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Meet an Alumna: Akua Hill

Posted by on Monday, December 17, 2018 in Alumni, .

Akua

Akua Hill, M.Ed. 2010

Community Engagement Associate, Community Development Advocates of Detroit

“By letting communities lead the process, you build power and sustainability. That’s been a set of values that I carry wherever my work takes me.”

Q: To begin, can you tell me a little bit about your background—where you’re from and how you ended up in the CDA program?

I’m originally from Harlem, New York. I went to Vanderbilt as an undergrad and was an HOD (Human and Organizational Development) major. During that time, I met Sharon Shields, who was then the director of the CDA program. Even though I had no intention of going to grad school, she was really instrumental in opening up my mind to that possibility. It felt like something that would be a good fit and would be relevant to the work that I wanted to do. My experience in CDA ended up being really positive and I felt like I was able to thrive in the program. My cohort was incredible and the professors were extremely supportive and committed to making sure that everyone was achieving all the things they were interested in doing.

Q: What were some of your interests in the program?

The CDA program, especially the connections throughout Nashville, helped me explore what role I could play in community development in my own backyard. I was really interested in seeing how I could be effective in communities that were like the one I grew up in. A lot of my interests are rooted in my upbringing in Harlem, which has witnessed a lot of changes since my childhood. My mom was an educator and a community activist, so from a very young age, I learned the importance of being active in the community and the impact of community power when organized together.

I also took a particular interest in youth development. My practicum was at a local community center called the Magness-Potter Community Center. My colleagues and I were charged with turning around a youth program that was under-resourced, and did not have consistent attendance or clear objectives. We spent a lot of time engaging young people in the neighborhood to get a sense of what kind of program they would be interested in. We then empowered them to put together a curriculum based on what they thought would be most beneficial and effective.

Q: What kind of work did you do after graduating?

After graduation, I started to work in education reform, particularly on the advocacy side. In a lot of urban areas, the options for quality education are very limited; parents are forced to make dire choices and send their children to poorly performing schools. One of the things I realized throughout grad school is that folks need to have a better understanding of how to impact change on a systems level. My work was then to engage communities to make sure there were more quality options. I learned how to empower folks to tell their stories, engage with elected officials, and advocate for themselves.

Q: Can you tell me about what you’re doing now?

I work for an organization called Community Development Advocates of Detroit. We do community engagement, capacity-building, public policy advocacy, and place-based initiatives. One of the incredible things we do is helping neighborhoods facilitate a strategic community planning process, which is very much resident-based and led. We really center the residents as the experts of their communities, allow them to have their voices heard, and organize in a way that allows them to gain more leverage with government departments.

I actually ended up in Detroit after a dear friend from my CDA cohort invited me to visit. On that visit, I felt very deeply connected to the city. It’s an extremely resilient city and the spirit of the people rings loudly throughout. It has been incredible to see so many young people, particularly young people of color, who are change-makers striving to build the city back up to be the great hub that it once was. Coming here, I’ve been able to look at community development from lots of different levels and realize how dynamic and integrated it has to be, especially when things are as critical as they are here.

Q: Did you have any big take-aways from the CDA program that helped prepare you for that work?

There are several things that come to mind. One is the concept that the community needs to be leading the work. The lens that I always bring is that we are not the experts. We may have our master’s degree or Ph.D, but when working with communities, we recognize their experience as expertise. By letting them lead the process, you build power and sustainability. That’s been a set of values that I carry wherever my work takes me.

It’s also really important to listen, to observe, and to take your time. I remember in one book that we read, the author talked about the importance of unpacking your bags. If you’re not really interested in unpacking your bags and getting to know folks, it takes away from the effectiveness of being able to impact change.

Q: Do you have any advice for anyone who might want to get involved in your field?

I think that sometimes the more academic experience we have, it can create a divide between us and the people we aim to serve. Even though we’ve had the opportunity and the privilege to gain more tools than some of the folks we may be working with, when we get into the field, that respect has to be key in leading our interactions. It’s important to be critical of how we use our privilege and how we advocate on behalf of folks that may not be able to do so. That’s really key—to be committed to doing your work with integrity, even when it gets hard.

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