Student Stories

Building Bridges

Second-year Caitlyn Kearney knows the challenges of town-gown relations firsthand. As one of the founding administrative coordinators for the Woodlawn Collaborative (WLC), a burgeoning community center located inside Woodlawn’s First Presbyterian Church, Kearney works to expand University of Chicago students’ roles in neighboring communities.

This is the mission of WLC, a center where activist and public service groups from inside and outside the University community can come together.  The organization is three years in the making, according to Wallace Goode, director of the University Community Service Center.

“WLC has brought the church a whole new level of life and energy because it fills a space that used to be fairly empty,” Goode said. The church’s building “was sorely under-used. They once had a food pantry and a pre-school with over a hundred kids enrolled in it.”

Goode expects the student leaders behind Woodlawn Collaborative to help restore that vitality to a neighborhood that suffers from a lack of retail outlets and community spaces.

“Imagine Art in Action on steroids,” said Goode, referring to the annual spring block party run by members of the South Side Solidarity Network. “That’s what WLC could be, but it is much more challenging to sustain activity in that space year-round.”

So far, WLC hosts an Open Mic Series that runs on the third Friday of every month, a Print Studio, and several youth programs, including a free music school led by second-year Noah Moskowitz. In addition to planning regular events and classes in the church, WLC’s student leaders are in charge of the minutiae of running a community center, from securing funding and insurance to ensuring safety in the space.

“This is a project that really represents students trying to be truly appreciative of our neighboring communities,” Kearney said. “We don’t have all the answers, but there’s a lot that both [the University and Woodlawn residents] can bring to the table.”

On a more personal level, “this is the most educational, real-world experience I’ve received [at the University],” she added. “It gives me so much confidence to work on this project and see things start to come together. And at the same time I’m getting out of the U. of C. bubble.”

Kearney has been tutoring elementary school students in the Woodlawn community since her first year. She joined WLC out of a desire to make her relationship with the neighborhood more than a string of one-time commitments.

Third-year Cat Greim echoed Kearney’s enthusiasm about branching out from typical on-campus activities, especially in the face of historic University-Woodlawn tensions.

“I love getting to work with some people who live in Woodlawn in a really collaborative way. I think WLC has been different because it is in our mission and goal to be that way.”

Maya Elliott, a member of WLC and a Woodlawn resident for the past four years, says that getting to know the University students has been one of the highlights of working with WLC. Elliott said students bring a fresh eye to community issues, but that there is still much to learn about what is important to the neighborhood.

“We all come from such different backgrounds and different perspectives on things, so it’s always good to get their perspective, and for them to hear ours, too,” she said.