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Erica McDowell stands next to a large heart with "GLIDE"

Erica McDowell, '16

Building community and finding acceptance

a man stands before a pile of wooden blocks for a giant game of Jenga
During GLIDE's participation in Tenderloin Sunday Streets, a program facilitating neighborhood block parties around San Francisco, Erica helped organize a giant Jenga game in one of the activity booths. (Photo courtesy of Erica McDowell)

By Catherine Zaw, '15

Although her mother's family is Lutheran, Erica McDowell, '16, didn't grow up particularly religious. However, while at Stanford and rethinking her identities, Erica felt the need to explore how religion fit into her life.

She began attending Sunday worship services at University Lutheran Church, located just off campus, and went to events held by the Episcopal Lutheran Church Ministry Center (ELCM) on the third floor of Old Union. Erica's involvement at the church and ELCM grew alongside her increasing involvement in community work on campus, and over time she felt a greater desire to connect her interests.

So at the recommendation of a friend, Erica began interning with GLIDE Memorial Church in San Francisco through the Haas Center's Spirituality, Service, and Social Change Fellowship so that she could explore service in religion.

"I was really interested to be in a place where, at least in part, it's religiously affiliated or grounded but also doing significant social service or social justice work," Erica said.

GLIDE Memorial Church, affiliated with the United Methodist Church, is supported by the larger GLIDE Foundation, which seeks to provide a spiritual home of unconditional love. The church provides many different services to the surrounding Tenderloin community, including mental and primary health care, job skills training, creative arts and mentoring for youth, free legal services for the homeless, as well as other programs. At GLIDE, Erica was a church office intern, planning workshops and shadowing the pastors in their daily work.

"From what I've seen, people feel more affirmed and alive there than in other organizations and religious institutions," she said. That observation has allowed her to think about what makes GLIDE accepting and how she can adopt that in her own interactions with others.

Her time at GLIDE allowed Erica to reflect on her experiences a lot and to learn things about herself over the course of the fellowship. She hopes to continue learning about issues in the Tenderloin and learning how the church practices compassion to the community.

This isn't the first time that Erica has embraced the cultures of communities beyond her own.

As a freshman, Erica was assigned to live in Casa Zapata. Erica grew up in New Mexico so although the racial and ethnic mix was comfortable, when many students talked proudly about their Latino, low-income backgrounds, it stirred questions for Erica, who identifies as white and upper class. This eventually led her to First Generation and/or Low Income Partnership (FLIP).

"My motivation to join extended out of questions," she explained. "What does it mean for me to care about inequity as a person whose family has benefited from it? FLIP was a group I wanted to learn from."

In the beginning, Erica attended discussions about class difference. Sophomore year, she began working on the FLIP core team, organizing the workshops she once attended. Through FLIP, she was connected with yet another group, Resource Generation, a national organization that works to build transformative leaders, specifically young wealthy people, for racial and economic justice.

When she was a junior, she found herself back in the warm Casa Zapata community as an ethnic theme associate (ETA). One of her greatest accomplishments was producing Watsonville, a theatrical production showcasing the lives of Latina immigrants working in poor labor conditions, with her fellow staff members and residents.

"Whatever I was doing might not look like service to many people," she said. "But I think skill development and developing confidence and hope, and certainly creative expression, in communities that are marginalized is an act of service."

Coming to GLIDE after her many different experiences in Stanford student organizations, Erica was surprised by the work style there. For example, organization members are encouraged to express emotions in the workplace or to talk through reactions as opposed to rationales.

"A lot of what we're being asked to do is to plug into what we're feeling in each moment and focus a lot less on thought," Erica said. "At Stanford, crying in front of your boss isn't something you do, but here, just feeling in front of others is commonplace. It makes working here different."

To Erica, this lesson on being authentic to people and expressing vulnerability is something she hopes to bring to her work at Stanford and beyond. After only four weeks in her fellowship, Erica said she had already learned a lot from the organization.

"I feel connected to a wider variety of people," Erica said.

And this is important, because being able to create bonds and find common ground is part of community organizing, a role Erica wants to incorporate into her life after graduation.

"I'm understanding that service can happen in many different ways," Erica reflected about her community-building work, whether advocating for low-income first-generation students at Stanford through FLIP or supporting creative expression in Casa Zapata. "[I'm] moving where I feel called."

Erica McDowell, '16, explored service through religion, an interest that grew with her increasing involvement in community work on campus as an ethnic theme assistant at Casa Zapata and as a core member of First Generation and/or Low Income Partnership (FLIP).
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