Clark students to help refugees in Worcester start businesses

WORCESTER, MA— Clark University students don’t have to travel to Iraq, Burundi, or Myanmar to help refugees with microfinance; a new course offered in the International Development, Community and Environment (IDCE) Department allows students to assist these populations here in Worcester, and to help secure funding that will launch businesses and sustain livelihoods. 

This week, twenty-five students in associate professor Jude Fernando’s Microfinance, Gender and Neoliberalism (MGN) class will begin working with six refugee communities (Iraq, Burundi, Liberia, Myanmar, Bhutan and Sudan) in the city of Worcester.  The students will develop strategic and project management plans for these groups.  Together, they will seek funding through Lutheran Social Services of New England, an organization that received a grant from the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants to assist refugees in planning and starting new businesses.  One of the goals of the project in the first year is to disburse loans in the amount of $100,000 to at least 12 individuals.    

“SRP utilizes the experiences of international students at Clark for the benefit of marginalized communities in Worcester.  Typically, international students do not work with depressed U.S. communities, but Clark and IDCE intend to change that trend and make education a truly global experience.” ~ Prof. Jude Fernando

Fernando, who is both an economist and an anthropologist, has served as a consultant for international development organizations and is an expert in humanitarian assistance in natural disasters and complex emergencies. He has taught microfinance for six years, and published and lectured on the topic. Fernando is used to teaching microfinance by applying classroom teaching to assisting disadvantaged communities.  This spring, he has adopted a new approach—socially responsible pedagogy (SRP)—and incorporated it into his course, so it serves as a model for engaged scholarship.  SRP, which was popular 15 years ago, is still compelling for those who straddle the border between academics and activism.
Fernando believes his course will create “a novel community-university partnership.”

Fernando’s course will focus both on developing and developed countries so that students can learn from experiences of microfinance in many different contexts.  He will teach students how to develop skills and techniques used by microfinance practitioners.  Participants will explore how governments and central banks can support the growing microfinance industry and what the current challenges are to ensure the sustainability of microfinance.  

“Students and community members will learn about the possibilities and limitations of microfinance as an economic development strategy in the areas of income generation, empowerment of women, housing, savings, non-formal education, health, insurance, resettlement of displaced populations, climate change, food security and alternative energy,” he said.

Fernando's decision to change his MGN course came after his observation that in the United States the most depressed communities live right next to the best schools in the country, where the most advanced research is being done on development and aid.

“There is a Third World in the neighborhood, or the neighborhood is a Third World,” he said. For this reason, he wanted to reach out and help the many refugee populations he’s encountered in Worcester. "Clarkies do not always have to travel 1000 miles to do international development.  We can do it in Worcester itself.  Worcester is a microcosm of the world.  SRP is about  international development without borders."

 According to Fernando—who, in recent years, has worked with the Main South community by becoming involved with community gardens and helping local residents through the WOO church—most area refugees have been exposed to war and many have spent long periods of time in refugee camps.   

 “Linguistic, cultural, and other barriers make it difficult for them to earn a living in the United States.  Even those who are talented, educated, and skilled lack access to necessary credit to build and grow sustainable businesses because they have neither collateral nor a credit history: banks simply won't risk lending them money,” he said.

 Clark attracts international students from nearly 30 different countries for both undergraduate and graduate education in International Development.   

“SRP utilizes the experiences of international students at Clark for the benefit of marginalized communities in Worcester,” said Fernando. “Typically, international students do not work with depressed U.S. communities, but Clark and IDCE intend to change that trend and make education a truly global experience.”