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South s.t.a.r.t. Presents “Youth Telling” Workshop at the 2013 Overcoming Racism Conference

November 18, 2013

S.t.a.r.t. students Lamia Abukhadra, Amirah Ellison, Kyra Hood, Loren Towle and Shira Breen presented their workshop “Youth Telling: Why We Need to Get it Right (Not White)” on Saturday, November 16th at the 2013 Overcoming Racism Conference.  S.t.a.r.t. members Vivi Grieco, Etta Harkness-Bartholdi and Eva Shellabarger also attended the workshop.  This year’s conference theme was “Truth Telling.”

Lamia opened the presentation with an overview of s.t.a.r.t., sharing that s.t.a.r.t. has a focus of encouraging self-pride and understanding of one’s own racial identity along with valuing the cultural assets of others. She used an image of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s current seal, adopted in 1780, as an example of how historical myths still perpetuate racism. “In the photo,” Lamia said, “you have your stereotypical American Indian man saying ‘Come On Over and Help Us’ to the white settlers.” She pointed out that in reality, the settlers didn’t want the Native people to acculturate—they passed a law in 1789 prohibiting teaching our Native people how to read or write under the penalty of death.

Students Amirah Ellison, Shira Breen and Kyra Hood talked more about distortions in textbooks. Kyra described how Helen Keller was presented as a person with a disability more than she was understood to be a radical socialist who helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union to promote free speech. Amirah made the audience laugh as she talked about how John Brown—the abolitionist who believed armed revolt was the only way to defeat slavery—was visualized and described at different levels of sanity, having slowly regained his sanity in our present time (even though he’s dead)! Amirah also talked about how the ethno-centrism in our Thanksgiving tradition actually censors cultural narratives: Frank James of the Wampanoags was selected to give a speech, but when he wrote truthfully about the genocide of his people and how their way of life and language were decimated, they would not allow him to speak. Finally, Shira spoke to how we take events of consequence such as the Gettysburg Address, and rather than seek to understand their deeper content, focus instead on trivial details such as Lincoln’s handwriting.

Loren spoke to the importance of finding pieces of literature like The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell that bring humor along with perspective to the study of history. He shared an excerpt of the book, describing English Protestant theologian Roger Williams as having “seemingly teenager behavior—past his tendency toward fussy and abrasive theological scrutiny, past his loopy Christian navel-gazing, past his grating inability to make any of the small, charitable compromises in getting along with other people.” Loren pointed out how even in such a thoughtful and creative approach, the author was sensitive to cultural details, but still discounted youth by describing Williams’ approach as “teenage” behavior!

The students moved to the next part of their session, an opportunity to watch how, in the moment, we distort cultural narratives as we pass the story and details through our own cultural lens. The workshop attendees broke into two groups to play the “phone game” with an edit of Dr. Tom Peacock’s personal memory from his book To Be Free: Understanding and Eliminating Racism. (Thanks to Afton Historical Society press, the publisher of To Be Free, each workshop attendee was given a copy of the book to take home.) Following the quiet passing of the story, attendees considered how their own values and perceptions played into how they chose to pass on the story. They talked together about how it felt to be the teller—then to “receive” the story. They also discussed how the story shifted as it was passed, becoming smaller but holding onto just a few details and lessons from the original narrative. After each group completed the activity, the full group of attendees came together to talk about the true story. In the story, young children who bully one of Dr. Peacock’s peers grow up to become the city leaders, while the young girl bullied died young. When hearing the story, most tend to assume that the young girl committed suicide and that the city leaders have remained corrupt. However, in reality, the young girl died of an illness (most likely an outcome of historical trauma). And Dr. Peacock, in a conversation with Amirah, told her that the city leaders learned from their abusive behavior and grew up to become thoughtful leaders.

The students wrapped up their session by a discussion of ways that teachers can make classroom lessons much more engaging for youth. They urged teachers to have students seek information from many sources, to use the power of story to bring depth to cultural lessons and to encourage students to critique their own lessons and what they are learning.

Towards the end of the workshop, one of our workshop attendees, Nekima Levy-Pounds (the Conference’s keynote speaker on Friday, November 15th) told the students that their work was very powerful and should be adopted in every school. Another attendee said, “We have to get you in front of an audience of 30-50 teachers, so that you can share this material with them!” Also exciting was that people who did not attend our workshop stopped by to get copies of our materials. The students had a great experience and are having success with teaching the public one of their core values: the importance of student-led efforts to inform cultural competence in teaching!

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