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Breaking Barriers, Building Bonds Through Social Justice

History teacher Callie Hamilton shares on our #GirlTalk blog how GPS girls learn social justice.
In sharp ROTC uniforms and crisp navy blazers, 18 Brainerd High School Leadership students file down from the bus in front of GPS. Greeted by smiling members of GPS’s Social Justice elective, the Brainerd students chat with our girls and pose for pictures, shyly at first. Several of these Brainerd high schoolers had been at GPS a week earlier, providing a military Color Guard for our annual Veterans Day luncheon. Today, this larger assemblage splits into small groups, each with GPS girls as tour guides; together they branch out in different directions to explore the campus. Later, in the cafeteria, GPS and Brainerd kids pile their plates high before heading to the Rachor Dining Room. It is time to break bread together.

Social Justice, a semester-long history offering, aims to broaden GPS girls’ view of the mosaic of American experience and encourage relationships with fellow citizens whose paths they may not otherwise cross. The curriculum asks girls to delve deeply into the history of racism, sexism, and classism; to explore current conditions; and to plot paths for progress. Deliberately and directly, the course prepares students for engaged and thoughtful citizenship. The 21st-century world, global and diverse, which our girls inhabit, demands open-mindedness and an ability to see events from different perspectives. Social Justice provides a forum for practicing these skills as girls learn to listen and offer ideas with respect and extend their circles of friendship.

This partnership between schools began when, a little over three years ago, I reached out to Dr. Charles Mitchell, Assistant Principal at Brainerd, as I was building this course over the summer. I had read in the newspaper about interracial dinner gatherings hosted by Franklin McCallie and wondered if it would be possible to launch similar boundary-bending conversations for students. Dr. Mitchell’s optimism that today’s youth have the capacity to solve the problems that bedevil adults was contagious, and we began searching for opportunities to bring our students together.

In spring 2016, Brainerd’s Leadership Students invited my class for a school tour and lunch in their student-run bistro. Ten of my girls gave up an afternoon of spring break, in fact, to visit academic and technical classes, to hear from Brainerd’s student leaders and teachers, and to laugh and talk over sandwiches and chips. The chatter on the bus as we returned to GPS was animated and thoughtful, and I heard the girls continue to discuss the experience for weeks afterward.

In February 2017, Linda Mines, former Head of the History Department, and I led a Red, White, and YOU! Winterim, in which 40 GPS and Brainerd students traveled together to the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville to observe a session of the state senate and shake hands with the governor. In town, the kids spoke with the Chattanooga and Hamilton County mayors and observed proceedings at our federal courthouse. State and local legislators offered insights on the powers and actions of our governments, and officials and interns discussed opportunities for service. The kids spent three and a half days together, playing games on the bus, conversing, grabbing snacks between speakers, and sharing music and stories. Ameera Bhatti ’18, a participant, says, “Getting to experience the inner workings of our state government with students of a different school really solidified the idea of citizenship for me. I felt like I formed relationships with kids I had more in common with than I thought. We got to learn from each other and that really manifested in how we interacted with each other. It made me realize how much we can teach ourselves and others when we come together and put our differences aside.”

Back to the lunchroom, where students gather around tables; share their plans, likes, and dislikes; and compare school activities, conversations get louder, faces grow open and animated, laughter erupts. Then Susan McCarter, GPS Director of College Counseling, herself a graduate of Brainerd High School, formally welcomes everyone. With a nudge from Dr. Mitchell and me, three students from each school stand and speak individually, voicing appreciation for this opportunity for fellowship. For McCall Waldrop ’18, “The highlight of Social Justice is when Brainerd students come to GPS,” she says. “I love making conversation with each student and learning about their lives.”

Dr. Mitchell and I continue to seek opportunities for our students to foster mutual respect and spark curiosity about each other. While navigating the schedules of two different schools is challenging, we would love to grow the relationship beyond our lunch meetings to encompass community service and shared speakers. On his end, Mitchell says Brainerd High School administrators changed their professional development model to allow teachers to reach out in service to their community. “The majority of our students come from the poorest neighborhoods in the community,” he says. “We learned how to walk in the shoes of our students.” About the partnership between GPS and Brainerd, he says, “When you come together, you break down barriers. These students are our future leaders. We’re counting on them to make things better.”

Dr. Mitchell and I both endeavor to nurture the open-minded problem-solvers that our society needs. Meg Marshall ’18, currently our school’s president of Partnerships in the Community (PIC), took Social Justice as a junior. While the course did not spark her long-standing commitment to community service, it did better equip her to serve. From Social Justice she carried away a deeper understanding of the problems that underlie lack of opportunity and need in Chattanooga and the nation. At times the complexity and persistence of problems seem overwhelming, she reflects, but knowledge calls Meg to a stronger purpose, pushing her to even greater empathy and understanding. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service in January, Marshall guided GPS middle students in putting together an MLK Life and Legacy Walk for our school; both compassion and command of information undergirded her effective leadership. She understands that the present is shaped by those who learn, care, and act, and I can think of no better measure of success for students in Social Justice.

GPS is by all accounts a community in itself, a sisterhood, but we are also neighbors. We live in relationship with larger communities—local, national, and global. Our graduates go on to lead in many different professional fields, certainly, but they are equally primed to engage, listen, collaborate, and think broadly as citizens. Our world will be better for their efforts.
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