Why I Serve: Benjamin Thornton, Community Partner-in-Residence

Tuesday, Oct 22, 2019
by Benjamin Gelman ’22, Pace Center Student Correspondent

In this ongoing Q&A series, we aim to highlight students, faculty, and staff who engage with service at Princeton and beyond. This time, we spoke to Benjamin Thornton, the John H. Pace, Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement’s third Community Partner-in-Residence. Thornton is the Director of Outreach Services at Anchor House, where he runs the organization's drop-in center and leads a street outreach team focused on finding youth that are homeless and directing them to coordinated entry services. Thornton has more than 20 years of experience working with runaway and homeless youth and their families. As Community Partner-in-Residence, Thornton is meeting with students, leading trainings on how to enter the community and work with minors, and planning events to bring youth and community expertise to campus. He will be with the Pace Center for the fall semester and has office hours every Monday from 5-7 p.m. in Frist Campus Center, room 201D. 

Can you explain briefly what the Community Partner-in-Residence is? 

“The [Community Partner-in-Residence] serves to promote a deeper understanding and experience between the community and the campus while identifying the real needs, strengths, and assets of the communities in which service is being performed. This integration of the Community Partner-in-Residence at Princeton is part of the [Pace Center’s] strategic plan goal of building purposeful community partnerships. As a community partner, it is necessary that we are a part of this ongoing conversation. Princeton is fierce in its attempt to get this right and they have put all of the appropriate resources out there to make it clear that service is most beneficial when it is in partnership.”

What drew you to this role? 

“I have been an active participant in some of the Pace Center events in past years. It is always a pleasure for me to participate in the service experience of our future leaders, especially those doing work in the community. I am immersed in the operational side of forwarding the mission of Anchor House and seeing the passion that exists for this kind of work is refreshing and keeps me optimistic about the future.”

What aspects of your background have prepared you to be the Community Partner-in-Residence? 

“Anchor House is one of very few agencies in the community that does what we do, so I am always networking with members of the community and assembling community partners in order to further the mission of Anchor House. So the aspects of my work that deal with integrating community partners and resources that can help further my work has prepared me for this. Our community partners in Trenton/Mercer County are amazing to work with and epitomize mission driven partnership. 

The Community Partner-in-Residence role is very flexible and has varied with each person who holds the position. For me, I’ve learned that there are aspects of my work at Anchor House that do align [with my role at Princeton], one of which is building relationships with young people and exploring their interests and ideas in a way that furthers those ideas. This is an element of the strength-based approach we use to develop the dreams and aspirations of our youth [at Anchor House]. The old phrase was to ‘meet them where they are.’ I suggest we can do better and ‘meet them at their dreams.’ In this way we can clearly see that we are the same. [For example], Trenton youth are perceived to be outside of this community and Princeton students are perceived to be outside of the Trenton community. If we are mindful about our work there the opportunity for both sides to see each other and understand that we are ultimately one community. Relationships tend to gently close the gaps in the, ‘us / them / the other’ paradigm.”

What unique opportunities for service do you see at Princeton?

“There are too many to list here. I believe the main opportunity whether it be [with the] fire [department], EMS, or afterschool programs, is to inspire service in the public interest. Service is unique in and of itself. It is the heartbeat of a healthy mind, household, neighborhood, and community. It can and always has changed the world in which we live.”

Are there any unique obstacles that you think a campus such as Princeton has to inspiring service, and if so, what can we do to mitigate them? 

“The obstacles are the age old issues that provide resistance to good. Stigma, exploitation of differences, and disagreement that cuts us off from communication. With such diversity on Princeton’s campus there is the opportunity to teach the world how to move past these fear-based and binary thinking traps. People who disagree about religion and politics, CAN serve their community together. As long as we keep talking and serving, the distance between us gets just a little bit smaller.”

Why do you think it is important for Princeton students to learn from outside perspectives as they perform service? 

“Anytime we expand the boundaries of what is inside of our perspective we see more of the whole, which expands our ability to serve and makes our service a force of growth and movement beyond our limiting paradigms." 

Is there anything else you would like people to know about you or your role?

“I would like to connect with students, faculty and staff who share my passion for service. In particular, I’d like to bring awareness to the mission of Anchor House and the problem of youth homelessness. Our youth are our most precious resource and I’m inspired every day by their resilience. I find this work inspiring and I have seen the best in the people that I have had the pleasure of serving with.”