Jane Addams School for Democracy flourishes in St. Paul

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Laughter, raucous greetings, and colorful conversation in three languages fill the Baker Recreation Center of St. Paul at 6:30 PM every Monday and Wednesday. When I walk through through the front doors, I am met with ear-to-ear smiles and shouts of “¡Hola! Cómo estás?”

This is the Jane Addams School for Democracy, a center created to respond to the needs of the growing immigrant community on St. Paul’s West Side.

“Aquí, ya me siento como una familia,” said Maura Rauda de Serrano, an immigrant from El Salvador who has been coming to Jane Addams School for seven months. “Here, it already feels like a family to me.”

FULL DISCLOSURE: The author is a student at Macalester College who volunteers at Jane Addams.

I began coming to Jane Addams around the same time as Maura, through a program through The Lilly Project called Lives of Commitment. Eight of my peers from Macalester College come with me every week, and other students from local colleges and universities, such as Augsburg and St. Catherine’s volunteer as well.

Jane Addams offers a unique draw to members of the community looking for civic engagement. The Jane Addams philosophy says that, “Everyone learns.” They believe a teacher-student dichotomy is not needed in order to have learning, and being a citizen means engaging in public works and celebrating the individual.

This ideology led to the creation of “learning circles.” This year, there is an East African Circle, a Spanish-Speaking Circle, which has grown so large it had to be split in two, and a Youth Circle. In learning circles, a mix of local volunteers and immigrant members of the community gather to discuss pre-determined topics. They range from issues as simple as the weather and favorite animals to as complex as ways the government could improve the community, and homeland traditions. Anyone who wishes to speak may do so, and all statements are translated so that all participants can understand.

Participants are eager to learn about other cultures and connect to different types of people while reveling in the similarities we all share.

“My favorite part about working here is meeting people from all over,” said Carly Gubash, one of the few paid coordinators at Jane Addams. She recalled her trip to the Baker center earlier that evening — she carpools to and from Jane Addams every week  — and said that she had one Japanese person, one Spaniard, one Russian, and one member of the East African Circle. And then there’s Gubash herself, a born-and-bred Minnesotan.

“Even just driving here, it was cool to think: how many people can say they have, like, five different – completely different – cultures in their car at one time?”

After an hour-long discussion in Learning Circles, participants break up into partnerships of one volunteer and one or two clients. Partners work with clients on whatever they need assistance with. Many come to Jane Addams initially to get help studying for the daunting U.S. citizenship test. Others hope to improve their English skills, or reading and writing abilities. But although most participants come for the free lessons, they stay for the people involved.

Francisco Javier Enriquez returned to Jane Addams seven months ago, after a six-year hiatus.

“I remembered the students who come here, and the other people too, and how I like interacting with new people, when they share a little happiness with you, some smiles, everything seems okay, you know?”

Enriquez’s story is similar to those of many other Jane Addams’ clients. He came to the United States from Mexico as a young adult, looking for “a change in life.” He had been living with his girlfriend for two years when immigration issues forced him to return to Mexico. His girlfriend traveled to Mexico with papers for him, and they got married. Now he could live in the United States as a legal permanent resident. When a co-worker suggested he get citizenship, he decided to try — with help from Jane Addams.

Seven months later, he passed the test. He was so happy, he nearly cried. But what Enriquez values most about Jane Addams is the way it helped him change his attitude.

“I went from negative to positive,” he said.

Maura de Serrano also feels optimistic at Jane Addams. She praised the deep friendships she’s made, and the way that her limited English doesn’t create a barrier for her. She particularly loves learning alongside her son, Edgar. When asked what she loved most about Jane Addams, her response was “Todas.” Everything.

“Es la perfecto” – “It’s perfect.”

Three weeks ago, the Spanish-Speaking Circle’s discussed personal heroes. A client named Carmen said that her heroes were the volunteers who help out. The college student sitting next to her seemed surprised to find that someone saw her work as a form of self-sacrifice

“No,” she exclaimed, “we like it, too!”