Pitzer Ontario Program Raises Questions About Social Responsibility

In Ontario, Calif., a large mural stretches 10 feet tall and 70
feet wide across the north wall of Pronto Market. The mural, “Journey
to Pronto Market,” depicts the path that fresh produce takes to
reach the market, commemorating the success of a recent city
initiative promoting healthy living.

“The mural is supposed to be a way of letting the community know
that fruits and veggie are there, it is supposed to get people’s
attention,” said Maggie Shafran PZ ’14, an art major whose original
design was chosen for the mural. 

Increasing the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables in Ontario is
one of the projects that Pitzer College’s Pitzer in Ontario program
is currently undertaking. 

The Ontario program, which consists of three academic courses and
an internship, is a “justice-oriented, interdisciplinary program in
urban studies and community-based research,” according to Pitzer’s
website. Students in the program take classes on-site in Ontario and
have their choice among many projects. Students who are not enrolled
in the academic program can still participate, however, by
volunteering or interning with an affiliated organization or project. 

Students involved in the program have expressed differing opinions
on its impact within the community. 

Allison Donine PZ ’16 has been working with the market project
for the past year and a half, but is now switching to a new project.
Her experience with the market project, especially the mural, gave
her mixed feelings.

“In a sense [the mural] was providing a benefit to the store and the
people, I guess, by attracting them to that store, to where the
produce was, but there was no actual talking or engaging with
community members besides the store owners, which I don’t even
think live in that area,” Donine said.

Shafran echoed Donine, noting that “it would have been nice
to have the community itself involved in the mural, but that would be
a bigger project.”  

For students at a college whose founding values are intercultural
understanding, interdisciplinary learning, student engagement,
environmental sustainability, and social responsibility, this lack of
engagement can be frustrating.

A student involved with the Ontario program who wished to remain
anonymous said, “In all honesty working with the Ontario project
was the most unorganized thing I have ever done in my life.”

Like Donine, this student criticized the lack of direct
involvement with the community and pointed out that some projects
function better than others.

One of the most successful projects from many students’
perspectives is the Huerta del Valle community garden, which
developed out of collaboration with community members, who compose
the majority of the garden’s board members.

“The majority of people are from within the community, the
majority of the people speak Spanish, all of the people that have a
plot in the garden are from the surrounding neighborhood,” Donine

Arthur Levine, who graduated from Pitzer this year and now works as an Urban Fellow for the Ontario program, has also worked
closely with the Huerta del Valle project. 

Levine said that the project, which is still in its initial
stages, owes its success to its organizational structure—namely,
that students work directly in the community. Because Levine and Susan
Phillips, the director of Pitzer in Ontario, are the only two
non-community members on the board, all decisions represent the views
of the community they will affect.

Levine, who works with many of the other Ontario program projects, discussed the importance of the projects in offering opportunities for experiential learning. 

“That to me is actually more like education ought to be,”
he said. “It involves the world as a classroom, as opposed to a
classroom with 20 seats all facing in the same direction and a
chalkboard and a single individual lecturing. It recognizes that the
entire world is a site of learning, and learning is the most powerful
way to be engaged.” 

The Ontario market makeover project, which was responsible for the
Pronto Market mural, is three years old and, like the Huerta del
Valle garden, attempts to effect change from within existing
community structures.

“We are working with what the community already has, which is
corner stores, and working to foster relationships between the corner
store owners, the farmers in the area, and the community, to bring
local and affordable organic produce to this very low-access
community,” Donine said.

Though some projects are more effective and rewarding than
others—Donine mentioned frustration from the market makeover
project’s slow progress—optimism about the program as a whole
remains, perhaps with some room for change. 

“I don’t know where improvements could be made in terms of the programs that aren’t that strong because I am constantly reminded that not everything is strong and that sometimes you need to work with things,” said the anonymous student. “I am still kind of grappling with where I fit into the Ontario program and … what it means to actually ‘do something.’”

The projects are at their most successful, it seems, when “doing something” involves practical, hands-on work alongside community members.

For example, at the Huerta del Valle project, Donine said, “the student interns are working with the community to help develop the garden further, [which] requires a lot of labor.”

Riel Bellow contributed reporting.

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