Anika Sinha, '21
First insights into housing injustice: my SoCo experience
As a senior at Stanford, I have been reflecting on the moments that pushed me out of my comfort zone. A notably transformative experience was my Sophomore College (SoCo) course, Poverty and Inequality in the United States.
While I had lived in the Bay Area my entire life, I was never confronted with concepts of gentrification and housing injustice. More importantly, I was not aware of how I was personally complicit in these issues. I attended an insular high school with only 20 classmates in my grade and was not exposed to a rich diversity of backgrounds. I also spent most of my first year at Stanford taking pre-med requirement classes, which was not the most conducive to gaining perspective on social issues that affected the community around me. This disconnect was precisely what prompted me to leave my comfort zone that summer and enroll in SoCo.
Our SoCo was a Cardinal Course, and incorporated a large service component into our academic learning experience. Every day, we attended a lecture with our sociology professor, learning about the systems, policies, and structures that perpetuate global inequality—from discrimination in housing markets to gender discrimination within households themselves.
After each engaging lecture, we volunteered with our community partner, Samaritan House, for four hours. My team and I were able to help organize clothes in the Kid’s Closet clothing donation center, prepare and serve meals, interview workers at the Worker Resource Center, and simply provide company to residents at the Safe Harbor Homeless Shelter. Volunteering with the different departments gave us deep insights into the operations of this large nonprofit and its multifaceted approach to combating homelessness in San Mateo County.
I appreciated that my SoCo group did not take this volunteering experience at face value, but instead critically evaluated the ethics of our work. We examined its complicated dynamics: as a group of 12 Stanford students, we thought hard about whether we were a benefit or a burden to the organization and whether we were drawing attention away from essential tasks.
Yet the staff welcomed us with open arms, taking the time out of their day to provide tours, train us in various tasks, and educate us about San Mateo’s housing crisis as one important benefit of the partnership. It was clear that building future advocates for equitable housing in San Mateo county was an important outcome of this project, beyond the work we did organizing clothes at the donation center.
After much discussion, my SoCo classmates and I acknowledged that our volunteer experience could not be labeled either “good” or “bad.” While there were flavors of “voluntourism” to our work, I am grateful for the two weeks I was able to work with Samaritan House. It was up to us to take something positive out of the experience and act on it.