Student Community Action Tours: Using the Humanities to Develop Leadership and Inspire Change

Introducing the Tour

Students at Brooklyn’s High School for Enterprise, Business & Technology introduce the Williamsburg Activism Walking Tour, the culminating activity of the Student Community Action Tours (SCAT) project at their school, June 2014. Courtesy National Congress of Neighborhood Women.

By Linda Shopes

In the summer of 2012, middle and high school students in a leadership training program hosted by the advocacy group Asian Americans United in Philadelphia read about local resistance to plans to locate a new Phillies stadium in Chinatown a decade earlier.  They then studied a map of the neighborhood and considered how siting the stadium there might have had different meanings for different groups – people who lived in Chinatown, people who worked there, local government, businesses and real estate companies, and the police, for example.  

Philly Chinatown Stadium Map

In this SCAT mapping exercise, participants considered how the planned siting of a baseball stadium in Philadelphia’s Chinatown might have had different meanings for different groups in the community and in the city. Courtesy Student Community Action Tours.

In the fall of that year, groups of students enrolled in Multicultural Ethics and Social and Community Leadership classes at Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice in the city’s Mt. Airy neighborhood conducted a local “scavenger hunt,” as they walked the area surrounding their school photographing such ordinary places as a vacant lot, a restaurant with an English name and one with a non-English name, something more than two hundred years old, a place of healing, and a building with the name of a large company on it.  Afterwards, they came together to discuss what they noticed, what they failed to see, and what they wanted to know more about.  

And this past spring, students enrolled in a leadership workshop at Brooklyn’s High School for Enterprise, Business & Technology interviewed grassroots activists affiliated with the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, founded in 1974 in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood and dedicated to empowering working-class women to become community leaders. They learned how one of these women, Juanita Orengo-Rodriguez, organized a boycott of Brooklyn’s Eastern District High School in 1992 in response to outbreaks of violence at the school, resulting in improved conditions; and how her continued activism contributed to the creation of their own school on the grounds of the former Eastern High.

Overview

New York Radical Educators

SCAT introduces its methods to participants in the annual conference of the New York Collective of Radical Educators, May 2014. Courtesy Student Community Action Tours.

All of these activities were conducted under the auspices of Student Community Action Tours (SCAT), an independent educational program based in the mid-Atlantic in which students investigate and retell the history of the community around them.  In a series of workshop sessions, students engage in activities like those described above and, as a culminating project, develop a walking tour to share what they have learned with members of the community.  The goal, however, is not simply communicating knowledge about the past.  According to James Cersonsky, SCAT’s founder and director, the program aims to encourage students to connect their personal history with the history of their immediate surroundings, to raise their consciousness about past struggles for social justice, and to empower them with skills to become agents of change in service to their own interests.  

A particular value of the program is bringing students in face-to-face contact with previous generations of activists, who both inform and inspire – “a lot of clicking goes on there,” Cersonsky observes.  For example, students involved in a SCAT project at the Johnson House Historic Site in Germantown, Pennsylvania, interviewed individuals who had been active in the local civil rights and black power movements, including those who in 1967 had led thousands of mostly African American high school students in a city-wide walkout and demonstration demanding such changes as an end to tracking, the incorporation of African American Studies into the curriculum, and recognition of black student unions.  SCAT students connected these conversations with then-current (and ultimately unsuccessful) opposition to the closure of their own, predominantly black Germantown High School, the result of both city-wide budget problems and, some aver, poor planning, a system-wide disinvestment in public education for all, and a failure to recognize the school’s role in the community for nearly a century.  As Aliyah Muhammed, a participant in the program commented at the time, “Germantown High School is a historic landmark.  It represents our community and it’s hurtful to me that they may close it down.”

Background and Inspirations

New York Subway Map

Looking at this map of the New York City subway system, students involved in BHSEBT’s SCAT project assessed where the system takes people to work, shop, and play; how it serves some communities better than others; and how lines cluster in those parts of the city that attract tourists. Courtesy New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Cersonsky began developing SCAT when he moved to Philadelphia in 2012, a year after graduating from Yale University.  It has been influenced by his own experiences developing a “disorientation” tour of Yale that addressed topics like the university’s incursions into surrounding neighborhoods, as well as by his work with UNITE HERE organizing service workers at Yale and involvements with progressive Teacher Action Groups in New York and Philadelphia.  It finds inspiration in such groups as Goundswell, a national network of oral historians, activists, cultural workers, community organizers, and documentary artists; the Detroit-based Allied Media Projects; and the Philadelphia Student Union, all dedicated to using the tools of new media to build movements for social change.  And it is informed by the tradition of popular education advocated by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and methods of critical pedagogy developed by Michelle Fine, bell hooks, and others, in which critical reflection on one’s immediate circumstances become the basis for a broader social analysis and, it is intended, the motivation for political action.  

Underlying all these inspirations, traditions, and methods is the notion of place – SCAT’s subtitle is Pedagogy for Place Keeping – for SCAT recognizes that it is in specific historical circumstances enacted in specific places that people both experience how the world works and can intervene in ways that make it work more justly.  SCAT’s work is also deeply grounded in the humanities; as Cersonsky puts it:  “When I think about the humanities, I think about different methodologies for investigating and retelling stories and understanding social structures.  In our courses, students first consider what sources they might consult to learn about a particular topic and then read those sources critically, whether it be a book, newspaper article, Wikipedia entry, oral history interview, map, and so on.  That sort of learning is intrinsic to the humanities.”    

How SCAT Works

Power Mapping

SCAT students at BHEBT construct a power map, assessing who held what kind of power in the neighborhood conflicts they are learning about, spring 2014. Courtesy Student Community Action Tours.

SCAT is both multi-formatted and highly collaborative.  Programs ranging from one-day workshops to semester-long courses are offered in partnership with community groups.  The most recent project in Brooklyn, for example, was developed via a connection made through Groundswell, with a person who knew that the National Congress of Neighborhood Women was engaged in documenting its history through its Legacy Project.  As Susana Arellano, director of the Legacy Project, explains it:  “In 2012 we conducted our own walking tour highlighting working-class women’s leadership in Brooklyn.  We wanted to expand that tour and tell more people about the work we have done.  And we especially wanted to do something with high school students, to let them know what neighborhood women have done and that change is possible.  Working with SCAT offered the opportunity to do that.”  

 SCAT is also an iterative and interactive process – and it aims to be fun.  Each project builds on experience gained from previous projects – oral history interviews, for example, have become increasingly important as a way of connecting past and present – and it adjusts its curriculum to the concerns specific to the community in which it is working and the interests and dynamics of the student group itself.  It also sequences activities in ways that build towards the culminating tour:  in the Germantown project students followed up the generic photo scavenger hunt common to all SCAT courses with a second one focusing on the developing tour themes of education and segregation.  

In this SCAT theater game, students map their ideal neighborhood.  Then a facilitator crosses out some of their local places, replacing them with new development not necessarily congruent with the neighborhood the students have designed.  Courtesy Student Community Action Tours.

In this SCAT theater game, students map their ideal neighborhood. Then a facilitator crosses out some of their local places, replacing them with new developments not necessarily congruent with the neighborhood the students have designed. Courtesy Student Community Action Tours.

As the above discussion indicates, oral history, photo scavenger hunts, critical analyses of sources (including a “lie detector test” in which students try to identify falsehoods inserted intentionally in a given source), and reflective discussion are all part of the SCAT curriculum.  So are map analyses, in which students assess maps of their neighborhood and city, for example, where public transportation lines go and don’t go or where racial and ethnic groups cluster; and power mapping exercises, in which they consider the positions and power of those involved in a particular historical event, like the 1967 walkout of Philadelphia schools, which involved students, teachers, administrators, parents, police, and local officials.  A final curriculum element is drawn from the Theater of the Oppressed, a form of interactive theater or facilitated game that, like popular education and critical pedagogy, is aimed at naming social concerns and inspiring change.  In one SCAT theater game, students create a map of a fictional neighborhood comprised of personally meaningful places.  The facilitator, acting as an urban planner, then marks up the map, crossing out some places and replacing them with new developments, like a stadium or highway or hotel.  Students, whose communities are frequently the target of this sort of gentrification, then reflect on these changes and strategize ways they might prevent them from happening.

Assessment

Cersonsky readily admits that SCAT is an evolving methodology and that assessing its long-term impact on students is difficult.  Yet Arellano affirmed that over the course of the Brooklyn project students gained a confidence in speaking publicly that became most evident in the neighborhood tour they conducted at the end of the program.  “That’s leadership development,” she said and noted further that after the tour some students expressed interest in getting involved in their neighborhood.  Perhaps though it is best cite what the students themselves have said about SCAT:  

Khilola Vahobova

BHSEBT student and SCAT participant Khilola Vahobova points out the transformation of factories into luxury apartment buildings in their Williamsburg community, June 2014. Courtesy National Congress of Neighborhood Women.

“I learned about the neighborhood my school is in.  I never knew some of the stuff before.  I liked being a tour guide.  I felt like a boss.”  — a student in the Parkway Northwest High School

”You can never keep silent.  The . . . stadium [is an example] of why we can’t keep silent.  If we do, these things will be built, other houses will be cut down, and it will be too late.”  — a student in the Asian American United Project

SCAT’s future plans include further development of the project at the High School for Enterprise, Business & Technology and of short form workshops for educators, organizers, media makers, writers, and other interested parties.

For further information about Student Community Action Tours, contact James Cersonsky at 267-607-9118 or StudentCommunityActionTours@gmail.com. See also http://countertourism.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/student-community-action-tours-spring-2013.pdf 

Linda Shopes is a contributing editor to Cross Ties.

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