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Closing the Gap

Hilda Davis ’20 doesn’t just want to see people be well, but to ensure they have the option to choose wellness. Through her involvement both on campus and off, she’s provided time and resources to support initiatives that focus on community health.

By Cherie Suonvieri '15, content specialist

May 06, 2019 | 9 a.m.

Hilda Davis, social work major at Bethel University

Social work major Hilda Davis ’20 has made a practice of community engagement, both on campus and in the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods of St. Paul.

As a sophomore, Hilda Davis ’20 sat in the Rondo Community Library, tutoring two young boys. As they wrapped up their lesson and the boys began to pack up their things, their mother looked to Davis. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said.

Davis smiled, “I’m glad I’m here, too.”

“No,” she said, looking at her meaningfully. “I’m glad you’re here.” She touched the skin on Davis’ arm. That’s when Davis understood. She looked around at the other students who were there for service learning. They didn’t look like the children they were tutoring. This mother was happy because her kids had a black academic role model.

“In those communities, you don’t see many opportunities for people of color to go to college,” Davis says. “It’s so important for kids to see people that look like them who are achieving.”

Throughout her time at Bethel, Davis has been involved in multiple facets of the university’s partnership with the Frogtown and Summit-University communities. It started with tutoring at the Rondo Community Library. The following summer, Davis worked with the Urban Farm and Garden Alliance, providing community members with resources and information about gardening, healthy eating, and good stewardship of the earth. She also helped with planning community events like the Peace Celebration and National Afternoon Out.
Hilda Davis works with the Urban Farm and Garden Alliance through Bethel University's partnership with the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods.

When Davis (center) worked with Urban Farm and Garden Alliance, she participated in a project called The Children’s Garden, which introduced young people to growing organic foods. (Photo courtesy of Tanden Brekke)

Even after the summer ended, Davis remained involved. She’s currently interning at Irreducible Grace Foundation, an organization in Frogtown that focuses on community-based healing from trauma through workshops, activities, and support groups. She says she’s learned a lot from her experiences in the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods—but one of the biggest takeaways for her is the importance of empowering community members to act independently and lead the efforts for change.

“The people I’ve seen starting these initiatives and organizations are people who live in the community,” Davis says. “When it comes to community-based work, as an outsider coming in, it’s important to be a support to what already exists. People in the community can speak about their needs better than anyone else.”

In March 2019, Davis was awarded a Newman Civic Fellowship in recognition of her commitment to community involvement. She’ll participate in a yearlong program to further develop her strengths in preparation for public leadership—and based on her track record, there are few doubts about her potential. 

“From what I have seen Hilda do so far and from what community leaders have told me about her work, Hilda’s future will be one of a community change agent,” says Tanden Brekke, assistant director of community engagement and service learning, who works closely with the FSU partnership. “She will be a community leader that brings diverse groups of people together to solve critical community issues.”

“I just want to see people be well. The situations that people are in aren’t necessarily their fault. It's the systems that have been working against them for centuries.”

— Hilda Davis '20

Davis’ passion for community-based work developed over time. Her family emigrated from Liberia and moved to Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, when she was 5 years old. She grew up in a culturally and socioeconomically diverse community and began to understand how environment shapes livelihood during her last few years of high school. “I started recognizing what disparities were, and I wanted to work on closing the gap that people face in the Twin Cities,” Davis says. “I just want to see people be well. The situations that people are in aren’t necessarily their fault. It’s the systems that have been working against them for centuries. I don’t think we’re victims of that, but I also don’t think it’s right.”

Davis took that desire for change with her to Bethel. Since her freshman year, she’s been involved with intercultural programs. By second semester of her sophomore year, she was director of Black Student Union, a subgroup of United Cultures of Bethel. She’s also been part of the Peer Empowerment Program, which connects first-year students from underrepresented and underserved groups to Bethel student mentors. This year, she’s serving as a resident assistant in Lissner Hall.  “I decided to be an RA because I felt myself getting stuck in the intercultural programs group,” she says. “That group is so important to me. It’s my home and where I’ve created a firm foundation, but I wanted to make an impact in different areas on campus too.”

After she graduates from Bethel, Davis hopes to earn a dual master’s degree in social work and public health. Then, she plans to pursue a career that allows her to work on bringing health equity to communities of color. “I’ve heard it said that a person’s zip code is the number one determinant of how long that person is going to live—and people live where they do for a number of reasons, whether that’s their income or other social factors. It’s so much deeper than just a personal decision,” Davis says, noting the health risks that come with limited access to grocery stores, green space, or clean water. “People should have access to quality life. That seems like it should be a given, but it’s not and people need to advocate for those things.”

When Davis considers her involvement in various communities and the work she hopes to do in the future, her main motivation can be boiled down to the intrinsic value of each individual. “In the Gospels, something that sticks out to me is Jesus’ attention to those who are on the margins,” Davis says. “What fuels what I do is that I don’t want anybody to feel like they’re not known and that their voice isn’t being heard.”
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Community engagement at Bethel

Bethel’s partnership with the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods has been providing opportunities for Bethel students to learn and engage with the St. Paul communities for over 20 years. The partnership aims to be mutually beneficial—the university offers its resources and the communities provide the chance for students to take learning beyond the classroom. What else has the FSU Partnership been up to?

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