‘Keep talking’: Educators witness strength, advocacy at Social Justice Summer Camp

Joseph Flynn
Joseph Flynn

They were different women of different ages, sitting in different rooms, hearing different words on different subjects at different times.

Yet their response – their natural, human reaction – was the same. The proverbial lumps in the throat, the moisture of not-quite-yet tears misting their eyes, the quivering lips.

And as they raised their hands to speak, neither seemed to know exactly what was prompting their mutual feelings.

“I’m not sure why I’m so emotional,” both began.

For one, it was the courage of three students from DeKalb High School, all from the LGBTQ community, all willing to share their sometimes terrifying experiences with adult strangers. For the other, it was an all-consuming and overwhelming realization of just how mammoth and difficult is the task of being an educator who truly works for social justice.

“Until we stop saying, ‘Oh, I did the curriculum. I did what I was supposed to do,’ ” warned Mike Manderino, a camp counselor and speaker whose presentation elicited that second understanding, “then we perpetuate the inequities.”

Such discomfort is a goal, however, of the NIU College of Education’s annual Social Justice Summer Camp.

More than 125 educators, mostly from DeKalb Community Unit School District 428 and Elgin’s U-46, spent the week of June 10 on the NIU campus in an immersive and intensive challenge to their thinking, their misconceptions, their privilege, their practices and more.

Melanie Koss
Melanie Koss

Launched in 2017 by Department of Curriculum and Instruction faculty, the camp works to create inclusive education by removing implicit bias, eliminating the influence of privilege on school policy and, ultimately, resolving systemic issues of racism, sexism and discrimination against one’s gender identity, sexual orientation or religious background.

Joseph Flynn, who founded the camp with NIU colleague James Cohen and former colleague Manderino, wants to ensure that schools are places where students feel safe and respected in their identity, challenged with high expectations and supported in working to become their best selves.

Greeting some campers for the third time, and hearing their plans to return next summer for Year Four, gives him optimism.

“We’re really touching people. We’re pushing conversations, and encouraging school districts to think broadly about how their curriculum, their policies and their teaching methods impact all students,” Flynn says.

“And that ‘all students’ part is the most important,” he adds. “When people hear terms like ‘social justice,’ ‘equity’ and ‘equality,’ many immediately assume, ‘You want to take something away from my kid,’ or, ‘This is all about minority students.’ But that’s not the truth. This is all about all students.”

Campers are confronted with mountains of research and statistics on the dire reality of unjust conditions in classrooms, schools and communities – and are eager to engage with questions and comments that lay bare the raw honesty of each topic.

Campers were eager to share their stories and to contribute to the sometimes difficult conversations.
Campers were eager to share their stories and to contribute to the sometimes difficult conversations on social justice.

Packing spaces in Graham, Gabel and New Residence halls, and sometimes dragging chairs over from nearby classrooms or just sitting on the floor, they rarely seemed ready for the hour-long sessions to end, remaining in discussion past “the bell” while their fellow campers lined up at the door for the next period.

Each hour and each topic brought helpful definitions, new vocabulary, reading lists, powerful quotes, YouTube recommendations and, of course, endless aha moments.

“Who is represented in your classroom library? Conducting a diversity audit.” “Valuing all varieties of language.” “Intersectionality 101: The Power of Inclusion.” “How do I teach for and about social justice?” “Literacy instruction as an act of social justice.” “Expectations and Courageous Conversations: Perspectives from Parents and Community.” “The quest for humanity.” “All’s my life I had to fight: Understanding and engaging hip-hop for social justice (the remix).”

Ariel Owens, assistant director of Women and Gender Programs at NIU’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, encouraged campers to demonstrate intersectional support by becoming role models of humanness and kindness.

Melanie Koss, an associate professor of Literacy Education at NIU, cautioned campers to beware of nostalgia in the books they assign or offer in their libraries; Koss revealed her own recent heartbreak regarding Dr. Seuss, which necessitated changing the name of her dog, and her jaw-dropping reread of “Little House on the Prairie” as an adult.

Corrine Wickens, also an associate professor of Literacy Education, reminded campers that “sexuality does not equal sex” and, therefore, should not prohibit developmentally appropriate curriculum about sexual orientation and gender identity. Her presentation included advice for responding to parents who think differently.

Flynn played the much-sampled James Brown “Funky Drummer” beat, showed the history of hip hop, explained hip hop culture’s “five pillars” and explored the genre’s power, relevancy and effectiveness in teaching youth.

DeKalb High School students lead a panel discussion.
DeKalb High School students lead a panel discussion.

DeKalb High School’s student panelists – two are transgender and one is pansexual – offered campers a list of forceful changes they can make immediately this fall.

Normalize the asking of pronouns. Understand the significance and responsibilities of posting an “ally” flag on your classroom door. State clearly to all of your classes that LGBTQ persons exist now and throughout history. Take a stand – and the lead – in rebuking negative words.

Their stories of being booed during school assemblies, taunted in the bathrooms, excluded from locker rooms and bullied without consequences – educators must intervene during such times, they pleaded, even if it’s to just say “stop” – clearly touched nerves in the room.

“Keep talking! Keep talking!” one camper urged the panel. “My daughter is in high school, and I hope your generation figures it out.”

“We have to keep talking,” the transgender male on the panel responded. “We have to keep putting up that fight against discrimination and against hateful words we will hear later in life.”

Corrine Wickens
Corrine Wickens

Gwendolyn Brooks Elementary SchoolPrincipal Andria Mitchell, attending the camp for her third year, appreciated the four-day exploration of “intersectionality and the continuum of diversity.”

“I like that it gives us practical ways to implement social justice in our schools,” Mitchell said. “It challenges us and stretches us beyond what we’re used to, so I feel I’ve grown in that area.”

Teachers from Mitchell’s DeKalb District 428 school building – or any school building – gain something exponential from participating, she added.

“They have a direct impact on our students’ learning,” she said, “and it’s important that they have that cultural competency so that our students feel they’re a part of a greater community and that they’re being set up for success wherever they go in life.”

Elgin High School math teacher Timothy Kolanko, a first-year camper, felt a great responsibility to attend the Social Justice Summer Camp.

“I’m a white male, and the school I work at is predominantly Hispanic – over 70 percent are Hispanic – and most, almost 75 percent, are low-income, so I think it’s important to try to meet the needs of the students in my building,” Kolanko said. “Being able to talk to the other people who’ve had different experiences has been definitely enlightening.”

He hopes that he and his fellow Elgin High School teachers who came to NIU can “spark a conversation” throughout the school this fall.

Ariel Owens
Ariel Owens

“A lot of people in my building probably understand that they should be more competent in these issues but may be uncomfortable with just having the conversation,” Kolanko said. “My department’s predominantly white, so they might have issues talking about race or class.”

For Alyssa Sprovieri, a learning behavior specialist in the Emotional Support Program of Naperville Central High School, advocating for more LGBTQ inclusion in the curriculum is Job No. 1.

Sprovieri called the camp a valuable experience in her plans to make that happen in District 203.

“We need to be constantly challenged and reminded that our struggles are not the struggles of our students, and if they are, there’s always more to learn about current practice and research,” she said.

“The quality of the presenters is exceptional,” she added, “and the community among the campers is wonderful. We’ve learned so much from one another. There’s a diversity in position and background.”

Flynn is encouraged by the feedback, as he is of the talk spurred by the camp: He loved hosting a full-camp screening of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” which prompted a spirited discussion until nearly midnight.

He also knows that he, Cohen and Manderino are up to the challenge of keeping the Social Justice Summer Camp fresh, relevant and cutting-edge year after year for returnees. Watching the veteran campers in action proves it, he says.

“They really enrich our conversations. They are people who understand how things go down, and have ultimately become leaders themselves,” Flynn says. “We really love and appreciate that.”

Hello from Social Justice Summer Camp 3.0!
Hello from Social Justice Summer Camp 3.0!
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