Youth Change Agents At Work

Adults do not always realize how perceptive young people are, says Dayo Harris (right), MEd Literacy, Language and Culture student and 4th-7th grade teacher of social justice and writing at Village Leadership Academy (VLA) on Chicago’s near south side.  Sometimes young adults do not have the language to express their full understanding of the current events around them.

Harris and fellow College student Kisha Milam Brooks, PhD Policy Studies in Urban Education, have built a service learning curriculum at VLA in grades K-7 emphasizing to students their ability to engage and impact public policy through a Dean’s Community Engagement Grant from the College of Education.

“If they can understand how systems are connected, how systems are constructed, they can understand how systems can be deconstructed,” Harris said. “This all hones student problem-solving skills, critical thinking and their ability to network and see themselves as agents of change, not just theoretically and hearing about change but beginning to do that, being the change.”

Service learning lessons were student-led, with facilitation from the classroom teacher.  Brooks, Harris and her fellow teachers led students in identifying a community issue to focus on.  Two common themes emerged:  neighborhood littering and noise pollution.  Other groups studied the school-to-prison pipeline, the impact of gang violence and the steps to mitigate homelessness.  Students met with Chicago aldermen and state lawmakers in Springfield to present their reports and advocate for specific resolution steps.  Students involved in addressing the issue of littering worked with their local alderman to ensure ample garbage and recycling bins were placed throughout the community, while another class cleaned the streets and green space of a neighborhood and park.

“Since our students come from lower socioeconomic status, these activities help prevent them from internalizing oppression,” Harris said.  “If poverty can feel like a weight, you have to understand how those weights have been placed, and then you can understand how it can be undone, and you have an obligation to take the weight off.”

The lesson brought benefits beyond student growth in self-representation.  Brooks (right) said the opportunity for teachers to collaborate built a sense of camaraderie and synergy within the teaching team and provided a public foundation for the social justice curriculum the school advocates.  For parents, the lessons provided a forum outside of parent-teacher conferences to interact with students and teachers in a formal school setting.

“There are a lot of different ways to engage community members and leaders and bring them to the table and hold them accountable, but when they see little five, six, seven or eight-year-olds in their office, they realize they are also constituents, and it makes them think, ‘These are my future voters, I need to pay attention to what their needs are,’” Brooks said.