I teach civics at Gage Park High School for Chicago Public Schools.
I've done a lot in my career, won the awards, got the pats on the back, but nothing has prepared me for what is about to happen to my students and I am so incredibly proud I just had to share.
Every year I ask my students what will be the topic of their civics project. Year after year I get the same answer (guns, drugs or gangs). But at the start of 08-09 school year my students couldn't decide. I told them this shouldn't be a problem, they lived in a neighborhood with a long history of activism. After all, Dr. King walked within a block or two of our school.
And my student basically called me a liar.
More after the jump...
He argued with me for five minutes or so and I asked him why he was arguing about something so demonstrably true.
And he said: "If it was true, there would be a sign or something".
Out of the mouths of babes. There would be a sign or something. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
"That's your project" I told him and my students took off.
My students researched what happened in the summer of 1966 and the issues surrounding equal housing rights for two months (Author Rick Perlstein was our first guest speaker, who shared sections of Nixonland that discussed the housing marches of 1966 - my eternal gratitude Rick). Then they took two months to come up with a design for a memorial that they would want in their community.
And here is where people began to fall in love with them and their ideas.
If you're like me, when you think memorial, you think fountain, statue, garden, plaque.
My students said they wanted a wi-fi interactive kiosk where they could download oral histories, documents, video, etc. from the equal housing marches led by Dr. King in 1966.
Everyone we talked to were so intrigued by the idea, that lobbying became second nature to my students. All I had to do was put them in front of an elected official and within 5 minutes, heads began to nod.
We met with Aldermen, State Rep's and State Sen's, even Sec. of State Jesse White came to our class. We lobbied everyone we could get an appointment with. By the end of the 08-09 school year, my students had won a "Heroes in the Hood" award from the DuSable Museum of African American History and an award from the MIKVA Challenge for "Best Community Organizing Project" at the city wide civics fair.
Oh, I suppose here is where I tell you my school has a 50% dropout rate and close to 80% of kids are below grade level. For many, my school is the picture postcard of what an inner city school looks like: low scores, high poverty (over 90% get free lunches), gang violence, you name it we deal with it.
But despite the lack of resources, despite the talk of failing schools and all that political claptrap, my principal, my colleagues, we soldier on. And if you want to know why, well, all you have to do is believe that the kid in front of you can make a difference. A real difference. That, given the opportunity, they can shine. And boy have my students shone for 2 years in a row now.
Then the 09-10 year began and would you believe about a dozen kids from the year before were back in my class. They felt the project wasn't over. They won the awards, but there was still no memorial.
Where was their kiosk?
In the fall of 09, my students' idea became a year long course offered at the Illinois Institute of Technology, (the I-PRO Program) where engineering and computer science students formed a team of "consultants" who treated my students like "clients" and turned their ideas into arhitectual drafts for a full blown museum.
They continued to lobby. They conducted oral history interviews. I even did several sessions on copyright permission and they started asking TV stations and newspapers. Rare color photographs were donated (special thanks to Bernie Kleina of Hope FAIR housing and his amazing collection).
And then the miracle happened.
The year before we had lobbied the Alderman in whose ward Marquette Park sits (Alderman Lona Lane). Nearly ten months without speaking to her and she surprised us with a call. She had met a man who owned a kiosk company and she told him of our idea (she remembered, after all that time god bless her, she remembered).
Next thing we know, George Burciaga, CEO of SmarTechs is donating a $20,000 kiosk to our project and the time of his staff to turn our content into a kiosk.
Deadline was 60 days away. My kids worked like they were possessed. After school, days off, Saturdays, Sundays, they worked and met the deadline.
The kiosk went into production while we started lobbying the Parks Department for permission. Red tape was cut (thanks again Alderman Lane) and a date was chosen.
The last day of the year, the day before graduation. Just in tme for the kids who ha worked so hard for so long. June 11, 2010. June 11, from 12 noon to 1:30 pm. Marquette Park Field House. 67 and Kedzie (come on by!) And if you are a journalist or a TV station, come on by!! This is the best feel good story of the year.
The first officially sanctioned civil rights memorial commenorating the housing marches of 1966 in Marquette Park will be the product of high school kids. Cool, eh?
Today I am no longer a teacher. Now I am an event coordinator (I am a much better teacher, believe me). I oversee the sending of invites, development of a program and who speaks when and after and before whom, the writing of press releases.
Who would have believed it? All I wanted to do was to show kids how to interact with decision makers, maybe lobby about something they felt strongly about.
But Alderman Lane and George Burciaga turned my class into so much more. Today my kids are historians, video editors, interviewers, content deliverers. They are activists who have forever changed their community.
Imagine. Something adults have tried to do for 30+ years is finally accomplished by a group of 16 year olds.
Then the RSVP's started coming in.
Today, I got a fax from Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. It says he "graciously accepts your invitation".
Hundreds marched; there were leaders in every facet of the '66 marches, but of the big four, Rev. King, Rev. Abernathy, Al Raby, and Rev. Jackson? Only Rev. Jackson is still with us.
And he is coming to celebrate the achievement of inner-city high school kids that most of America never would have guessed they had it in them.
Then the gates came down and civil rights legend Kale Williams RSVP'd. Then another and another, and I don't know who will RSVP by Monday. But this is turning into a very big deal.
So all I can say is that I am proud of my students.
They have made a difference for everyone in our community, but most importantly they did something for the next generation who will never have to say "There would be sign or something."