This past Saturday, March 7th, marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches. The recent release of the film Selma, along with the Paramount Pictures initiative #selmaforstudents, allowed our AmeriCorps Members a platform for dialogue with students surrounding the civil rights movement and race relations. It also allowed our AmeriCorps members to reflect upon the importance of social justice within our service and how to be more intentional about creating spaces for our students to explore and express aspects of their identity.
Today's guest blogger is Meira Keil, a Senior AmeriCorps Member and Team Leader at IS 204Q, a middle school in Long Island City, Queens that participated in #selmaforstudents.
When I first heard of City Year, I was drawn to the overall mission of youth mentorship, support, and community building. I was also heavily drawn to the core values of City Year, especially "Social Justice For All". During my corps year, it was always at the front of my mind, motivating me to come to work early and to be my best self for my kids. When I chose to come back as a Team Leader, I knew that I could not let go of that drive, vision, and perspective. I knew it was necessary to create a space on my team where we welcome each other’s thoughts and ideas surrounding social justice issues. Before diving into dialogue on current events, and the larger structural systems that prohibit “justice for all,” one must take the time to self reflect upon their position within these systems and build upon self-awareness. I facilitated activities that allowed my AmeriCorps Members to share parts of themselves, in order to build a team that respected our different backgrounds and experiences. I think that the work we do is so innately connected with our humanity that in order to serve our students to our best ability, we must first be able to unite through our similarities and differences.
A few weeks ago, our principal asked if the 204 City Year Team would chaperone and accompany the school on a trip to see Selma. AmeriCorps Members were to accompany one of their two classes and help walk students to the movie theatre in Astoria, Queens. I went with my 8th grade class from last year, and was so ecstatic to be given this opportunity to see this film with the students. It was definitely hard for some to sit still for two hours, and many were distracted by the array of snack possibilities. Despite the audience noises, and constant “shh-ing,” I believe that all of the students got something out of the movie. Whether it was watching historical figures come to life, connecting themes to present day, or thinking through emotions, every single student benefitted from this exposure. I was emotional throughout the movie and asked students how it made them feel to see the violence onscreen, and how they felt racial tensions are present today. Many students from 204 are English Language Learners, being first generation middle school students in their families. Most are from Latin America, the Middle East, and Southern Asia, as well as other parts of the world. Another population of our students lives in Queensbridge, the largest housing project development in the country. With that being said, I believe each student connected with the movie differently, but ultimately were exposed to a side of history that is not taught in the textbooks. It is important for students to hear about history from all angles, and perspectives, especially if they identify with the lens of history that is so often unseen.
The following week, I asked my team to be diligent and intentional about asking their students what they thought and felt in regard to the movie, and the larger vision of a movement for justice. Many AmeriCorps Members expressed that the historical content was over their students’ heads, and some had a hard time fully understanding the film, while other AmeriCorps Members had successful and productive conversations. The gap between a 6th and 8th grader's understanding when it comes to topics like these can be large, but neither is too young to start these conversations. After the events in Ferguson and Staten Island, our City Year After School Program facilitated a lesson surrounding social justice, and how our students are agents of change. Each student created a “Justice Heart,” reflecting on what social justice means to them, and how they can promote it in their day-to-day lives. We extended this activity to the entire school space, inviting students during the lunch period to craft their own Justice Heart. We are currently planning a whole school initiative to further the dialogue surrounding Selma and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. It is our duty to talk to our students, teach them, involve them, and empower them. I am thankful to have a team so receptive and willing to continue the fight for justice. We are helping plant seeds of knowledge for our students, and we can only hope that these conversations will give them a platform to more deeply engage these issues in the future.