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Cook County Public Schools Make a s.t.a.r.t.

October 12, 2013

Cook County Public Schools Make a s.t.a.r.t.

On Tuesday, October 8th, 2013, s.t.a.r.t. leaders Amirah Ellison and Frankie Reyes brought the work and message of s.t.a.r.t., for students to work together as allies for racial trust, to the Cook County Public Schools. Frankie is also a student in South High’s All Nations program, an immersion in American Indian culture and language.  Amirah and Frankie were joined by Minneapolis educator Laura Yost Manthey, anti-bias specialist Lyn Mitchell and me, Kate Towle, s.t.a.r.t.’s Adult Ally and Consultant.

On the way to Grand Portage, Minnesota, we stopped in Duluth to visit the Lighthouse and the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial to honor the three young Black circus workers who were lynched there in 1920.

One stone panel of the memorial shares the story of the event:  “On June 15, 1920, following the alleged rape of a young woman, Duluth police locked up a number of men who worked for a traveling circus that evening, thousands of Duluthians gathered outside the city jail. The police were under orders not to shoot and they obeyed.

“With timbers and rails as battering rams, the mob broke down the doors of the jail and staged a trial of six of the men.  They convicted Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, who had been held as a witness.  The crowd dragged the young men about a block, beat them as viciously as you may imagine, and hanged them from a light pole that stood diagonally across the street from where you are now.  Some brave people spoke out in protest, but they were few against thousands.  One man took a photograph that was later distributed as postcards.  This memorial is dedicated to the murdered here and everywhere.”

The memorial was an inspiration for the work we were about to do—to inspire 600 students of all grade levels (middle school, high school and elementary) to understand how cultural narratives are passed on; to understand the distortions that occur when they are; and to find the meaning and truth in what is retained.  A quote by Oscar Wilde reinforced the nature of our work:  The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”

Driving in the middle of Peak Season for the changing of fall leaves, we enjoyed every minute of the spectacular beauty of Lake Superior.  When we arrived on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, we were greeted and hosted by John Morrin, Vice Chair of the Reservation Tribal Council.  John brought us to a room where we met other area educators, including Haley Brickner, the Director of Education in Grand Portage; Community Member and Consultant, Pat Campanaro; Community Education Advisor Melissa Wickwire; Tom Jack, an Ojibwe language instructor in Grand Portage; Dr. Tom Peacock, educator and author; Diane Booth from U of M Extension; Gwen Carman and Adam Nelson, both Principals in Cook County.   We were also joined by journalist Jane Howard who had written a piece about us in the Sept. 28th Cook County News-Herald to also invite community members to an afternoon dialogue following our work.

In the three hours that followed, we practiced and discussed the activity that we would do with the students—to quietly pass along a cultural vignette and to watch how the vignette had shifted and changed depending on who, in the room, had shared the story.  We broke bread together, got to know one another and observed our own encounter with the narratives.  Each of us would act as a facilitator for small breakout groups on Tuesday.  The narrative for the middle and high school students was a true story, written about a young American Indian girl who had been bullied.  The one for the elementary students was adapted from the book Grandmother Stories by the Anishinabe elder Anne M. Dunn—it was about a chipmunk that was also chased and hurt for having a different opinion than the majority.

We got up early on Tuesday, October 8th to drive from Grand Portage to Grand Marais’ district building, in which all schools are housed, to begin our work.  Our work began with an auditorium for the middle school students, in which Amirah and Frankie talked about s.t.a.r.t., the importance of cultural narratives to share understanding and explained that we would be moving to small circle groups to share an activity.  Then we proceeded to the groups and began our work.  In each small group, we shared an activity called The Identity Garden, created by s.t.a.r.t. students, to explain the importance of knowing who we are before moving into other cultural or majority groups.  The gardens have flowers and “weeds,” which are parts of us that may internalize cultural oppression and need to be addressed.   In my own group, the students enjoyed the exercise, even as very little remained of the narrative by the time it was passed.  What remained was that a little girl was bullied and that she somehow died because of that.  We had a rich discussion of how it felt to make and pass history, to take turns being the teller and receiver of the story.  We also discussed how stories shift and change depending on what is important to us.  Following the activity, we returned to an auditorium where Amirah, Frankie and Dr. Peacock wrapped up our middle school session and invited students to come to the microphone to speak about their experience.  One student spoke poignantly about her own experience being bullied and having to find a group of friends.

We continued the same format for the session with the high school students.  One male senior in my high school breakout spoke about how the way history is taught has de-sensitized students and that cultural days like the one we were experiencing occurred once a year, with little meaning.  We discussed how we all play a role in making meaning in our social groups, and how the energy we bring to sharing what we learn and what we know impacts the way that it is spread.  We admitted in our session that often we follow a familiar pattern of being lazy in the way we share knowledge, choosing to only share that which interests or impacts us individually.

In our wrap-up auditorium, we were struck by the students’ reluctance to share their experiences.  Because the school and community are small—and social mores are tightly kept—students were much more comfortable sharing in the smaller groups.  We were surprised by this—at South High, much emphasis is placed on raising student voice through large auditorium events.  This became a lesson for us in one difference between a large urban school and a smaller school where social groups are much less permeable.

Following our school lunch and debrief, we engaged in small circles with elementary students.  I had the joy of working with 2nd graders who had already talked about race to prepare for our work together.  We began by using the book Zoom by Istvan Banyai, a series of drawings within other drawings that teach context.  We talked about how where we look, what we see and how we understand it influences what we choose to tell others about our experience.  We also talked about the big expanse of things we don’t know and how we rely on others in our group for that knowledge.  We proceeded to do the elementary Identity Garden, which has questions for the younger students, such as “What are your special talents?” or Where is your family from?”  We followed with the chipmunk narrative exercise.  In the narrative, Chipmunk wants night and day to alternate, while Bear wants to have night all the time.  (One of the students said that he wouldn’t mind night all the time, because then he wouldn’t have to go to school!)

Following the three student sessions, we met with community leaders, education stakeholders and our team for a debrief.  The debrief helped us understand the day’s impact as well as future action steps.  There was a consensus that the Cook County team is highly committed to the work.  We also talked about resources and continuing education that can occur, both with teachers and through a community read.  We spoke of the importance of building a common vocabulary for race study and intercultural bridging.  One realization from the story-sharing is that in every single case, the racial slurs that were in the initial narrative were omitted—we ask why they were dropped, i.e., not valued as an important part of the story.   We talked about ways to work strategically and thoughtfully to lift student voice amidst a small community where students work even harder to conform to social expectations.   Above all, we realized that the groups facilitated by Frankie and Amirah—student-to-student—were the most engaged and animated.

During the one and a half day of events, our team became very close to the educators and community members in Grand Portage/Grand Marais. It was hard to say good-bye both to the beauty of the region and to the kindness of our hosts.  After we hugged one another good-bye, we went to Grand Marais’ pier and Lighthouse to say a prayer of miigwech and thanksgiving and to thank Our Creator for allowing us this beauty and opportunity.   Each of us scattered tobacco on the North Shore of Lake Superior.  Frankie and Amirah couldn’t get enough of the Lake—Amirah even dipped her toes in it.  Catching our breath after the stunning colors and light of a Lake Superior sunset, we began our journey home.

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