Justice Begins Next Door: Real Teens Take on Real Issues
by Cathy Irene Lewis
What started as a school shoe drive has grown to become a major social justice project for the students at Cardinal Newman High School.
Eight years ago I met Leslie Millar at a Kiwanian meeting. The topic was the needs of young children in our county. Ms. Millar was at the meeting to describe problems that she faced each day with the children in her school. I learned that Leslie Millar was the social worker at Wynbrooke Elementary and that she had received school and community recognition for her work with disadvantaged children. Back at Cardinal Newman High School, I read notes from her talk to the Key Club officers, and within a brief time the teens had a plan in action to help the children of Wynbrooke Elementary with a pressing need: school shoes.
Collecting school shoes became a catalyst for the teens. A creative group produced posters asking for school shoes and placed the posters with laundry baskets in churches, day care centers, and shoe stores. They went door to door to ask for lightly used shoes. Store managers called to say customers were putting money in the baskets. Other stores called to say they had new shoes to donate. One major shoe firm heard what we were doing and donated several pairs. Our students learned that adults listen, teens are generous, and plans do not have to be complicated, just organized and followed through to the end. The chairperson of this shoe project was featured in the Palm Beach Post, and the writer called the young man a “rudder for the ship” because he got so much done with so little flourish. The shoe project became a great self-esteem builder and encouraged other teens to investigate the practical needs of the local community.
As a teacher in the religion department I was assigned to teach social justice each spring semester to about 150 juniors. The spring after the incredible success with the shoe project, I developed the first plans to integrate my own ideas into the curriculum. What if the teens were shown a variety of social justice issues in the community and were required to research how the issues affected real people? The highly successful social justice integration projects were off to a sound beginning.
The projects have evolved over the past eight years. No longer do I assign an issue; the teens analyze their own concerns and focus on one of their choice. This follows a carefully planned schedule in which students read about, research, and write about the wider view of social justice. The classes not only cover the school curriculum; the young adults also put their concerns into practice. Varied speakers come to address the class. The vocabulary of social justice takes on a real meaning when one witnesses poverty, health care needs, and injustice.
The project unfolds in a six-step process.
Step One: Look at the Local Community; Listen to the Stories
I chose speakers from a variety of careers in the community. Parents who had faced real issues in their homes came forward to share their stories. A speaker came from the funeral home to describe the issues surrounding the death of the poor. A Marine who had been to Iraq twice added a new dimension to the topic of war. A young Ph.D. student presented parts of her thesis about child abuse in families with premature babies. One dad brought the teens to tears as he explained the changes in the household when their last child was born with Down Syndrome. A representative of the local shelter came to address hunger, and the teens set aside time with the speaker to make sandwiches for the homeless.
At the end of Step One students chose media to complete their “vocabulary” with justice issues. One excellent video traced eminent domain issues in a nearby neighborhood. A local TV station had aired a film on the effects on the family when a teen took his own life. Channel One, which is available in many regions of the U.S., allows free taping of other themes related to justice. Our librarian tapes the ones of our choice.
Step Two: Declaration of Concern
As the first quarter drew to a close, the teens had covered the curriculum and had the opportunity to see, listen, and write about vocabulary words related to injustice. Now it was time to discern their own plans of action. Within a week they were to submit a paragraph explaining the point of concern. Basically, what has moved you into action? Are you willing to make a difference? In other words, why does this topic affect this county?
Moving from the Declaration of Concern, it was once again my job to get the teens started on a “place” or “situation” that dealt with injustice on a very specific level. Newspapers and the telephone directory expanded their backgrounds on actual groups, clubs, or agencies that focused on the concerns of their choice. Some juniors asked to choose diseases or situations that their own families had faced.
Step Three: Create a Plan of Action
Specific directions and the timetable came next. Each teen had one week to prepare a Plan of Action. The plan had to include the specific place, group, or geographic location. What did the teen perceive would be the actual need of the group to help alleviate the injustice issue? How could he or she make a difference? In brief, it was necessary to limit concern to a specific cause!
Step Four: Research the Cause
After the approval of the plan, the juniors were expected to go to the group of their choice and interview people who were actually involved. Interview papers were provided with names, addresses, phone numbers, and the best time to reach workers. During the interview a project would be developed that would require a minimum of five hours on the part of the junior. Some students planned and cooked a meal while others set up a clothing drive for immigrants. Some joined the environmental team on the beach; animal lovers donated supplies at a shelter; and one busload rode two hours to sell chili to benefit parents with very sick babies.
The actual stories over the last nine years are many and varied. One group made 4,000 pinwheels to be used in a display about the prevention of child abuse. Others organized a group to make posters about the surprising number of young children who drown in our county. Teens with big hearts rocked small babies at a local childcare facility. These activities are important because they reflect creativity and involve little expense.
Step Five: Document Each Step
By this time each student had started a three-ring binder. The binder had specific requirements: cover sheet with name and information, the Declaration of Concern, the Plan of Action, interviews, and a picture study of the project from start to finish. If students were working as a team, each individual had to submit all the parts of the binder and be an integral part of the picture story.
Individual commitments are better, but in some cases teens are just too shy to go alone or the project requires more than one worker.
Within three weeks the five hours of service is required. Pictures document the involvement.
Step Six: Create a Memory and Share Personal Stories
As the cycle came to a close, some teens had chosen to make videos; others asked to invite adults to speak to the whole class; and in some situations the five-hour donation of time evolved into a much longer commitment.
Each teen now prepared a five-minute talk to the whole class, including educational information about the agency associated with the project.
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All six steps are based on the best models of learning that lasts. The circle of commitment gets smaller and smaller until the individual not only really makes a difference in one area of need but also prepares examples of the work to share with classmates. It is also very important to note that I strongly urge students to share their video, scrapbook, or PowerPoint presentations with colleges when they interview for admission. Many do, and scholarship money and teen awards have come from their hard work.
Teachers are always concerned about time allotment for these activities. Here at Cardinal Newman it seems to work best if the idea is introduced early in the semester. For example, as speakers and videos were used on specific topics I would advise them to see if they felt a direct connection to the social problem. During the first week of second quarter I make time for them to write their Declaration of Concern. They proceed during that quarter and many get very involved in their projects. Their presentations of the videos, scrapbooks, or PowerPoints are always due two weeks before the final exam. It is never rushed; that would defeat the purpose, and by that time passion and commitment are so high that they want to hear others present their concerns, plans of action, and results.
Measure the Outcomes
First and foremost, this project exposes the young men and women to many social injustices in their local community. Hunger, homelessness, poor health, unfair educational opportunities, and ignorance can exist on the very street where the school is located. No travel is required to find that people or animals or the environment are not being treated with care and dignity.
Second, grant writing and funding are part of the curriculum. Over the past three years teens have won grants to improve the libraries at very poor daycare centers, to purchase supplies for parents with critically ill children, and to supply shoes for a preschool. An environmental project received co-funding. Not everyone wins, but the actual process of writing a grant includes its own educational rewards. The secret with grants is to start early and strictly observe the dates for submission.
Third, the project has garnered local, state, and international awards. Teens are encouraged to submit their ideas of service for publication and maintain their project binders for college admission interviews. One young man won the Mayor’s Award for Youth Volunteers. Another published his ideas and was a finalist in the Prudential Awards. This past year Kohl’s honored a student as the outstanding teen in the district. Through his work with young children and the food pantries, he had been seen as a role model and was awarded a gift certificate to shop for college. A Key Club member went on to run for an international office in his club. Students have won over $50,000 in scholarships related to community service. Colleges are looking for teens with good insights and willing hands to do something about injustices found “down the street.”
Thomas Edison is credited with saying, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” With nine years of success with our curriculum in social justice, this has proven to be true. Consider the number of lives that have been changed in our community and the families who have seen their teens in a whole new light. Another quote from Charles Dickens has served as an inspiration to me: “Charity begins at home and justice begins next door.” Carefully walk within the lines of the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, and prepare students to look deeper for injustices among people and the environment. Justice will take on a whole new light and will be graced by the one who said, “Seek truth and the truth will set you free.” In this case, “truth” is the tragic issue of social injustice in one’s local community and one teen at a time making a difference to address the issue and seek solutions.
Cathy Irene Lewis is a member of the religion faculty at Cardinal Newman High School, West Palm Beach, FL.
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