Tackling T.I.N.A. and Creating a Successful Public-Facing Discussion Group

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Tackling T.I.N.A. has entered its second year and is going strong.

The reading for the September meeting was an approximately 30 page selection from Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted, published in 2016, in which Desmond tracks the precarious lives of people in Milwaukee as they face eviction and homelessness while he explores the policies that cause these problems. Desmond also offers concrete solutions to begin fixing the problem of eviction, making an argument for increased housing subsidies.

The meeting, which was hosted at New Bethany Ministries, was attended by students, activists, professors from local universities, people who have used New Bethany’s hospitality services, and other interested residents of the area, focused on how eviction manifests specifically within the Lehigh Valley. The discussion was made up of voices from varying levels of expertise and personal experience and yielded an engaging, pragmatic and hopeful tone.

In some ways, Tackling T.I.N.A. functions like any other grad student reading group- members of the planning committee brainstorm topics, check out dozens of relevant books, select relevant readings for discussion. But where T.I.N.A. diverges is in its public-facing model. More than three-quarters of the participants in September’s discussion weren’t at all affiliated with Lehigh.

This has been the trajectory of the reading group since last spring, when Mareesa Miles and Adam Heidebrink-Bruno, who began the group together, decided that making the group public-facing was the best way to accomplish their vision of what a reading group focused on economic justice should be. When Heidebrink-Bruno and Miles started Tackling T.I.N.A. in Fall 2017, they advertised only within the university. Participation was inter-departmental, but entirely academic. Readings also used to skew longer and more theory-driven.

While it may make sense that a reading group focused on highly specialized topics would stay small and within the university setting, they thought that their group’s focus would be best served by community engagement.

Miles and Heidebrink-Bruno had already begun to scale down the readings before taking the group public facing, but moving ahead they tried to plan discussions so that anyone could participate, whether they had completed the reading or not. While it may seem counter-intuitive for a reading group to lessen its focus on reading, it fits with T.I.N.A.’s vision of economic justice by recognizing that not everyone has the time to read for pleasure, access to a computer on which to access the selections, or the literacy skills necessary to follow the text. Also, anyone can contribute meaningfully to the discussion when its focus tends to be on issues that have a bearing on many people’s lives.

Importantly, they also began inviting community partners to facilitate discussions. For example, September’s discussion was facilitated by Diane Elliot, Executive Director of New Bethany Ministries, and Marc Rittle, Vice President of Impact, United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, two people who serve the local community and whose expertise and experience meaningfully shaped the discussion. Having people from outside the university facilitate both serves to diffuse ownership over the group throughout the community and to strengthen relevant community partnerships.  

Reading groups meet for all sorts of reasons and can serve many different functions- and T.I.N.A. has achieved its goal of being an increasingly public-facing group by bringing in outside facilitators and advertising throughout south and north Bethlehem. They’re working dynamically to establish new community partnerships, strengthen existing ones, and generate exciting new ideas.

Tackling T.I.N.A.’s next event is on October 18th at Café the Lodge and will focus on stigmas of poverty. For access to readings go to http://wordpress.lehigh.edu/tacklingtina/category/fall-2018/ .

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