Power Over Prejudice

On September 23, another teacher and I will be taking 10 students to this conference in Atlanta. I’m really excited to see the impact this will have on our community. I think the key word here is “indifference.” Our community’s issues are not so much overt racism (although we have had recent events of that nature), but passive inaction. As long as this goes unexamined, racism will continue to cripple our efforts to “provide the best possible education for young people.”

Here’s the description on the website…

“This event brings teams of middle school students together to participate in a one-day workshop on prejudice and discrimination.  Students spend the day, in small breakout groups, learning about the impact cultural, racial, ethnic, socio-economic and physical indifference’s have on their peer group.”

Workshop it!

I need your help, readers! Here is a piece of writing I’m working on, and I’d love your opinion should you have the time/energy.

It’s rather long, so where should I cut?

What needs more clarification?

What would make it stronger?

What do you think about the structure?

Is the passive voice ok?

A Lesson in Service-Learning

It all started during an introduction to slavery when I handed out modern-day slavery statistics to my seventh grade US History class. Appalled by this alarming information, Susie remarked, “Let’s do something about this!” Together we decided that we would, in fact, do something. We just didn’t have a clue what that meant. A few days later, I came to school with news of a Dignity Conference that was being held in Atlanta in just six days. I wanted to take kids with me to the Saturday morning portion of the conference. With the help of the Glenn Institute and the Junior High administrators, I pulled out of the gate in a minibus with eight students and headed to Inman Park. As I drove, I remember thinking I felt privileged to work at Westminster this week even more than usual.

The conference took place at onetwelvegallery. Five local organizations came together to discuss human trafficking in Atlanta. At first I was nervous about the maturity level of the issue and how seventh graders could get involved in something as tough and as disturbing as sex trafficking. However before we left, several parents made a point to tell me how thankful they were their child was participating in such an important issue. I have to be honest; it helped me breathe a little easier. Once we got there, we certainly stood out in the hipster East Atlanta crowd, but everyone welcomed us with enthusiasm; they were impressed and thankful that young men and women had a heart for this issue. One woman told us how great it was we were there since the average age of a child prostitute is 12-14.

The 5 presenters talked about every angle of the issue–from police investigation, to prevention through mentoring young boys and girls in at risk communities, and  after care of rescued women. Hearing the sobering stories touched me in a way it hadn’t before. Just like the students, most of this information was new to me as well. I learned the heartbreaking realities of what hundreds of trafficked girls face each year in our state. I came away heavy with the weight of the issue, but also armed with hope for restoration after seeing these people taking action steps toward change. One man talked about how they work with girls who are rescued and bring them away from certain death into hope for abundant life. They see these girls not as throw-a-ways (as much of society does), but as God’s creations, beautiful and valued.

As each speaker mentioned an idea for involvement, the students turned around and looked at me with faces that said, “CAN WE DO THAT?” Keller  stood up during the Q&A and asked how students their age could get involved in age appropriate ways. After the groups presented, the nine of us huddled up to make a plan for tackling the booths the organizations had set up. The kids were bursting with ideas and excitement. On their own they went to each organization, introduced themselves, and collected information about how to get involved. I couldn’t help but feel so proud of them in that moment.

It was amazing to see how this cause became THEIR initiative, THEIR project. I’m thrilled that these eight will be the leaders for their classes in building projects we can do this year. It’s powerful to see their hearts for brokenness in our city, and I can’t wait to see where this goes…

During March and April students spent time in class as well as for homework researching modern-day slavery. We made chart after chart listing and revising what we knew, what we still needed to know, what we had learned, and how we planned on applying it into a comprehensive project. We split into groups, we contacted organizations, we reported back to the class, we repeated as needed.

We learned that most of the chocolate industry uses people who are not free to work at some stage of production.

We learned that human trafficking is the exploitation by force, fraud or coercion of vulnerable people for forced labor, domestic servitude, or commercial sex operation?

We learned that 400 people (mostly girls) are trafficked (bought and sold) in GEORGIA every year?

We learned the average age for sex trafficking is 12-14.

We learned the number one way to get out of the trafficking industry is death…the average lifespan for someone in this industry is 31.

We learned Atlanta is a “hub” for this industry. With a huge airport, crime, drugs, and the adult entertainment industry, our city has created the “perfect storm” for child prostitution.

We learned that despite the overwhelming statistics that there were lots of caring people trying to put an end to child exploitation in our city, our nation, and our world.

Because of the sensitive nature of our issue, we soon realized that we weren’t able to interact with victims of trafficking, so we partnered with organizations who are already involved in this work. We met Amy and Kelly from StreetGrace ministries at the Dignity Conference, and they were invaluable in giving us not only information, but also inspiration to further pursue this cause. They came to class and told us stories of kids their age being abused just a few short miles from our classroom. They informed us of how they were hopeful for change because of groups like ours.

I watched and guided as their class work became personal; they became indignant when their friends or family continued to consume chocolate that was not designated “fair trade,” they researched their own consumption and used their purchasing power for good. They brainstormed big ideas for change on our campus. They told the heart wrenching stories to their family and friends. The momentum grew.

Although I tried to move forward with the curriculum, it was a hard balance. At first it connected supremely with the Underground Railroad, but after a while, the Civil War was over. I was greeted at the door frame each day with, “Are we going to work on our project today?” I made the decision to keep going with the project while also doing as much history as I could. It required a certain amount of letting go on my part. Letting go of plans, reshaping my notions of what I thought was necessary for them to know and learn in seventh grade. Letting go of knowing exactly how things would turn out. In a conversation I had with my principal recently, he said that teaching is showing students the start line and finding the finish line together. That really rang true for me. At times, the finish line was an elusive mark I wasn’t sure we would ever find. The kids asked questions I couldn’t answer; there were time and space limitations to our ideas; it was hard to agree; the students were working during two different class periods on the same project, which grew increasingly complicated. But we pressed on.

Ultimately, we decided to host a “Freedom Friday” for the entire seventh grade class. After students contacted Ben & Jerry’s, they offered to donate 200 individual ice creams for us to sell at our event. The students designed orange T-shirts (the designated freedom color) with chained wrists breaking loose, and the slogan “break the chains of oppression” on the back.

The shirts arrived, the day approached, and the presentation came together. We decided we wanted to show the global as well as the local face of modern-day slavery by showing the movie Kavi, and then hearing from StreetGrace.  Around the seventh grade locker commons, students created and hung posters with vital information and invitations to the event. In order to introduce the day, we decided to share what we’d learned to the class during a seventh grade group homeroom.

I arrived that Wednesday morning to at least ten students already in the Multipurpose Room. From their chatter I could tell they were both excited and anxious to present to their classmates what they’d been working on much of the semester. Although it certainly wasn’t the most well-rehearsed, most organized power point presentation ever, it was effective. While debriefing in class later that day, several students told me that their friends had been astonished by what they heard even though they were also processing what they wished they’d done differently. The excitement for Freedom Friday increased.

On the day, ready with their Freedom Friday t-shirts, we scattered across campus collecting the ice cream, readying the technology, setting up tables, locating napkins and spoons to get ready for the event. For the 19 minutes of the movie, we took a deep breath and set up the ice cream. We were pleasantly surprised at the vast array of flavors Ben & Jerry’s sent us. What we didn’t count on was that they would be frozen, so frozen that they were almost impenetrable! With time until class resumed quickly ticking away, we tried our best to distribute and melt the ice cream so students could consume it. Kelly from StreetGrace briefly described the work her organization does. Although the timing wasn’t perfect, we pulled it off! In our conversations afterwards, the kids felt so proud of what had happened. We counted the money and sent a check $700 to StreetGrace to be spent on recovering victims. Then the students sent thank you notes to the dozens of people who helped us with the details from Ms. K in the Junior High to James and the rest of the clean-up crew, to Mr. N and the cafeteria staff–we pulled all kinds of strings make this day happen!

These are the moments I know I could never do anything else but teach. To see the students’ put their passion and energy and resources towards something so real, so tangible really is inspiring. This matters. This is learning.

This year, several of the girls from my seventh grade class are in the homeroom that Ms. D and I share. We plan on reconnecting with StreetGrace to find out how our donation worked for good and continue with this project for our Eighth Grade Service Learning Project.

This project and experience reminds me of a Nelson Mandela quote I have hanging in my room. “Young people are capable, when aroused, of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom.” I know it’s true because I’m witnessing it.

What did students learn?

  • They connected history to modern-day problems and looked at the similarities and differences
  • They debunked the myth for themselves and for others that slavery is in the past, even in the United States
  • They used skills of art and design to create t-shirts and posters and power points
  • They learned how to manage allowing all voices to be heard in a class conversation
  • They found out the hard way what happens when a presentation is not completely rehearsed and thought out, and that preparation is always essential
  • They interacted with adults all over campus and in the community of Atlanta, and even beyond, to ask for help with our project through emails, phone calls, letters, and personal interactions
  • They discovered that working with organizations already doing this work is more effective than trying to start something new
  • They learned more about their city and state’s problems
  • They practiced public speaking
  • They took initiative in unfamiliar situations
  • They learned how much people appreciate a “thank you.”
  • They learned they have the power to work for change