Undergraduate Academic Affairs

February 7, 2023

Building community, one relationship at a time

Danielle Marie Holland

Aden Afework, ’22, was majoring in public health and global health when the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep across the globe. As she witnessed firsthand how COVID exacerbated the inequities among students from her home community of South Seattle, she sought out new opportunities for engaging with community.

Photo of Aden Afework outside.

Through the Undergraduate Community-Based Internships program, Aden Afework interned at Canopy Scholars and was able to focus on her passion for equity in education.Photo by Ian Teodoro

As a first-generation college student from an immigrant family, Afework felt pulled toward addressing the disparity of Black students’ access to academic resources. A professor told her about the Undergraduate Community-Based Internships (UCBI) program and suggested that the paid internship program housed through the Community Engagement and Leadership Education (CELE) Center might be the best place for her to focus on this work. Afework applied.

The UCBI program places undergraduates interested in public service into nonprofit and public sector organizations, giving them the chance to explore, contribute and grow as they work within partner organizations. Afework immediately felt drawn to Canopy Scholars in Shoreline, WA, an organization providing equity in education for underserved students.

Photo of Lynn Newcombe

Lynn Newcombe, director of Canopy Scholars, a nonprofit organization providing equity in education whose programming is fueled by youth volunteers from local high schools and undergraduates from the UW.Photo by Ian Teodoro

Canopy Scholars, in partnership with the Shoreline School District and family advocates, offers school tutoring, STEM programs and community building for second through eighth grade students. Their programming is fueled by youth volunteers from local high schools and undergraduates from the University of Washington. With their service to students of Afework’s own Eritrean and Ethiopian community, Canopy Scholars stood out to her as the perfect place to focus her passion for equity in education.

Canopy Scholars had long been a community partner with the University of Washington as a partner-organization option for UW service learning classes. When UCBI reached out to Canopy Scholars in 2017, Director Lynn Newcombe said it was an easy “yes.”

Newcombe cites the partnership as “a fabulous experience for us because we had someone who was investing hours of their time a week in our organization and able to really come alongside the high school and college student tutors and provide them training.”

Returning home through community

Finding her way to Canopy Scholars was a returning home of sorts for Afework. Her first two years at the UW were spent in rigorous research experiences, yet disconnected from community engagement.

“I knew I needed to get that back for myself,” she reflected, looking back to her high school years of involvement in advocacy policy work giving collaborative presentations to representatives in Olympia, and her years spent volunteering at the Rainier Beach Community Center helping run events and services for South Seattle.

Newcombe interviewed Afework as an intern candidate and immediately hired her on, “I knew she was going to be a game changer for us.” Afework took her learning off campus and into the community, investing 10 hours weekly into the student programming. Her work was supported with an additional two hours of weekly internship cohort meetings led by UCBI staff, where she and her fellow interns received not only coaching and mentorship, but learned in depth about social issues as they reflected on power, identity and systems of oppression.

Afework began running the virtual middle school programming, navigating the new terrain of remote learning in that first year of COVID. She crafted and created a space that students came to with an eagerness to talk, to get homework help and to connect with a tutor. She also represented the students back to themselves — Afework herself immigrated to Seattle with her family at the age of 8. She had the shared lived experience of 86% of the families that Canopy Scholars serves.

Shifting the culture

During this time, another shift began to occur in these online spaces.  “There were these really amazing conversations that were happening,” said Newcombe. In the background of these sessions were the global protests after George Floyd’s murder. The Black Lives Matter movement was being picked up across national media and everyday conversations turned to racial injustice.

This time would become pivotal to Afework’s understanding and embodiment of leadership.

Afework organically found herself facilitating conversations with her students as they sought to contextualize what they were experiencing and living through. The facilitation model that worked for her and the students was composed of conversations with open-ended questions. Here she gave the program tutors space to grow and develop as well, “I wanted to empower tutors so I encouraged them to continue these conversations with their students once they were in breakout rooms.” Noting the deep trust that existed between the middle school students and high school tutors, her students felt invited into engagement as the discussions were a “no-judgment, safe space to share their thoughts.”

Newcombe supported Afework to develop a middle school level to these critical thinking questions after Afework had observed that this adjustment was needed.

Afework said, “Being a leader means learning that if things are not working, work with others and receive support to make adjustments that support everyone in return.”

Leading the way through relationships

With the ongoing support and program adjustments, Afework was able to engage the students in conversations that parents were asking Canopy for help with. “How do we talk about racism with our kids? How do we teach them about identity? We experienced racism ourselves,” shared Newcombe on common questions parents were bringing to them. “There was a lot of coming to grips with their own identity that was happening as these kids were moving into middle school. Aden was able to step into a critical opportunity and go deeper with kids in ways that they really needed. And kids and parents trusted her.”

Photo of Lynn Newcombe and Aden Afework.

Lynn Newcombe and Aden Afework developed relationships and built community with each other and participants in Canopy Scholars.Photo by Ian Teodoro

“UCBI solidified my interest in working with communities, ” said Afework. “Community based work is really building relationships.” Newcombe notes how Afework spoke with her students with such a deep understanding and authority in how she saw the world.

“One day in the main session, she said, ‘Where do you find community?’ and the kids and tutors go into breakout rooms and then they come back for the follow up and it was really astonishing. It was amazing to hear, ‘I find it here,’” said Newcombe.

“I felt so valued, that now my expectations for wherever I work are very high. I need to be valued in this space. UCBI and Canopy was a really great experience for me to have,” said Afework.

Afework stayed on at Canopy Scholars supporting families through the summer of 2021 during an UCBI program extension, and Newcombe hired her back for the remainder of her senior year.

“Aden Afework created a broadening of our students’ own understanding of themselves and seeing themselves as being successful,” said Newcombe. “Our students could feel incredibly proud of who they are.”