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Certified PreK-6. Masters in Child Development. Advocate for play, teacher & children choice, & the family's voice. Believe in volunteering as social justice.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Learning by Doing: The Education of Social Justice

Every January I am fortunate to be able to to lead one of the project sites for Chicago Cares Celebration of Service. This is an annual event that connects volunteers and social service agencies to honor Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy and to further promote his messages of hope, peace, and social justice. Throughout the city, volunteers work alongside colleagues and friends both old and new to provide small pieces of beauty to these agencies by creating mosaics and murals, freshening up a hallway with a new coat of paint, or by building benches and cubbies. The volunteers also come together to bring a little joy to the various senior citizens, adults with special rights, and children who receive services from these agencies.

As I gathered the 70 volunteers for instructions in the morning, I told them that I believe that social justice is not a choice, that it is our responsibility of members of a broader community. As I described the different projects we would be doing that day I could see that there was some hesitation from various people. Including my three volunteer leaders who would be leading each individual project. As leaders, we had all attended training and knew the scope of the day's projects, but there was still a bit of hesitation among them regarding actually leading and completing the projects.

One of the projects involved the volunteers, a large majority who were high school students, organizing and leading crafts, party games, and dancing for the adults with special rights who attend day programs at the agency. For many people, this is a population of citizens whom people don't know how to approach due to fear and uncertainty. I watched as the leader of this project sent the volunteers off to lead various activities and how many of the volunteers stayed around the perimeter of the party unsure of how to interact with the clients. As I made my rounds I reminded the volunteers that these adults were just like them in that they want conversation and fun and to be respected. I then watched as the clients started to approach the activities and the volunteers. They were excited about the party and were not going to let inhibitions keep them from enjoying it. And this, the clients themselves, is what drew the volunteers in. All my talking isn't what made the day run happily or provided the volunteers with a new perspective and experience. It was not until the volunteers and the clients began to interact and engage in a shared experience did the volunteers learn something about interacting with those who appear different.

My other two leaders were elsewhere in the building leading volunteers in the creation of mosaics and murals. Tasks that I learned they had never done and were quite nervous about leading. In particular, one of my leaders was having a bit of a panic over how long the act of breaking and laying tiles was taking and how they would ever get to the grouting stage. I took him aside and encouraged him to take a breath (and go watch the joyful party happening upstairs!). When he came back I went over the steps for grouting again and reassured him that it was a faster process then the tile laying and that the mosaics would be left to dry over the remainder of the weekend at the site. I left to do some other tasks and came back to find the tiles laid and the grout being applied. The leader had a visibly calmer look on his face and shared how he was more confident now that he had done the task. After much worrying over the abstract pieces of the task, the act of doing it made it less scary.

And isn't this what good education entails? The act of doing. The act of trying new things even when scared and unsure. What I expected of my leaders and volunteers is what we expect of our students every day. We expect them to have trust in our guidance and in their own willingness to jump into the unknown.

Ultimately, we do service because it is our right and responsibility to push for social justice in our communities. Those that we serve enjoy the process and the end results, but in the end, it is those who are doing the volunteering that are learning and growing. And so we should engage in social justice. But we also should remember that we are not doing it purely out of an altruistic good, we are also doing it to grow our own selves.

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