Friday, July 14, 2006

Social Justice School offers history and activism

From the streets to the classroom

Social justice school offers summer course in history and activism. Austin, Texas

By Juan Castillo
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Monday, July 10, 2006

On a sticky day in April at the University of Texas, Luis Orozco, a diminutive, fist-pumping dynamo from Lanier High School, lit a fire under a crowd more than 2,000 strong, the vast majority his elders.

At a rally with a parade of speakers, Orozco railed against a U.S. House bill retroactively making all illegal immigrants subject to felony charges.

"We are not going to stay quiet anymore," Orozco, who will be a junior in the fall, would say later.

Emboldened by their participation in this spring's eruption of protests over proposed crackdowns on illegal immigration, he and other high school students wondered what would come next. Orozco and about a dozen others are finding the answer in a classroom far from that emotionally pulsating scene at UT, a new Social Justice Summer School designed to provide insight into historical social struggles and to instill skills to organize for change.

The six-week school at Lanier, which ends this month, has a small, diverse group of U.S.- and foreign-born students spending weekday afternoons confronting topics rarely covered in depth, or at all, in high school: prejudice and racial hatred, and stains on American history such as slavery and segregation.

By the time it's over, the class will have explored heady topics: the civil rights movement, the United Farm Workers labor movement, assimilation and acculturation, poverty and barriers to economic success, to name a few.

Students, not all of whom participated in the demonstrations, are there on their own time, not for high school credit.

According to its lead sponsor, the nonprofit Austin Voices for Education and Youth, the school grew out of conversations with some of the hundreds of area middle school and high school students who protested proposals to clamp down on illegal immigration.

Though supported by many, student protesters came under much public criticism for missing classes. Others complained, too, that students weren't fully able to articulate their message.

"Oh, yeah, a lot of the kids were just going with the flow," said Alfredo Santos, the school's coordinator, who says he has been a community activist for 38 years.

Santos said that at the height of the protests, he and veterans of the Chicano movement noticed a need.

"We commented that this is all emotion here, but at some point it's going to have to make a switch to some basic social justice 101-type stuff," said Santos, who successfully pitched the idea of a school to Amy Averett, director of Austin Voices for Education and Youth.

The nonprofit group works with community members, students, parents and educators to improve schools and neighborhoods.In 2005, with the Austin school district, it was host of community forums to gather input on redesigning and improving Austin high schools.

Social justice school instructors, including visiting college professors, teach U.S. history with a focus on social issues. They don't espouse ideological views, instead encouraging students to think critically.

"We want to also encourage young people to be politically active and active in decision-making, and one of the quickest ways to turn them off of that is to tell them what to think," Averett said.

At its heart, the school is intended to keep alive the intellectual curiosity that drove student participation, said Tim Eubanks,a community organizer with Austin Voices and, with Santos, an instructor in the social justice school.

"One of the things we've always found is that when students are engaged and take action, that lifts all boats in their lives," Eubanks said.

A typical class meets for a total of about 7 1/2 hours a week and combines instruction, lots of questions and free-flowing, unyielding conversations.

On a recent afternoon, virtually the entire canvas of U.S. history and race relations framed the lesson, with Santos and Eubanks finding common threads in how social justice movements such as the fight for civil rights formed, why they were necessary and why change was slow. Students offered examples of racism they'd witnessed or seen on the news: an incident at a local grocery store, motives attributed to the government's delayed response to Hurricane Katrina.

Many social movements were born when segments of society resisted change, said Santos, adding that similar experiences can be found in today's debate over illegal immigration.

"My opinion, it has to do with fear," he said. "The country is changing, and it's changing very quickly."

The next day, the instructional centerpiece, a documentary on 1970s efforts to desegregate schools in Boston, recalled an ugly era of racial violence, when the N-word was a commonly used weapon of hate. White residents strongly resisted court-ordered busing that sent black students into their schools. The courts later assumed oversight of Boston public schools.

Eubanks said the documentary captured how students and parents in black neighborhoods succeeded in improving the quality of their education.

"It showed that change happens when people help make change happen," Eubanks said.

Orozco is trying to make things happen at Lanier.

"He's a natural-born leader," said Principal Edmund Oropez, citing the 18-year-old's involvement in school discussions to energize the PTA and to end isolation of Spanish-speaking immigrants in separate classrooms.

Having emigrated four years ago from the Mexican state of Michoacán, Orozco led a few of his classmates, including twins Eduardo and German Sifuentes, in a March 30 immigration march and protest. The Sifuentes brothers also attend the social justice school.

With a genial smile and self-deprecating humor, as well as a penchant for stirring class conversations, Orozco also is making a mark in the social justice school. He said he was drawn there because he thought it was important to understand the historical contexts of social protest in the United States and why social movements began.

"What I'm seeing now with the movements led by Martin Luther King and César Chávez, they worked because they led them peacefully," Orozco said.

Proposals clamping down on illegal immigrants, which could separate families with members both legally and illegally in the country, awakened Orozco.

"I didn't agree, and as always, I raised my voice and I said it, and I did something about it," he said.

jcastillo@statesman.com; 445-3635



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