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La Salle News

December 7, 2021

Building community, right in La Salle’s backyard

Image of a professor speaking to a group of students on La Salle's campus.
Associate professor of religion and theology Maureen O’Connell, Ph.D., guides first-year students on a social justice walking tour in the Welcome to Belfield course.

Students are engaging in the history of the city’s Belfield neighborhood through a unique course framework. 

Each year, students representing nearly 40 states—and just as many international countries—descend upon La Salle University’s campus. For nine months, they comprise a racially and geographically diverse sub-community within the Belfield neighborhood, housed in La Salle’s pocket of Northwest Philadelphia. 

 How much do La Salle’s students know about their home away from home? 

“Anecdotally, they have told us they don’t know a lot,” Maureen O’Connell, Ph.D., an associate professor of religion and theology, said of her students. “Then, they have this epiphany.” 

For a select group of students, their shared moment of clarity stems from a Together and By Association (TABA) course co-led by O’Connell and Candace Robertson-James, DrPH, assistant professor and chair of the Department of Urban Public Health and Nutrition. 

TABA courses are developed regularly and introduced annually into the course catalogue at La Salle. The TABA course framework brings together La Salle faculty members from multiple disciplines to provide unique and interrelated undergraduate study. The instructors approach one particular topic from different academic vantage points, while adopting similar materials like textbooks, speakers, and in-class experiences.  

The class' social justice walking tour brings students to College Hall, where, in 1969, students held a sit-in protest.
The class’ social justice walking tour brings students to College Hall, where, in 1969, students held a sit-in protest.

For three years, O’Connell and Robertson-James have directed separate but connected cohorts of first-year students in a TABA course entitled, “Welcome to Belfield.” Using a community-engaged learning model, the course introduces some of La Salle’s newest students to the University’s historic Belfield neighborhood. O’Connell’s section dives into the neighborhood’s religious identity and sense of belonging, while analyzing its history, beliefs, values, and diverse cultures. Robertson-James’ seminar invites students to explore urban life through the lens of public health challenges and concerns. These include housing, transportation, faith, crime, and healthcare access, and their transitive relationship to health. 

“Students realize pretty quickly that this course is so different than anything else they have ever taken, and they routinely tell us that,” Robertson-James said. “This doesn’t happen by accident. The richness of Welcome to Belfield, the ability to look at the same issue through multiple disciplines, requires collaboration and a commitment to innovative teaching methods and the University’s mission of teaching and learning. These TABA courses are one example of what sets La Salle apart.” 

La Salle moved its campus to the Belfield neighborhood in Northwest Philadelphia in 1930. Welcome to Belfield challenges La Salle students to view the University’s locale as “a place where people come, rather than one people pass through,” O’Connell said, using this as an explanation for how the course was born. “We have lots to learn from the luminaries who have lived here.” 

The course is designed to explore uncomfortable topics.  

“Students realize pretty quickly that this course is so different than anything else they have ever taken, and they routinely tell us that,” Robertson-James said. “This doesn’t happen by accident. The richness of Welcome to Belfield, the ability to look at the same issue through multiple disciplines, requires collaboration and a commitment to innovative teaching methods and the University’s mission of teaching and learning. These TABA courses are one example of what sets La Salle apart.” 

They discuss the unwillingness of banks in the 1930s to award loans and mortgages to Philadelphians from minority and immigrant communities. This practice, more commonly referred to as redlining, historically contributed to stalling neighborhood integration, catalyzing the racial wealth gap, and preventing the creation of cosmopolitan gathering spaces.  

They open up about institutionalized racism and determinants of health. They consider the ways religious communities shape the neighborhood, and how La Salle can positively influence the way in which its residents live, learn, and work. 

“One of the most challenging, but important, things we attempt to do in the course is to recognize the University’s connection to policies, structures, and cultures that fractured the Belfield neighborhood,” said O’Connell. “When we speak honestly about our past, we are better able to imagine different futures.” 

As a baseline, in the earliest days of the course, students are encouraged to share what they know about Belfield. 

“We push against the grain,” Robertson-James said, “and, in only 15 weeks, the students unpack narratives of the neighborhood and community that get passed down and, by the end of the semester, are getting more involved and more connected to their neighborhood.” 

The class and its activities “awaken students to inequality and enliven in them a sense of agency, to become agents of social change,” said Maureen O’Connell, Ph.D., an associate professor of religion and theology.

Baltimore native Skylar Gunthrop, ’22, took the course in 2019, upon her arrival to La Salle. Too often, she said, college students grow accustomed to what Gunthrop called “our comfortable bubble.” 

“As college students, I think we often forget there is life right outside our campus,” the public health major said. “(This course) was a wonderful opportunity to speak with Belfield residents about their experiences living in this area. I learned from this course that Belfield is a neighborhood with a deep, rich history that must be protected and respected … and that I am attending a university that is driven to foster change and make a positive impact.” 

Bethany Evans, ’21, M.S. ’22, used to think of La Salle as a college campus “on a little island,” with separation from the surrounding area. Enrolling in the TABA course “changed my mindset,” she said, and educated her on the University’s impact on Belfield. 

“Belfield is La Salle’s home,” said Evans, a native of Jim Thorpe, Pa., who is pursuing a master’s in speech-language pathology. “In order to create flow instead of causing fracture, the University and its neighbors must continue to come together to create goals for the common good of our community.” 

Students walk east on Olney Avenue, along La Salle's campus, during a social justice walking tour as part of their Welcome to Belfield course.
Students walk east on Olney Avenue, along La Salle’s campus, during a social justice walking tour as part of their Welcome to Belfield course.

In the fall, O’Connell and Robertson-James led their respective students on a social justice walking tour that included stops on campus and in its surrounding neighborhood. The tour took students through La Salle’s College Hall, where in 1969 students held a sit-in to protest a University policy that required ROTC participation, and to the University’s 20th Street gate on Hansen Quad, the site of student-led Black Lives Matter protests in 2016. 

They visited Kemble Park, near Ogontz and Olney avenues. The park is named for British actress Fanny Kemble, who lived on a farm near what eventually became La Salle’s campus. She is considered an early feminist and abolitionist. Upon divorcing her husband, an unrepentant slaveholder, she wrote and published anti-slavery journals. 

Next, the group walked to 20th and Conlyn streets to observe a mural of Belfield community leader Philmore Johnson, who died in 2005. The tour also included stops at Belfield Recreation Center; Good Shepherd Hall, the former site of an orphanage that had been established by St. Katherine Drexel; and the University’s Alumni House. 

“These activities awaken students to inequality and enliven in them a sense of agency, to become agents of social change,” O’Connell said. 

“It helps students connect the dots and empowers them to play a role as activists in their community, rather than simply being a spectator,” Robertson-James added. 

Christopher A. Vito