Mission First Housing Group


“Miles to Go Before I Sleep” – A Tribute to the life and work of Dr. John Hirsh

by Mission First Housing

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Mission First and Georgetown University share a special connection, in the work of Dr. John Hirsh, an esteemed colleague, teacher and mentor. Despite Dr. Hirsh’s passing last December, he lives on not only through his own family, but through the legacy that carried forward by those whose lives he changed. A well-respected medieval scholar, whose expertise was in The Canterbury Tales, he was known for his infectious joy and wit. However, perhaps his greatest achievement is how he is regarded by his many students, and mentees of what is now a network of tutoring programs affiliated with the University and its partners.

One of the first to delve into Medieval feminism, Hirsh’s academic accomplishments alone are worth praise. However, it is his passion for service that sets him apart. In 1989 Dr. Hirsh took the helm of a tutoring program that led Georgetown students down from the hill, and into the community to take part in an educational journey with D.C. youth that continues to this very day. It is a legacy now carried forward by University stakeholders as well as Mission First Resident Services staff, both united by the goal of improving outcomes for D.C.’s youngest, most vulnerable residents.

Sursum Corda, is Latin for lift up your hearts, but for decades in Washington, D.C. the name conjured much heavier connotations as it was also the name of a notorious housing project just blocks from the capital building. Undeterred by allusions, Hirsh set about his work in a way that suggests he took the meaning of that name literally. The program he created, expanded the worlds of both young people in the community and Georgetown students, both parties eventually endearing themselves to one another, building trust and bonding. This process has continued for nearly 30 years, only growing thanks to Hirsh’s philosophies on life, learning and selfless love—or agape.

Those philosophies continue to guide the program, now headed by former student Bradley Galvin. “Men and women for others”, a core belief of Hirsh’s, succinctly grounds the program’s pedagogy. Centered on literacy learning, Hirsh’s work prioritized reading comprehension and employing several levels of inquiry—literal, interpretive and applicative questions—that not only helped youth interrogate literature critically, but the world itself. That foundation coupled with the program’s values of connection, humanity, trust and reflection planted seeds in hearts and minds that continue to be harvested. Today the tutoring program is a credited course at Georgetown, with multiple iterations in communities across D.C., benefitting accountability and creating opportunity.

“Dr. Hirsh changed my life.”, says Bradley Galvin, now running the program as a Georgetown professor himself. Galvin met Hirsh as junior at Georgetown in 2019, as the program was early in its transition from Sursum Corda to Mission First’s properties, Golden Rule Apartments and SeVerna on K. Bradley quickly learned his interest in social justice dovetailed with Hirsh’s. Galvin describes Hirsh as “special”, noting that he was immediately struck by his warmth, uplifting personality and generosity of spirit, the connection was instant. The bond grew as Bradley further involved himself in the program and understood the grave need it addressed. “I had a deeply American reaction,” he said of the disparities facing youth, “this is the nation’s capital, these children are not just struggling to read, they are struggling to eat.”

When COVID shut down all in-person programming, Bradley worked with Dr. Hirsh to implement a virtual tutoring program. Conducting sessions from home, both tutor and students’ understanding of each other’s lives grew and a bond was formed that helped each navigate the pandemic and imagine life beyond, a core value uniting in-person and virtual work.

Fortunately, the program survived the virtual COVID years and in-person programming began again in the Fall of 2022. Program participants are energized by Bradley’s ubiquity in their lives – youngsters and their parents know Bradley as a constant presences, trusted mentor and educator. The example of Dr. Hirsh’s holistic approach continues not only in Bradley’s management of the program but Mission First’s nurturing of the program for young residents.

Mission First Youth Program Coordinator, Justin Stalling recounts his first meeting with Dr. Hirsh, fortuitously on his first day on the job. Stalling recalls sensing Hirsh’s abundantly positive energy immediately. Heralding the work to come, Hirsh gifted Justin a copy of his book, Power and Probity in a DC Cooperative: The Life and Death of Sursum Corda. Beset by blight and arguably, by negative public perception, accelerated by bad press, Sursum Corda eventually closed in 2017. However, a collective of Mission First Housing Group developments had risen from those ashes and housed many former residents, and the tutoring program. The legacy continued through collective work.

Now, in the second year of program oversight for Mission First, Justin observes how the act of meeting youngsters where they are, forms another crucial component of this programming. Mission First’s resident services staff not only assist with academic challenges, but also with an eye towards children’s holistic growth, addressing and nurturing them as students and individuals.

Soon after beginning close work with youngsters, Justin realized his approach might require different thinking. Many students were reading far below their grade level, requiring greater degrees of mindfulness and attention when assigning them work.

The work is not without its logistical challenges either. Unlike other youth enrichment programs, Mission First’s programming happens where youth reside. While convenient, it is also easier for kids to opt-out. This is why learners’ individual relationships with tutors are so important, the kids are excited to engage, lowering hurdles to participation.

As time passed Justin refined his approach in ways that challenged the children appropriately and prioritized reading comprehension, one of Dr. Hirsh’s core educational tenets. This may look like engaging in reading activities with the children and having them draw or write about what they read. Tutoring partnerships help to drive that work forward equitably, allowing learners the ability to move at a comfortable pace with a tutor they trust. “It becomes a happy place for kids, beyond what they may experience at school, home or on the street” says former participant Darrin Bates, now a training officer with DC Metropolitan police and an educator in his own right.

Bates, a Georgetown alumnus, who grew up in Sursum Corda first met Hirsh as a boy in 1989 and says without out hesitation, “he saved my life.” He credits the late professors’ approach to mentorship as instrumental in his own journey, training officers to not simply police but protect and care for the community he was raised in.

Shiv Newaldass, whose family moved into a Sursum Corda townhome in 1990 also reflects Dr. Hirsh’s ethic of service and care. “I feel privileged our lives intertwined,” says Newaldass, whose presence as an immigrant and outsider added to the complexity of life. He viscerally recounts witnessing a heinous crime on his second day living in Sursum Corda, but also recounts Dr. Hirsh appearing at his door one fateful day to invite him on a museum trip. The relationship blossomed, Bates and Newaldass view Hirsh as mentor, guide, best friend and even father figure, who didn’t just make attending Georgetown possible but opened both men up to a world of possibility.

“He had true grace. Grace that wasn’t contingent or transactional.” says Newaldass, noting Hirsh’s energy and grace in approaching every situation. He recalls an incident in 7th grade when he and a pal stole a beer from Hirsh’s refrigerator. Instead of the shame and punishment young Shiv expected, Hirsh used it as a character-building moment. It stuck, as Shiv became instrumental in advocating for his neighbors and community during the early 2000’s when Sursum Corda came under threat from developers and public opinion. A bridge-builder, Hirsh’s methods where effective because he approached the work with love and joy. “He used to get me recite it on his answering machine in a spooky voice every Halloween.” Darrin Bates says chuckling, referring to the Robert Frost poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, a Hirsh favorite. While it may have gone over his head as a boy, Bates reflection is a testament to his mentor and their work together, “I realize now, that poem was actually about him.”

Now a Georgetown professor himself, Bradley’s own path reflects that of his mentor and his peers. “I never could have expected this,” he quips, “I still skateboard to work.” He looks confidently to a future that holds stronger connections for the learners being served. Both through close work with Justin Stalling on-site at Mission First Housing Group residences, and strengthening relationships with local schools like Walker-Jones, to provide the 360-degree wrap-around services that would continue to boost youth outcomes in the District. All of this, built on a platform evoking Dr. Hirsh’s most potent approach, love, the ability of genuine connection to spread light to others.

The understanding that by taking the time, bringing your full and true self to the table, it is possible to spread love to any and all you may encounter. Indeed, there are many miles to go still, but Dr. John Hirsh’s memory guides like true North. Mission First Housing Group is deeply proud to be a part of that journey.

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