An Orientation to Baltimore at the Top of the World
Becky Chen is a Master’s Degree candidate in Social Design at Maryland Institute College of Art. Below are her reflections on her winter internship with the IRC’s Cultural Orientation Program.
With a baby strapped to her back, Mrs. Kang (not her real name) and her husband trudged through Baltimore’s cold February rain towards the bus stop. It will be their first time riding a bus since they arrived in Baltimore just a few days ago. Unaccustomed to their new surroundings, the Burmese family – just like many other newly arrived refugees in Baltimore – often encounter new experiences that are drastically different from what they are used to.
My job as the Cultural Orientation intern at the IRC in Baltimore includes teaching recently arrived refugees how to ride the bus. Something as normal as putting coins and dollar bills into a vending machine to retrieve a ticket can often times be complicated and terrifying to the average refugee adjusting to a foreign city. For those who are not prepared for American culture, culture shock is common throughout their acclimatization to American life.
According to the U.S. Department of State, in 2012, the U.S. welcomed over 58,000 refugees from around the world. The IRC is one of nine organizations that work with the federal government to assist refugees as they start their lives here. They have refugee resettlement programs in 22 cities across the country where they provide access to the “tools of self-reliance: housing, job placement and employment skills, clothing, medical attention, education, English-language classes and community orientation.” Along with those services, the Baltimore branch provides a weeklong cultural orientation program that introduces American culture to refugees as they adapt to new customs and surroundings.
Together my thesis work and involvement with the IRC include designing the curriculum for an exit orientation program for refugees who are transitioning from an eight-month period of receiving intensive support from caseworkers to a more self-sufficient lifestyle. Part of the curriculum will include activities like visiting the Top of the World Observatory at the Inner Harbor, where we will discuss the topic of community engagement, and familiarizing them with the Department of Social Services where they will often continue to receive aid in the form of food stamps and health insurance. The goal of my work is to provide refugees with the knowledge and resources they will need to not only find answers on their own, but to make America a country where they can succeed in achieving their goals.
When looking for social innovation, designers aren’t always the first profession that comes to mind; however, they uniquely encompass a variety of skills that are integral for social change initiatives: they are researchers, problem solvers, doers, and creative thinkers. In discovering these multi-facetted elements of social design work, I’ve learned how valuable it is to be both flexible and patient. By exercising receptive and perceptive attitudes, the revealing of design opportunities that seed socially innovative solutions has become clearer. With each iteration of the curriculum, the use of common design skills including: creative brainstorming, prototyping, and systems thinking were methods used to develop activities that are culturally relevant, fun, and personal to each refugee.
With the creation of the exit orientation program, refugees who are moving on from the direct support of their caseworkers will be exposed to further introductions that are designed to help refugees set long-term goals, and provide important resources that will aid them with present and future matters.
In developing this orientation program with the IRC, I’m finding that my role as a designer in the social sector has many more dimensions than just that: my responsibilities span from observer to researcher, from planner to teacher.
Photos: Sara Bedford