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Breaking Down Walls in Engaging with Schools

(l-r): Renee Werge, Eileen Castrovillari, William Godwin, Sam Koentopp, Marla Guggenheimer, Robin Koelsch

“Social justice” — what does it mean, and how can we keep it in mind as we engage with students and schools?

In January, CIS of Chicago hosted a Lunch & Learn with several of our community partners to discuss what it means to be social justice-informed in our work with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Our External Affairs Manager William Godwin led the discussion, joined by our Director of Community Partnerships Robin Koelsch and our Volunteer Manager Renee Werge. The panel included Eileen Castrovillari of Capital One, and Sam Koentopp and Marla Guggenheimer, both of Big Green.

The term “social justice” is a broad one, and it might be defined differently depending on who’s talking. As Koelsch put it, announcing a training session on social justice can be as vague as saying, “We’re hosting a training on math.”

The Oxford Reference site defines social justice as, “The objective of creating a fair and equal society in which each individual matters, their rights are recognized and protected, and decisions are made in ways that are fair and honest.” Working toward that goal means listening to others’ lived experiences, acknowledging advantages we may have had that others did not, and recognizing and working to overcome our own biases. All of those practices are crucial whenever we visit neighborhoods and interact with school communities that have a different story and experience from our own.

To spark discussion, Godwin read a passage from University of Chicago Professor Eve L. Ewing’s book, “Ghosts in the Schoolyard.” The passage argued that Chicago Public Schools are typically viewed in a decidedly negative frame that ranges from condescension to outright scorn.

“Chicago’s public schools have been positioned in the nation’s imagination as, at best, charity cases deserving our sympathy; at worst they are a malignant force to be ignored if you can or snuffed out altogether if you can come up with something better,” Ewing wrote. “In this sense Chicago is like many other urban school districts that primarily serve students of color, viewed with pity and contempt.”

Castrovillari supports underwriters in health care-real estate division for Capital One and volunteers with CIS of Chicago’s InspireU program. Through the program, Capital One employees serve as mentors to help middle-school age students build their self-confidence and start to form career plans. Castrovillari said that, having attended parochial schools, she had been dismissive of Chicago’s public schools in the past.

“My perception was always that teachers didn’t care, the kids didn’t care, and that the teachers were literally just glorified babysitters,” she said.

But Castrovillari noted that her perspective changed when she began visiting CPS schools and getting to know teachers. As part of a program with the Cook County Assessor’s office, she observed the reality on the ground at a CPS school in the Humboldt Park community.

Castrovillari said she realized “that the deck is stacked against them before they start, and that it’s not always, for example, the parents don’t care. Sometimes the parents care so much that they’re working two and three jobs to make sure that they have a better life for their kids. So they may not be sitting reading second-grade books with them, but they’re making sure that they have food on the table and a roof over their heads.”

Koentopp of Big Green noted that he attended the Chicago Public Schools for elementary school, but went to a selective-enrollment magnet school. He said own school experience involved a high level of academic rigor that prepared students for success.

Now serving as the program manager for Big Green in Chicago amid a push to teach youngsters about food justice and establish gardens at 200 CPS schools, Koentopp said he has learned many other CPS students experience a different reality.

“You know, 78 percent, I think, of Chicago Public Schools students are low-income students,” he said. “Those statistics talk about who Chicago Public Schools serves, but those statements don’t talk about the value of the citizens of Chicago, as human beings, are as diverse as the city of Chicago is.”

As Koentopp noted, “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah pointed out on one of his comedy specials that having grown up in apartheid South Africa, he was initially surprised to find a lack of physical walls separating U.S. cities. But Koentopp said in Chicago, there might as well be high walls separating us.

“I don’t know, I’ve never been to South Africa and I didn’t live through apartheid, so I can’t speak from that experience — but the walls we have in Chicago are thick and high and really, really divisive,” he said. “So when you hear people who lump-sum entire communities, an entire school district, as inferior, it really is ignoring the richness, the depth, the intelligence, the creativity, the power –all of the amazing things that happen in Chicago Public Schools every day.”

Guggenheimer, who moved to Chicago just last year and works as a garden educator with Big Green, said she approached Chicago schools with an open mind. Previously as an AmeriCorps service member at an elementary school in Arizona, she had already observed the conditions of a struggling school there.

“The main thing that I learned in working in that school is that schools can be home for students who have very little security in their own home life. And that is something that I got thinking about what a school is, is something that I brought with me to this work in CPS, but it’s on a much larger scale — you know, 600 schools — and I only worked with around 30 of them, but every school that I entered is a home for those students,” she said.

But Guggenheimer, who works primarily with North Side schools, noted that she had noticed discrepancies in public schools even within the city upon visiting a school in Roseland on the city’s Far South Side.

“I was talking with the other garden educator there, and she mentioned that in most of the schools that she works in on the South Side, they don’t have soap. They just put hand sanitizer in the bathrooms instead,” she said. “And that had never been something that had come up in the schools that I had worked with on the North Side. And that’s not to say the North Side doesn’t have its share of issues and problems. But that disparity of just access to soap versus not was mind-blowing to me.”

CIS of Chicago connects city schools with more than 200 community partners — including nonprofits, corporations, cultural institutions, social service agencies, and individuals. All the panelists noted that when a community partner representative visits a school — particularly in an area of the city that is unfamiliar — it pays to listen, set aside one’s own privilege and biases, and engage with the community in a meaningful and respectful way.

“We’re talking about Chicago. We’re segregated, but oh my God, there’s a huge range of diversity in this city; so much culture here. So for sure don’t judge,” Koentopp said. “And plan on being there and being present as much as you can, because that’s, I think, the only way to build a relationship with individuals and establish trust, and really get to know people, and be a true partner. Take CTA. Walk. Don’t park right in front of the door, run in, run out.”

Guggenheimer added that it is important to educate oneself ahead of time.

“Taking the time to learn the histories of the space, and through storytelling — I think storytelling is super-powerful,” she said. “And so when you take time to talk to, even if it’s coworkers who worked in that space… or going there and just setting aside time in that meeting to check in and learn about the place where you are, and maybe some celebrations that have been happening recently or something like that — that’s really powerful and connective.”

Guggenheimer also advised against thinking of oneself as an agent of change, or a savior. In her view, that is an approach that can easily come off as condescending rather than helpful.

“Don’t go in with the mindset of change,” she said. “If you have a program that you want to bring to a space, understand that you will have to be flexible. You cannot just give a prescribed idea and walk away. That’s now how change happens, and that’s not how support is given. So don’t go in with that ethnographer’s mindset that this is ‘different’ than me.”

Godwin noted that no one benefits from isolating themselves and refusing to learn from others, listen to their experiences, and spend time in their communities.

“Many of us may have heard in this room — I know I hear it a lot — ‘I don’t go past Roosevelt Road, or I don’t go past Cermak.’ You hear these kinds of statements when you’re having an event. Obviously, there’s a lot of Chicagoans who live past Roosevelt Road. There’s a lot of great things past Roosevelt Road,” he said.

Koelsch said it behooves us to “have a hard conversation” and challenge somebody who has a dismissive attitude about Chicago’s communities and schools.

“Don’t just let those comments go by anymore,” she said.