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Q and A: Kenia Rivera on Tent City

News Feature

News & Events

November 19, 2012

Senior Kenia Rivera remembers that Monday night vividly, wondering if the tent she was sleeping in would collapse, as heavy rain pounded away at the thin roof. Luckily it stood strong. This happened on what was the first night of Bridgewater State University’s Tent City, organized each November by the university’s student-run Social Justice League to raise awareness about homelessness.

Students support the cause by living for one week in tents erected outside the university’s Rondileau Campus Center, foregoing modern conveniences -- cell phones, iPods and showering -- and eating meals at a mock soup kitchen in the center’s cafeteria. Meanwhile, they keep up with their coursework and collect money for charities and local shelters.

This year’s 6th annual event, held from Nov. 12-16, saw approximately 30 participants. Many other campus and community members stopped by to learn and listen to several guest speakers, which included: reps from Schools on Wheels, A New Day women's cisis center, and Father Bill's/Mainspring homeless shelter, as well as Dr. Michelle Wakin, founding chair of the BSU Task Force to End Homelessness, and Dr. Jonathan White, associate professor of sociology.

Ms. Rivera of Lawrence, a three-year Tent City veteran, is chair of the event’s planning committee. We caught up with the student and got her thoughts on the event and its impact.

Q: What is the aim of Tent City?

A: The aim is to raise awareness and create change, locally and globally. It is not about having students experience homelessness first-hand. It’s an in-your-face demonstration about the harsh realities of homelessness. That’s why it’s set up right outside the campus center. It gets people’s attention. And when it comes to homelessness, there are stigmas, and negative connotations attached. We also want to shatter stereotypes. In addition, we raised money this year for School on Wheels. Basically, we want people to empathize and stay out in solidarity with homeless people.

Q: Why is the event important?

A: Homelessness is a huge problem, locally and globally. It was coincidental that it fell near Veteran’s Day. We had discussions about the many vets who are still homeless. Tent City is a big learning experience. Not only does it raise awareness through our participants and guest speakers, but the event empowers students to make a change. Students are leaving the experience with more knowledge and ready to go out and make a change. It can be a rough experience, but no one leaves with a feeling of hopelessness. They leave wanting to do more. The students also learn a sense of community and about the fundamentals of grass-roots activism.

Q: How does the public react to the event?

A: We get mixed reactions. Some people love what we do, others criticize it. But we feel that no matter what, we can get people talking about the issues. We encourage people to come by, even if they don’t agree with what we’re doing, so they can open up discussion. They leave knowing more than before they came. At the end of the day, you’re still talking about it. In that way, we’re still getting people’s attention.

Q: You’ve done Tent City for three years. How has it changed you?

A: My first year, I was just learning. Second year, I felt more empowered to stand up for the cause and raise awareness. Now, I’ve taken on a teacher’s role. That’s the course we want participants to take. They start out learning about the issues, and then they become teachers and take on leadership roles. You start to realize one person can make a difference. You go tell one other person and get that person involved. That person then gets someone else involved, and so on. That’s how change occurs. It’s like a domino effect. One person empowers another and change spreads in such a positive way.

(Rob Matheson, '07, G '12, University News)

(From left) Kenia Rivera, Rachel Dunn, '15, of Chicopee, and Eliot Jaha, '13, of Bellingham, have a discussion during Tent City
Students gather to listen to speakers Brandon Reynolds, a student and SJL member (right, standing), and a rep from Father Bill's and MainSpring