BALTIMORE – Shrugging off the implication she is building castles in the sky, doctoral student and social change activist Ann Conrad wants to build a different kind of castle…in the neighborhood.
The castle she wants to build is actually an after-school center, a place for latchkey kids from bad neighborhoods to hang out.
“The concept is sort of an indoor playground,” Conrad said. “The first one will probably be a castle so kids can say, ‘Okay, I’m going to the Castle, mom!'”
The chance to build on her idea is what brought Conrad to the Conference for Social Change, which occupied a warren of meeting rooms on five floors of a Baltimore hotel, and to Walden University, an online distance-learning school for mid-career professionals that sponsors the annual event.
Only in its second year, the conference is a project of Walden’s Center for Social Change, something university president Paula Peinovich describes as a vehicle for the school’s mission, which according to its web site, involves helping students to “effect positive social change.”
With that in mind, groups ranging from Kids on the Hill, a youth organization that creates videos on activist topics, to Alley Cat Allies, a program that traps feral cats, spays or neuters them to prevent them from reproducing, and releases them back to the street, came from all over the country to Baltimore to pick up ideas on how to make their programs for social change effective.
Dr. Marion Angelica, director of the Center for Social Change at Walden, calls the seminars “charettes,” a term that she said city planners use to describe short-term, intensive brainstorming sessions.
Outside of the hour-and-a-half long seminars in a brightly lit meeting room students and faculty broke for a respite at the Walden Coffee House, a cafe-style set-up complete with Mother Earth Fair Trade coffee in silver urns (Mighty Leaf Tea was available for abstainers).
Walden’s Ph.D. students are required to attend six “residencies,” or gatherings like the Conference for Social Change, which counts as one of the six. Since most of their work is self-directed and most communication done by e-mail, doctoral candidates finally have a chance to meet faculty face-to-face at the residency events.
In the Coffee House, participants could design and make their own buttons printed with social change slogans. On a small dais behind a velvet rope was the Soapbox – a squat wooden platform with a microphone to give students a chance to speak for up to three minutes on their own ideas for social change.
Pat Humphries and her partner, known only as “Sandy O”, who formed a Mount Rainier based activist rock band called Emma’s Revolution, had a table next to the button-maker. They took the band’s name from a quote by turn-of-the-century anarchist Emma Goldman, who, Humphries said, when rebuked at a party for dancing too wildly, supposedly told the man, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
Emma’s Revolution performed their protest song “Peace Shalom Salaam” and others at the event.
“It’s one thing to sit in a room and listen to someone talk about issues,” Humphries said, “but we’re all multi-dimensional beings and we get that sense of hope from many different sources.”
Angelica took it a step further. “I want more than hope,” she said. “I want them (the students) to come out of here with passion.”
Despite such diverse backgrounds as human resources, teaching, and information technology, passion did seem to be the common thread binding all the attendees.
Faculty member Dr. Stan Amaladas, who came from a business background in Winnipeg, got his Ph.D. at Walden and was so passionate about his study of “narrative inquiry” that he returned to teach full time with the school.
Narrative inquiry, Amaladas said, means learning about others through sharing personal stories. He applies narrative inquiry in a business setting to help employees cope when the company is making internal changes.
Not every employee Amaladas has talked with has been receptive to his somewhat unorthodox techniques.
“If I really want to know what people are thinking about me, I go into the washroom and put my feet up,” he laughed. “Then you hear what people really think of you.”
People are sometimes uncertain about Walden University, as well, said Jerry Sweitzer, a public relations specialist with Laureate Online Education, the Baltimore-based company that administers Walden.
“People have rolled their eyes,” said doctoral student Suzanne Ayres, who would like to use her degree to work in student development at a university. “[But] the coursework is very rigorous. It’s forcing us to look inside ourselves, inside our communities and the world at large.”
That is just what Florida-based student Shandrecka Murphy wants to do. An HIV/AIDS activist, Murphy wants to put a spotlight on the pervasive problem of the “Down-Low Brothers,” or African American men who secretly engage in sexual conduct with other men while leading otherwise openly heterosexual lives. Because of this practice, Murphy says her district in Florida has one of the highest incidences of HIV/AIDS.