Academy). Her vision includes working with teams of students, involving them in the process of engaging with and caring for their environment. Jablon discusses that vandalism isn’t really a concern because so many hands are involved in the process, and those participants make sure that the pieces are looked after. The whole experience made her want to do more work with the public and specifically with high school students, building their confidence and their pride in their area, and harnessing youth energy to make a local impact.

Focusing specifically on the product can be challenging when you work with the mediums and canvasses that Jablon does. She discussed the supportive relationship she has with the administration in the City of Binghamton. “They’ve been really supportive. Permits, red tape, everything is handled and we get it done quickly. I am very lucky.” When I asked her what her dream project would be, she said without hesitation, “the flood wall. But I can’t. It’s a federal thing.”

A tour (bonus!) through Jablon Studios, where I meet Cookie the Bull Dog, is where Club Bling is housed, and offers and array of classes and workshops, including succulents, mosaics, yoga, and soap making. Building up the shop and making it into something where local artists and artisans can rent affordable studio space, as well as a place where the community can come in and make something fun and creative is a big piece of what Jablon is working on now. Jablon’s community vision moving forward includes opening up sponsorship for her idea of “adopt-a-spot,” which will give local businesses the opportunity to make a donation and sponsor a mosaic project in what Emily terms “forgotten areas.” As she discussed this initiative, and others, Emily’s focus on art as activism and community engagement became infectious, and I thought about ways I can connect her with different programs like Broome County Promise Zone and Upward Bound at Binghamton University, and other programs that work with local students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Jablon makes it clear that though the end result is gorgeous, it is a process that has its less glamorous moments. For one, it is a lot of squatting. You end up getting covered in mortar. I personally saw her outside over the summer working on Water St.; it was hot. She had mortar stuck to her. I thought “that is what commitment looks like.” After speaking with her, I now realize that that is what a communitarian looks like: sweaty, covered in mortar, with a pile of tiles and a vision of the greater good.

Binghamton is Human Scale: President Harvey Stenger and Community Systems

President Harvey Stenger visited the College of Community and Public Affair’s Community Systems course recently to discuss his emerging take on collective impact, the university’s role in research within the community, and how Binghamton students can individuate their successes. The doctoral students in the Community Systems course are leaders on our campus and beyond, and a thought-provoking dynamic conversation emerged. President Stenger shared with CCPA doctoral students some of his initial leadership challenges, the rate of growth the university has achieved in a relatively short amount of time, and the related impacts on the local community as a result of two high profile projects, the School of Pharmacy and the Downtown Research Incubator and the benefits available to small business as the result of the Start Up NY initiative. Students in the course had a lot of questions regarding the trajectory of his career and how that has helped him rise to the challenge of leadership.

Some key take-aways from the visit for this author include President Stenger’s notion that Binghamton is human scale. Part of his vision for the role of the institution within the community is through pulling up the economy, you pull people up along with it. This is currently illustrated in the emerging market district in Downtown Binghamton, which began as a result of locating the College of Community and Public Affairs in the heart of downtown in 2007. Since then, a number of student residential developments house hundreds of students in the downtown area, and there has been a significant increase in small businesses that have opened. With the addition of a research facility in downtown, there exists additional opportunity for small business development and investments in existing infrastructure.

Another key take-away from President Stenger’s visit was the idea that as affiliates of the university, whether we are students, staff, or faculty, we have the ability to help people become successful. President Stenger discussed that it is important to listen to people, and attempt to uncover what it means for them to be successful. As a starting point, you can begin to identify challenges to success and develop strategies for improving them. What kind of response would you get if you went into a community and asked what the challenges are to those who inhabit it? What if you asked those same communities what it would take to ameliorate those challenges, and what success for them would look like? Through this, you can begin to uncover what your challenge as a researcher is, and incorporate the community into the action research so that it has the best chance of producing the desired impact.

Stephanie Malmberg

Doctoral Student, College of Community and Public Affairs

Binghamton University