Our small, rural, predominantly white school district in Western Massachusetts has its share of racist and homophobic incidents. And like many other educators, I took these on headfirst, trying to find some common moral ground with students, trying to appeal to their humanity before referring them to the Dean. And then Covid happened. And our ongoing social uprising. For summer enrichment I organized a Community Read of Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi and the remix Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Jason Reynolds. Concurrently, I was approached by a couple of students who were disgusted by the injustices that they had been seeing perpetrated across our country and dismayed by curricula that neglected to represent the full scope of American perspectives.
Serendipitously, in August a student entering her senior year reached out about a project she wanted to work on. She was interested in purchasing a collection of diverse books for the elementary school library. I helped her to develop a project, set goals, and develop a method. I taught her the ins and outs of using the school library and public library catalogs to find books, read reviews, and check for duplication. I have given her several issues of School Library Journal and Teaching Tolerance to read articles and identify books that would meet the needs of the collection. We have met with the elementary librarian to pinpoint needs and to plan allocation of funds. In an in-house professional development email thread I found out that a third-grade teacher and the elementary Spanish teacher were interested in updating and supplementing their curricula to incorporate and expand on views of diversity. I reached out to them to see if there was an opportunity for collaboration. Born from this meeting was the idea for a video library of high school students reading picture books. The students create the videos from the collection of newly acquired picture books and they are posted in the Elementary Library’s Google Classroom. Up until Covid I ran a successful Big Brother Big Sister after school program, where students from the attached elementary school were paired with high school students for homework help, support, and relationship building for an hour once a week. The benefits were duofold, as you would expect, the older kids gained skills in mentoring and leadership and the younger children benefited from the academic and social support and unconditional kindness of the older children. Almost all of the Bigs had been Littles and sought out the opportunity to give back when it was their time. I am hoping that the Diversity Book Initiative and the recorded readings will work in a similar capacity. I hope that the elementary students will value the contributions of the high school students and will look to them as role models and that they will set their sights high and will give back when they have the opportunity.
Inspired by a School Library Journal article, my senior student is also working toward installing a Free Little Library offering books by diverse authors in our community. She is working with the local youth organization, Railroad Street Youth Project, for funding and through YOB (Youth Operational Board) meetings has come across additional opportunities to get involved in community initiatives and has also brought other students on board. She has been in touch with the town regarding permissions for installation of the Free Little Library. There are so many learning opportunities here and they continue to present themselves.
There is no way to peace, peace is the way. - A.J. Muste
We all came together and formed a club, the Social Justice League, co-led by myself and the senior student. Together, we decided that we would focus on education and community initiatives. For the education component, we formed a book group and will read a book for a different theme each month. We’ve been brainstorming and working on community initiatives. Last month one of the letter-writing students and her mother organized a local chapter of the Women’s March. I was in touch with the mother regarding the organization of the event and she acknowledged my efforts with genuine appreciation. We had a moment. The local dance school performed, as did local musicians, and there were performance artists and a few Roller Derbiers rolled in. There was a turnout of over 200 people. The students prepared and read statements to roaring applause and hoots and hollers. They were thanked and lauded and approached by a local news reporter who wrote about it in iBerkshires (see the article link below).
This month our book theme was indigenous peoples and we read An Indigenous People’s History of the United States for Young People by Roxanne Dunar-Ortiz and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. The Social Justice League is next organizing a Stockbridge-Munsee Educational Walk to raise awareness around the truths of the band’s relocation to their Land in Wisconsin at this time of the Thanksgiving holiday. We have reached out to local tribal leaders to move forward with this initiative and have received their full support. The Stockbridge-Munsee Community has created a walking tour with 11 stops. Language has been crafted, and videos have been made to teach about the history of, and dispossession of their ancestral lands. Students will take turns reading the history at each sight along the half-mile walk.
As we move forward students are initiating additional projects. One of our members is interested in documenting oral histories of indigeneous members of her family. As a group, we are working toward collaborating with our school’s GSA. For our book group next month we will focus on women’s rights and in January we will focus on the LGBTQ+ experience. We are using the library bulletin board to communicate our message and to display student work from a social justice project in one of the art classes. My senior student wants to discuss ways to educate faculty. We’ve come up with her presenting at a faculty meeting and creating a “Did you know?’”cheat sheet for teachers (and students). We’re just seeing it all unfold.
This all started from a contentious moment in which offenses were felt and voices were not heard. Librarians have been navigating these waters for a long time. School librarians around the state have been discussing modalities to foster effective communication in their spaces through active listening and thoughtful response, understanding needs and emotions, and recognizing these in others in order to de-escalate situations and foster respect. I hope to be able to model and teach these tenets in the library. It is one of many hats we wear, perhaps the most uncomfortable, yet essential one of the bunch. In a recent email, a parent clarified our role, “It really underscores for me the importance of having a school librarian, someone who is able to take a step back and see a broader picture, and who also has access to so many tools to support real learning [so that] our daughters feel empowered and heard.” That is the hat that I’d like to wear most.
The Social Justice League (SJL) has continued to expand its scope of initiatives since I wrote this article. We held the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Awareness Walk on November 28, 2020. We advertised the event on the school’s social media outlets, where it was shared, and we had a much larger audience than expected with 35 in attendance. Both the students and I learned a lot from the experience and our goal is to host this event annually.
I reached out to a reporter for The Berkshire Edge to tell her about the work of the SJL and she asked to attend one of our meetings to question students directly. She asked pointed questions of how the group manifested, the scope of projects, and where we are headed. By having this opportunity and forum and giving them voice, the students felt further empowered to act. Students have submitted statements to the administration calling for a designated gender neutral bathroom. With a focus on education, the students will create thematic short videos highlighting historical figures and events for elementary teachers and classes (grades 3-5). The pilot video is in the works.
I was contacted by a librarian at our local library who read the article and wanted to put me in touch with the local grassroots group OWE (One World Equal), who is fighting for change locally. The group asked me to come speak with them and I presented myself and the initiatives of the SJL. We are currently exploring ways in which the SJL and OWE can collaboratively work to bring about positive change.
The SJL continues grow. It all started with one step.
Van Sickle, H. (2020, December 09). Social Justice League at Mount Everett seeks to educate educators. Retrieved January 11, 2021, from https://theberkshireedge.com/social-justice-league-at-mount-everett-seeks-to-educate-educators/