Cynthia Brown, on Breaking Down Barriers
At first, Cynthia Brown was drawn to the Community Leadership Program at Henry Ford College for its focus on socioeconomic justice. “I really like helping people,” she said, “and thought this would be a great start on how to do that.”
However, several months into taking the program’s core course, Introduction to Community Leadership with Professor Robert Yahrmatter, she says she got a bit more than she bargained for.
“I thought we were just going to be reading books,” she laughed. “But it’s really hands on. [The course] has really touched me emotionally.”
This, in part, is due to the course’s candid focus on issues of race, ethnicity, and class; these discussions have been “extremely rewarding” in some ways she says, and thought-provoking in others. “My most challenging thing has been working closely with other ethnic groups,” Cynthia said, adding that it can be “uncomfortable” at times.
“I thought we were just going to be reading books,” she laughed. “But it’s really hands on.”
“I get very upset with racial inequality,” Cynthia noted. Through her experiences in the Community Leadership Program, however, Cynthia says she’s learning to use her anger in a more productive way. “Getting upset is not going to help anything. You have to learn how to get things resolved using the right protocols—by talking to people, asking questions, and finding similarities.”
By way of example, Cynthia reflected on a recent group conversation that took place in the class about race. “I thought there might be a wall up between the races,” she said of the discussion. And while Cynthia noted that differences did indeed arise, she said the conversation veered more towards breaking down barriers than creating new ones. “We discovered we had more in common.”
“Getting upset is not going to help anything. You have to learn how to get things resolved using the right protocols—by talking to people, asking questions, and finding similarities.”
Cynthia suspects that discussion, along with the Community Leadership Program overall, will continue to inform and guide her throughout her life and career. “If I’m going to be a community leader,” she said, “I want and need to talk to people outside of my ethnicity so I need to be more familiar with people and comfortable talking to them.”
Professor Yahrmatter’s course has also helped Cynthia gain a better understanding of the underpinnings of the country’s complicated political system. “Before this class, I wasn’t aware of how things work,” she reflects. “Now I am learning more about how the judicial system works and the elections process.”
Cynthia says understanding these political power structures, and how they function, is particularly important for anyone interested in community change work. She listed off the questions that now enter her mind as she thinks through her approach to solving societal problems: “Who are my elected officials? What’s their job? Who do I go to for what? How do I work with them? The class enlightens me on what I need to do to effectively invoke change while becoming united with all walks of life to reach a goal.”
“Who are my elected officials? What’s their job? Who do I go to for what? How do I work with them? The class enlightens me on what I need to do to effectively invoke change.”
The class has also help Cynthia understand the breadth of jobs available for those interested in community change work. One of the course’s guest speakers, for instance, was a professor from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “We talked about everything from government actors, nonprofit organizations, and for profit groups, and the types of jobs available in each,” Cynthia reflected.
“Organizations need all kinds of people—people who are good at talking, and can be on the phone or knock on doors, and talk to other people about why we need them and what they need to do in order to get what’s called for.”
As for the future? Cynthia eventually hope to apply what she’s learned to start her own center for at-risk youth in the Detroit area. “I want to help them get an education, focus on healthy eating and exercise, and learn how to problem solve,” she said. “I’ve accomplished a lot but I always want to remember where I came from. If people want to and are trying to improve their life, you want to help them as much as you can.”