What surprises Margaret Quern about the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Involvement Award presented to her Jan. 19 was not the praise and recognition, but the simple reward of being regarded as a "friend" by those with whom she works. "As the first European American to receive this award I was honored and humbled," Quern said. "But I strongly believe that you get more than you give."
And give is all that Quern seems to do. She received the award from Vice President for Government, Community and Public Affairs Carol Scheman "for her outstanding contribution to the betterment of our communities" - the communities surrounding Penn and in Camden, N.J.
Quern spent the summer as a co-leader of a Community Youth Mapping Project in which 25 teenagers, ages 13-17, from University City and Overbrook, canvassed their neighborhoods in search of community resources. Although the teenagers were paid minimum wage, Quern does not believe that was what the program was all about. "It was a youth empowerment program," Quern said, and "it helped them gain a sense of self."
But for Quern it was "an opportunity to bond with the youth." She still maintains contact with the teenagers who regarded her as a counselor and a big sister. And, like a big sister, she has their pictures up on her wall in the form of a calendar she created for herself and her two co-leaders. But she did not forget her 25 "brothers and sisters." She presented each of them with a collage of pictures of their summer together.
During the school year, along with being a full-time student majoring in Urban Studies and Afro-American Studies, this fifth-year senior is the program director of the Castle Community Living and Learning Program. Her job is to get Penn students involved in community activity. She arranges educational discussions in which subjects that might not normally be discussed are broached; these include AIDS, poverty and homelessness.
She also helps to devise programs to help her fellow students cope with problems that they encounter during their service. "I help them challenge what it means to be a person who does community service, or community giving as I like to call it," Quern said.
But her real passion is working in Camden. Although Camden is nine square miles of ghetto, Quern sees the beauty in the people and their "resilience in the face of so much nastiness." She compared Camden to a gray fall day. "I love gray days in the fall because that is when you really notice the colors of the leaves. That is why I love Camden, because its colors stand out so much more."
Quern, who has worked in Camden for the past five years, including one year in which she lived there, has spent her time meeting and building relationships with people there step by step. To those she has befriended she is a cousin, a big/little sister, a daughter and a friend. She plans to continue her involvement in Camden because she hopes to help Camden and its children realize their potential. However, she acknowledges that is a difficult task.
"Trust building is a hard and slow process, especially as a white woman from a privileged background," Quern said. "But as a minister friend of mine said, 'Camden is a petri dish for urban America.' If Camden would change,
it would have a domino effect on
urban communities throughout the country."
Although her work in Camden probably played a large part in her winning the award, she does consider her work there to be community service. "I'm just hanging out, learning and listening," Quern said. "When you listen, that is when you're heard. MLK listened and that is why he was heard."
Originally published on February 12, 1998