I first visited the Gandhi Institute in June of 2015. I had no idea that in two short years I would become one of its employees.I was there with the University of Rochester’s Urban Fellows, an AmeriCorps VISTA Summer Associate program that pairs college students with community organizations for summer internships and educates them about urban issues through a combination of academic study and hands-on learning. As a student at UR, I had heard of the Gandhi Institute and had even participated in one of Kit’s on-campus Conversations on Race, but I was still only marginally aware of what the institute did outside of nonviolence workshops. When we arrived at 929 South Plymouth Ave., I was immediately drawn to the space. I loved the fact that the organization is located in a formerly abandoned house in the PLEX neighborhood and was extremely impressed by the huge garden that occupies the once empty neighboring lot. While my memories of that day aren’t as sharp as they once were, I remember participating in the Gandhi & Nonviolence Card icebreaker, going on a garden tour led by Hoody, and taking part in a peace circle led by David. It was a lovely afternoon and while the peace circle in particular was completely new and slightly uncomfortable for me, I left the Gandhi House feeling like I’d gained some important insight into what makes the Rochester community so special. If a place like the Gandhi Institute could thrive here, we must be doing something right.
I returned a year later with the 2016 Urban Fellows, this time in the role of program leader. I had a better idea of what to expect this time around and was excited knowing that one of my fellow fellows from the previous summer, Dalton, would be helping to lead our session. That visit, though similar to our 2015 session, differed in one significant way — we watched a video about the institute’s work in local
RCSD schools. It was then that I realized that aside from providing a calm and inclusive space in the community and facilitating discussions on race and social justice, the institute was also responsible for giving local youth tools to directly deal with conflict in their own lives — tangible strategies for handling their immediate problems. The Institute had proved itself even more valuable to the community than I had imagined.
The following fall I began to visit the Gandhi Institute on a regular basis. I was a member of UR’s Food Justice & Urban Farming class which partnered with Seedfolk City Farm, the group that manages a large portion of the Gandhi Institute’s garden. My class met at the Seedfolk garden every Monday afternoon of the semester to learn about urban agriculture and create social practice art with the Seedfolk youth. Together we mixed compost, planted garlic, built a greenhouse, performed spoken word, made vegan cupcakes, wrote UR dining hall reviews, and created a variety of videos, both artistic and instructional. It was an incredible program to be a part of and the Gandhi Institute was the perfect host — not only providing us with a conference room and kitchen to use at our leisure, but taking the time to lead us in a workshop to help us better understand ourselves and how to deal with setbacks. By the end of the semester, I felt completely at ease at the Gandhi House and immensely better off for the time I’d spent there.
So when I learned I had been placed at the Gandhi Institute for my Rochester Youth Year service (a yearlong AmeriCorps VISTA program), I was thrilled. Not only was I interested in their particular VISTA project, but I already felt connected to the organization, both in terms of its physical space and mission. As a VISTA, it’s my job to build my organization’s capacity to serve the Rochester community and combat poverty. In my case, that will mean helping to expand the Gandhi Institute’s restorative justice programing and nonviolence education through resource development and community engagement. I’ll primarily be evaluating the School Climate Transformation Program, seeking grant funding to expand it, publicizing program accomplishments, and strengthening volunteer practices. Having been here less than two weeks, these goals and how they’ll be acheived are still a bit abstract to me. But judging by what I know about the Institute and its staff, I am confident that I will have more than enough support here to accomplish each and every one of my assignments.
This early orientation stage of my service has been even better than I’d hoped. The staff has been incredibly welcoming, I’ve had time to read up on how social sectors succeed and what restorative practice looks like, I’ve been taken on a tour of the neighborhood and the garden, I’ve participated in a donor breakfast and morning circles with the SYFI youth, and I’ve already been given the exciting task of giving the website a facelift. At other jobs I’ve had it’s taken upwards of a month to acclimate, but at Gandhi I already feel comfortable in my second week. If you ask me, that bodes pretty well for the year to come.
By: Jamie Rudd