The Common Good
January-February 1999

Follow the North Star

by Elizabeth M. Racicot | January-February 1999

New beginnings, on the Web and in the world.

When slaves traveled the Underground Railroad, they followed the North Star, a bright and powerful light in the evening sky that led them out of the dark to a place of safety—again and again—until they reached the Canadian border. One of the stations along the way was in Troy, New York.

Like many cities today, Troy surrounds its youth in a sea of street violence, drug abuse, teen-age pregnancy, and high unemployment. But in the heart of the city is the Ark, an after-school program in the Taylor Apartments, a federally funded housing project. Each year the Ark serves 150 youths from low-income, mostly single-parent families. It celebrated its 20th anniversary in September.

The Ark has lived these 20 years under the gentle and steadfast guidance of its two co-founders and directors, Mary Theresa Streck and Jay Murnane. They have committed themselves to a life of simple living, making the Taylor apartments home and the Ark their family.

Their program boasts of some impressive successes. Marc Edward Rivera has come to the Ark since seventh grade. Last year he graduated from a private high school in Albany and received a full scholarship to Cornell University. Then there is Shenise Foskey. Ask her what she wants to be when she grows up and her eyes light up, "I want to be a singer, a dancer, a math teacher, a writer—oh, and a model." Quekaebah McKay says emphatically that the Ark taught her the importance of "homework, homework, homework." This impressive young woman writes poetry, works on computer projects, creates ceramics, plays the piano, and yes, does homework at the Ark. Monyette Clark continues his education this year at the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, New York, on a scholarship worth $104,000. He began coming to the Ark in the third grade and says that the program "opened a lot of doors, getting me scholarships."

THE ARK'S FREE after-school program embraces the arts, music, literacy, and computer skills, including WYRED, a youth Internet collective begun three years ago by Ann Sundberg and Wendy Vissar, graduate students at nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. WYRED's yearly projects challenge students to create relationships between the real world and technology, teaching them the language of compassion as well as the language of the Web. For their first project, they served a dinner for the homeless at a local shelter while creating Web pages that contained their recipes and photographs. Last year they grew a real-world garden, using e-mail to solicit seeds from family and friends. Currently, they are developing a 3-D chat room that will connect them with other youth Internet collectives. As high school student Santa Lupez puts it, "We want to communicate with other people around the world and see other cultures."

My favorite project is the Underground Railroad. This project combined learning about the history of the Underground Railroad with Web page development, journal writing, and participation in a peace march that traced the original route of the Railroad through New York state. It included creation of both an online and real-world quilt, with each square depicting a scene or person from the Underground Railroad.

The quilt is impressive not only because of the colorful and imaginative images that the students created, but also because of the process they used. They drew the sketches by hand and laid them out on construction paper. Then they scanned the drawings and photographs of themselves into the computer and combined them into electronic images that they printed onto patches of fabric. They sewed the patches together to make the real-world quilt, and assembled the electronic images into an online quilt.

The real-world quilt hangs at the entrance to the Ark, a reminder that the North Star still shines bright, leading the children of the Ark to places of new beginnings and new possibilities.

ELIZABETH M. RACICOT is an independent writer of creative non-fiction living in Niskayuna, New York. For more information on the Ark, write to them c/o Taylor Apartments, 4-8C, Troy, NY 12180, e-mail them at strecm@rpi.edu, or visit the WYRED Web site at www.rpi.edu/dept/iear/wyred/main/main.html and the Underground Railroad project at www.rpi.edu/dept/iear/wyred/yr2/ugrr/mainur.html.

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