Social Justice Summer Camp 2.0 pushes educators to confront issues of diversity

James Cohen, Michael Manderino, Joseph Flynn and David Stovall
James Cohen, Michael Manderino, Joseph Flynn and David Stovall

Participants in last summer’s debut of NIU’s Social Justice Summer Campgave James CohenJoseph Flynnand Michael Manderino a clear directive as they departed for home.

Please, please do this again.

And so they did, even if they had planned to wait until 2019.

Year 2, held in June, went on to top its predecessor with livelier discussions and powerful speakers.

“Our campers had high expectations of us, and I think we met those expectations,” says Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. “I wasn’t going to bed until midnight; Mike and Joe were going to bed a two o’clock in the morning. The teachers still wanted to talk. They were that hungry. It was quite remarkable.”

“I thought the camp this year was fabulous. It was a step beyond our inaugural year,” adds Flynn, also an associate professor in Curriculum and Instruction and associate director of Academic Affairs at the NIU Center for Black Studies.

“We had approximately 90 participants, up from 56 last year. The profile of the camp grew. Demand for the camp grew greatly, and there was even more demand for a third camp,” says Flynn, who first proposed the concept. “That alone made it wildly successful in our eyes.”

Like last year, teachers and other staff members came from DeKalb Community Unit School District 428 and Elgin School District U-46 for a candid and nonjudgmental exploration of multiculturalism, privilege, identity, oppression and more.

J.Q. Adams
J.Q. Adams

J.Q. Adams, Professor Emeritus at Western Illinois University, also returned for his second year as a keynote speaker.

New presenters this year included Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, an award-winning playwright, actor, producer and educator who opened the camp with her one-woman show, “One Drop of Love,” an autobiographical sketch on her life as a biracial woman. “The performance was so beautiful,” Cohen says, “so powerful.”

David Stovall, professor of Educational Policy Studies and African-American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, also made his camp debut.

Movies in the camp’s popular film series – the cause of those wee-hours conversations and open doors in New Hall rooms – included “Baltimore Rising” and “King in the Wilderness,” a 2018 documentary about the last three years of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.

“After I screened ‘Baltimore Rising,’ about the uprising in Baltimore after the killing of Freddie Gray, we sat around for another hour just talking about officer-involved shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement vs. All Lives Matter,” Flynn says. “We were teasing out those dynamics and what they mean for us as a society, for us as educators and teachers and for us as individuals as well.”

The current U.S. political climate behooves the professors to continue offering the camp, Cohen says.

“Racism and discrimination have risen to such a level that teachers are hungry to understand this and to learn how to counteract it in their classrooms,” he says.

“After the election a year-and-a-half ago, students would come to their teachers crying, saying, ‘Are my parents going to be deported?’ or ‘Am I going to be deported?’ ” he adds.

“Whenever I ask teachers while I’m working in the schools, or teaching master’s-level coursework, ‘How many students came to you?’ – every single one of them raises their hand. Every single one. It’s instilled a lot of fear in culturally and linguistically diverse students, and we need to counteract all of this hate and misinformation spreading.”

Marcus Croom presenting “Developing Racial Literacies: Discussing the Consequential Social Practice View of Race.”
Marcus Croom presenting “Developing Racial Literacies: Discussing the Consequential Social Practice View of Race.”

Jennie Hueber, director of curriculum and instruction for District 428, believes that the NIU camp complements the ongoing effort in DeKalb to write a district diversity plan.

“The camp is just a way for us to really immerse ourselves in social justice, and it fits quite well with the work we’re doing here,” Hueber says.

“We talked about culturally responsive teaching, culturally responsive pedagogy, respecting and honoring a student’s humanity, no matter where they’re from or what they bring to the table,” she says. “There were moments when I felt very uncomfortable as a white, privileged woman, but that’s OK – it’s from that that I’m growing.”

DeKalb teachers returned to their classrooms energized, revitalized and equipped with more “funds of knowledge” and free resources to teach concepts of tolerance, she adds.

“We are embedding social justice standards within our curriculum and content,” Hueber says. “We are changing the anchor text that our students read so that they are more reflective of our diverse student population.”

Monthly activities will continue the conversation, she adds, on topics such as implicit bias: “How is implicit bias impacting decisions you make, how you interact with your students and how you interact with your students’ families?”

Such choices will create ripples and waves beyond District 428, she adds.

“Why push, and do the right thing?” she asks. “It’s because of our students and their needs that we need to be doing this. A school community is just a microcosm of our DeKalb community, of our state, of our country.”

James Cohen, Violet Tafari, Michael Manderino, Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, Joseph Flynn
James Cohen, Violet Tafari, Michael Manderino,
Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, Joseph Flynn

Ron Raglin, assistant superintendent for Educational Support Programs and Alignment in U-46, calls issues of social justice and equity “kind of in my DNA.”

Growing up in “a gang-infested, drug-infested neighborhood on the South Side,” Raglin triumphed over his surroundings with the support of an afterschool program that complemented the efforts of his parents.

“Unfortunately, many youth are not as fortunate. They don’t have a support structure that teaches them how to keep things together in spite of systemic, structural and intentional racism that ‘haunts you by day and hurries you by night,’ ” he says.

“We as adults have to do better. We have to be willing to step into the ‘gaps’ on behalf of students, and to advocate for equity and social justice,” he adds. “The NIU Social Justice Summer Camp exposes and examines, enlightens and enlists and equips and empowers the participants to provide the needed bridges for the ‘chasms’ that show up in students’ lives, especially students of color.”

He and Cohen, who have known each other for years, have conducted large social justice trainings at Bartlett and Streamwood high schools for hundreds of teachers. Raglin, Cohen and Flynn also stage year-round sessions throughout the Elgin district.

Proximity and affordability make the NIU camp a must-attend event, he says.

“I’m a big proponent of indigenous leadership and institutions that are grounded in the local, anthropological realities of people. It is both impractical and unwise to get on a plane with 47 other U-46 community members to go somewhere else in the country for training,” Raglin says.

“The Social Justice Summer Camp helps ground us historically in equity and social justice so that people cannot deny it. Here it was – and here it is. How do we respond to it? What do we want to happen? I’ve never had this level of authentic, transparent conversation,” he adds. “I can’t tell you how fired up the U-46 delegation is as we come into a new school year. A concrete example is that our Call to EQUITY Committee has mushroomed to 50-plus participants and counting.”

Joseph Flynn
Joseph Flynn

Coming to DeKalb also helps them to begin narrowing the achievement gap by first working to close “the opportunity gap.”

Forty-two percent of African-American students in U-46, for example, are in special education; by contrast, only 11 percent are in Advanced Placement classes.

“This is not a unique dilemma to just School District U-46,” Raglin says. “The NIU Social Justice Summer Camp pushes us beyond the social level to the deeper issues surrounding educational inequities that show up in disproportionality in enrollment of students of color in Advanced Placement, gifted, AVID, magnet programs, international baccalaureate, etc. This is where we find the stubborn realities of race and privilege.”

But teachers must accept that all cultures and ethnicities are gifted, Raglin adds, and need to aim for what he calls the “go” lane rather than “no,” “slow” or “flow lanes.” People in the “go” lane are very conscious of inequity and are trying to do something about it, he says.

“I say, ‘Hey, folks, here are the numbers. Here are the methods I use. Now, what are we going to do? What’s going to be our action?’ Our students only have one shot at this, and there is a fierce urgency right now,” Raglin says.

NIU’s camp also supports U-46 teachers in self-reflection, he says.

Teachers, like administrators and professors at the college level, don’t necessarily live in the same ZIP codes as students of color – and their experiences around people of color are limited, he says.

“As a result,” he says, “blind spots show up in classrooms at all levels around issues from race and ethnicity to sexual orientation and socioeconomic status. And many admit that they had ‘never thought about this.’ ”

Having taught Asian students during his 15 years teaching at the high school level in California, “it was a breath of fresh air to hear they myth about Asian students,” Raglin adds. “We’re grounded in the history of Asian students – the pressure on Asian students, Asians getting favorable treatment, Asians being held up as the model minority – whereas some are suffering in silence. They don’t want to be a doctor or an engineer. They just want to go paint.”

Revelations such as those are exactly why NIU provides the camp and will continue to do so as the professors leave just as energized and optimistic as the campers they’re working to reach.

“It shows me that this society will improve, that not everybody is close-minded, that not everybody is myopic,” Cohen says. “It gives me hope that the future can be multilingual and multicultural and multiethnic and open, and not just tolerant but accepting.”

“It’s not necessarily about giving teachers a binder full of lessons on social justice. It’s about gaining a little more knowledge and perspective, and it’s about seeing different problems, and even old problems, in different ways,” Flynn says. “It’s about knowing that there is a growing community of like-minded educators, and knowing that education is the space our community must use to understand what it means to be a democratic citizen in this great republic.”

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