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A Crash Course in Social Justice

Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

Some students at Mount Vernon High School have spent a couple of weeks this month stepping out of their comfort zones. They’ve traveled to nearby Cedar Rapids to meet people they would otherwise not encounter in the hallways of their almost entirely white school.

Outside the Mission of Hope in Cedar Rapids, the temperature is in single digits. Inside, the kitchen is warmed by steaming dishwashing water. It’s just past lunch time, and Mount Vernon High students are helping clean up. They’re enrolled in a social justice class that has taken them out of their traditional classrooms and onto city streets. Eighteen-year-old senior Nicole Margheim says it’s been quite an experience.

“It’s been really eye-opening to be somewhere where people look different, people talk different, people have different experiences because we all come from the same place in Mount Vernon," she says. "So it’s refreshing.”

The Mount Vernon School District is a rarity in Iowa. It offers a so-called “J-Term” during January for high school students. It’s a 12-day break from normal academic activity so students can pursue a number of other interests, anything from filmmaking to automobile maintenance. English teacher Leigh Ann Erickson thought, in an age of income inequality, it would be valuable to offer a class on social justice. Twenty-eight students signed up. The class explores race, poverty and the prison system in America. Erickson says the most meaningful lessons come when students go out to meet the people directly touched by these issues.

“If we don’t spend time with people who are different from us, if we don’t get to know people who are different from us then, through no fault of our own, we become afraid of people who are different from us," she says. "And it’s that fear that leads to anger, and I think it’s that anger that leads to injustice.”

Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio
Mount Vernon High English teacher Leigh Ann Erickson is introducing students to people unlike themselves as part of a class in social justice.

As part of the class, students have prepared and served meals at Mission of Hope. They’ve started food and clothing drives at their school. They visited the African-American Museum in Cedar Rapids and they’ve met a range of people from ex-cons to hip-hop artists. This style of hands-on learning may very well have changed the course of 16-year-old junior Alyssa Maddocks’ life.

“It’s really inspired me to grow up and help these people," she says. "And I’ve decided to be involved in the psychological aspect of this and to grow up help like we’re helping them.”

The young people are even compiling material for a book. They’re titling it “Humans of Cedar Rapids,” modeled after the popular series of essays and photographs called “Humans of New York.” With video camera in hand, they simply approach people they don’t know and start asking questions. For 17-year-old junior Bailey Priborsky, the project has been revelatory.

“We listen to people’s stories and every time I’m surprised by what I’m told," she says. "I never expected all of these people to have such deep pasts that I never would have guessed when I first met them.”

Back at school in Mount Vernon, the students meet with local spoken-word poet Christian Roth and rapper Carlos Sims. They urge the young people to write about what they saw at Mission of Hope. Alyssa Maddocks reads from one of the resulting poems.

Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio
A Mount Vernon High student works on rap lyrics based on her experience at a Cedar Rapids mission.

“People walk through the line thanking us for putting food on their plates when food on your plate should be a right guaranteed to every person. You are more than the worst thing that has happened to you. People judge you based on your appearance, people see your appearance, but they don’t take the time to know your personality. You are more than the worst thing that has ever happened to you. . . .”

Alyssa says she has just one regret about the class in social justice, two weeks was too short a time. As for teacher Leigh Ann Erickson, she says watching her students engage with people who are less fortunate has made her stronger and braver.