The experiences that impact students in middle school and high school can significantly influence the perspectives they carry with them into college or throughout their careers. At the ages where Santa Claus isn’t the highest authority anymore and car keys unlock the world, Memphis-based BRIDGES—a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring high school and middle school students to take leadership roles in their community—jumps in to broaden their minds.
One way the organization accomplishes this mission is through the Bridge Builders conferences. These leadership and diversity programs are held throughout the summer, and students from all over Memphis, from diverse backgrounds of class, race, and socio-economic status, apply to attend. BRIDGES also provides internships for college students to act as facilitators for these conferences, while also gaining valuable experience in the non-profit arena. Rhodes students have worked with the organization for many years, and their time spent mentoring the younger students has helped many of them develop their own confidence and leadership skills.
The Bridge Builder conferences are held throughout the summer, bringing in a new group of attendees every other week. During these conferences the students cover a variety of challenging social justice issues and leadership topics, such as environmental and educational justice, volunteer service and activism, and issues of gender and sexuality. To make these issues easier to talk about, the program implements adventurous learning tools to encourage the students to be active listeners and participants. For example, English and anthropology/sociology double major Emily Crenshaw ’17 (pictured below), who volunteered as one of the facilitators this summer through the AmeriCorps program, would ask the participants how they felt about an issue, and then have them stand on opposite sides of the room according to their stance on the matter. A discussion would then follow, allowing students to listen and to be heard. Another day, students were asked to bring in a personal item from home and talk about why it mattered to them. Mixed in with these in-depth discussions were team-building games and activities. “The mission is to instill in them a passion to make positive changes in the community around them,” explains Crenshaw.
Conner Tipton ’17 and Danielle Wilson '17 (pictured at top), both biology majors, also worked with BRIDGES this summer, as part of Rhodes’ Summer Service Fellowship program. The Bridge Builders conferences proved to be a valuable learning experience for them, as well.
“The students were from all over the city,” explains Tipton. “So hearing some of their stories about their circumstances that I hadn’t been exposed to before was humbling.”
Wilson was drawn to the compassion that stemmed from interacting so honestly with children from so many different backgrounds. “I tried to be myself completely with them so that they could open up and be vulnerable. It was really fun to see them get involved within their community and to see how excited they were to do community work.”
For more information on community service opportunities at BRIDGES, students can contact Shannon Hoffman, director of the Bonner Center at Rhodes.
By Swaneet Mand ’18