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MSW student spends summer in Chapel Hill helping to build community

Ashley Kazouh tugged carefully at the clear plastic bags until a handful of organic Bartlett pears tumbled out into a blue plastic bin. Around her, other volunteers toted cardboard boxes of well-ripened bananas to tabletops and sorted through other donations, including crisp bell peppers, fresh ears of corn, beefy red tomatoes and packaged bags of lettuce and shredded cabbage.

In just a few hours, these volunteers, will welcome 50 to 60 people – regardless of need– through the doors of Heavenly Groceries at St. Joseph’s Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. The food ministry is in the heart of Chapel Hill’s Northside community, where five days a week, men and women, families with children, and college-age youth file one by one past rows of fruits, vegetables and hefty stacks of packaged breads in search of needed sustenance.

Kazouh, a second year dual degree student in the master of social work/master of public administration program, is working with the food ministry as part of a summer fellowship she received with the neighboring Marian Cheek Jackson Center (MCJC) for Saving and Making History. Although Kazouh could have spent her summer in her hometown of High Point, likely working a more traditional job, she is spending the next few months alongside other dedicated volunteers, all committed to preserving and strengthening the Northside neighborhood, Chapel Hill’s largest African American community. Because of its proximity to campus, UNC students have flocked to Northside for decades, largely in search of affordable rental housing. However, in recent years, the town of Chapel Hill, UNC, and students have partnered with community residents to help maintain Northside’s historic roots, ease over development and ensure housing in the community remains affordable.

Kazouh, like so many other students before her, was immediately drawn to Northside, especially after moving to Chapel Hill from Memphis, Tenn.

“Coming to Chapel Hill was just very different,” she explained. “I knew that it was a college town, but when I first started walking around, all I saw were White people. I never saw Black families and I never saw any Hispanic families, unless they were on the bus and going to work. So finding out that there was actually a historically Black neighborhood here and that many of the men who built the university lived in the neighborhood was very important to me because it just gave me a different perspective.”

Kazouh is one of four UNC students selected this year as MCJC summer fellows (MSW student William Page participated last year). The fellowship, which offers students stipends for their three-month commitment, was created “to deepen student leadership” in Northside’s community engagement work” and “to give UNC students the training and space to develop projects, especially ones that impact other students and help them better understand how to live in community,” said Hudson Vaughan, MCJC’s senior director.

Since beginning her fellowship in May, Kazouh has eagerly embraced her work with Heavenly Groceries, where she is responsible for recruiting community and student volunteers for daily shifts at the food pantry, updating operations materials and manuals to build long-term capacity, and for helping to attract other potential vendors willing to donate a regular supply of food to ensure the ministry can serve those in need. On average, the food pantry serves 2,500 to 3,000 households a month.

In addition, Kazouh is working closely with the center’s education team to enhance a series of workshops offered in the public schools on the civil rights history of Chapel Hill and to strengthen workshops that are rooted in the oral histories of neighbors in the Northside/Pine Knolls communities.

Kazouh has also been tapped to help evaluate these programs so that center officials have a better idea of what’s working well. Because of her social work background, Kazouh brings a specific lens to the task – one that is needed to understand the challenges that the community faces, said George Barrett, MCJC’s associate director.

“I believe her education will allow her to understand the intersections of race, socio-economic class, gender, and even age, and … (to) see how systemic inequalities affect the day-to-day lives of individuals within our own community,” Barrett said.
Kazouh, who is interested in racial equity and school social work, has already been getting a pretty good view, not only through the stories Northside residents have shared with her, including their experiences during the Jim Crow era, but through the stories of local school students who have participated in center workshops.

“Because a lot of the residents in Northside were a part of the civil rights movement, they usually serve as mentors in these workshops, and they go out to the schools to talk to students about their experiences,” Kazouh explained. “In turn, students will often talk about their own racial experiences in school and how they’ve handled them. As a result, these conversations have brought up a lot of underlying emotions for students, and it’s given them a chance to express themselves in a welcoming environment.”

For Kazouh, these personal exchanges are a crucial reminder, especially for social workers, of the power of connection and the importance of building community relationships – a lesson she might not have learned so quickly had she not decided to stick around Chapel Hill for the summer.

“You can certainly learn the history from a book, but there’s so much more to it by talking to people who’ve lived through it,” she said. “As social workers, it’s so important to make sure you are open to listening to someone who has actually been through these life experiences, especially when you are working with people who live in poverty or who have mental illnesses. We can read all day long about what that’s like, but to hear from someone who is going through that – that’s far more powerful than anything you’ll ever learn from a book.”