Leading Connected Classrooms- Social Justice Mission

This is a guest post from Steve Himes, educator and thought leader from the Kansas City, Missouri area. Steve was a contributor to Leading Connected Classrooms. In this post, Steve talks about how building the right conditions to teach around social justice issues is more important now than ever in our work in connected classrooms. This post is a reflection and expansion on his contribution to the book. 


I teach at a Catholic, all-girls college preparatory academy that requires 60 hours of community service to graduate.  Some of this is done during the summer, but we also set aside a "Service Week" for juniors and seniors to go out into the community and work.  I wrote about a small group of students who volunteered at a food pantry / on-site dental facility that, at the time, also housed a small charter school.  Our students helped tutor the charter students for the state standardized test, using peer editing techniques they learned in our classrooms.


That charter school has since closed, and in the three years since, a declining number of our students are volunteering at organizations across Kansas City's racial dividing line, Troost Avenue--despite the presence of many Catholic and other service organizations in  that part of the city.  Our school is located in the wealthy (read: overwhelming White) area south of the Country Club Plaza, written about extensively in Tanner Colby's Some of My Best Friends are Black.  It's much easier (in many senses of the word) for students to look west into the suburbs for volunteer experiences at hospices, children's hospitals, and similar agencies in the "safe" (in many senses of that word) part of the city.  It seems that the only students volunteering on the "east side" are the ones seeking a specific, to use a euphemism, "multicultural" experience for their service.  Thus, the connections we are making from "White" Kansas City are extending across the state line into "Whiter" suburban Kansas City--and fewer into Black and Hispanic Kansas City.


For an organization with an explicit focus on social justice, we have to make connections across the racial dividing line to begin to erase the racial dividing line.  The Service Week story I wrote about isn't nearly enough--and, in fact, these connections are dwindling.  This is making our city more separate and less equal than it already wasn't.


My dissertation was a combination education research / legal brief on the Supreme Court's Equal Protection jurisprudence concerning the use of racial classifications to assign students to schools.  Basically, the Supreme Court is divided on the issue of whether Brown meant "the Constitution is color blind" versus "the Constitution requires desegregated schools."  I studied several school districts in cities that are still de facto segregated, like Kansas City, and along with other teachers in our social studies and theology departments, I have tried to make students more aware of why Troost is "Troost." 


None of this is really going to land, however, without connecting what they learn in the classroom to actual human beings and not statistics.  Through a quirk in the Kansas City Public Schools massive "right sizing" effort in 2010, there is a 95% Black high school situated here in the neighborhood--in the building that was the White high school during the Brown v. Board era.  Two high schools, separated by 12 blocks, and I know of nobody here--not a single student, administrator, or faculty member (including myself)--who knows a single student, teacher, or administrator at the Black school that most of us White people at private school drive right past everyday.


This has to change.  I'm not sure how to make these connections, but we can't go on like this.  Ferguson, Baltimore--separate cannot be equal, and it certainly isn't here.  Black lives will matter more to my students when they realize that "over there" is a group of kids that are much like them, different in some vital ways, and that we need to reach out to not in a spirit of charity, but of camaraderie.  In his book, Colby tells the story of the decades-long integration of a Louisiana parish.  Eventually, the mistrust and inequality faded into integration through relationship building and inviting people into each other's physical spaces.  Maybe teaching students responsible use of technology is one of the ways that we can help them sustain the relationships that can bind our city as a whole.