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Addressing Social Justice Issues with Students and School Communities

In the 2019–20 school year, Communities In Schools (CIS) of Chicago served more than 59,000 students, empowering them to stay in school through resource connection, one-on-one and group counseling, and social-emotional support. Our team’s strategies for reaching students, the majority of which are students of color, were completely upended by a spring semester unlike any other.

In March, the spread of COVID-19 disproportionately affected the school communities we serve, impacting students and families physically, emotionally, and economically. Then in May, George Floyd’s graphic murder played out across cellphones and TV screens. His death underscored issues of systemic racism, police brutality, and injustice that continue to permeate American culture. And at a turning point when students needed the presence of a caring adult to process this grief and trauma, school buildings were closed.

Hearts

But our CIS of Chicago Student Supports Managers worked to create healing spaces for young people, even through virtual platforms. They supported teachers when the pain of current events seeped into the classroom, and they helped students see themselves as change agents, during a time when adults themselves were struggling with feelings of anger and hopelessness.

At the same time, our CIS of Chicago School Partnership Specialists offered a listening ear to administrators and counselors. They managed their own feelings and reactions to the news and collaborated with school contacts to identify relevant programs and services. Each school — and student body — in our partner network had different needs for addressing racial injustice, but our CIS of Chicago team members responded swiftly. And they are holding space for school communities this fall, as racial inequities continue to stain the very fabric of American life.

Empowering Youth to Become Change Agents

For Doolittle Elementary in Bronzeville, students experienced the tragic death of George Floyd, but they also witnessed the community’s reaction outside their front doors. Ms. Mimi Macbeth, a CIS of Chicago Senior Student Supports Manager based at Doolittle, was able to discuss with students how they were feeling and what they were seeing. At the end of the spring semester, Doolittle administrators provided each classroom with a trained professional — Ms. Macbeth included — to facilitate conversation. She stepped into a third-grade class’s virtual space to help them process the frustration, anger, and sadness and to help create some sense of agency.

“It’s a matter of space and support to just validate feelings, to validate ideas, and to help direct some of those expressions into positive change,” Ms. Macbeth said.

Depending on the grade level, she provided resources like group readings and TED talks to help guide the conversation. This fall, Ms. Macbeth plans on bringing in CIS of Chicago community partners to continue the important discussion on civic and social engagement.

Confronting Racism through a Restorative Justice Lens

At Pilsen Community Academy on the Lower West Side, 82 percent of the student population is Hispanic, and 15 percent is African American. And for CIS of Chicago Student Supports Manager Jenellie Exclusa, creating a school climate and culture that promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion for all students is vital.

Before schools closed in March, Ms. Exclusa overheard racial slurs uttered by some of the middle school students and worked to hold a peace circle with a fellow staff member at Pilsen. Ms. Exclusa asked the students to state the assumptions they had about one another — and to confront those assumptions. She ended the peace circle with the question, “Can we choose today to start over again?” This experience helped her tailor the support that she provided for students and staff after the death of George Floyd.

Justice

Supporting School Administrators and Families

Throughout the summer and fall, CIS of Chicago’s School Partnership Specialists helped school communities tackle social justice issues in the classroom. They leveraged relationships with each of the 145 school leaders in our network to discover their most pressing needs, whether that be parent support, staff stress management, or access to equity resources. Then, they collaborated with our Community Partnership Specialists to address each school’s nuanced needs.

Community Partnership Specialists communicated with our 150-member network of community partners to identify available programs, resources, and services. With so many virtual resources out there, schools needed help sifting through programs, and community partners needed help getting their programs directly to schools. Community Partnership Specialists also hosted a listening session with partners to hear how the pandemic, school closures, and social justice issues have impacted their organizations. Although the unknown was confusing and stressful for partners, our Specialists provided continuity and support.

In addition, School Partnership Specialists worked with Community Partnership Specialists on a digital Resource Guide, which houses everything from COVID-19 to employment and housing information. In response to the growing social justice concerns in Chicago communities, they included a section on anti-racism and equity resources. The resources listed in this section support teachers and parents with developing anti-racist curriculum, talking with children about race and diversity, and responding to injustice.

Providing a Safe Space for Students to Talk

This fall, holding space for students to discuss racial injustice and police brutality continues to be an important aspect of CIS of Chicago school support. In September, news spread of the verdict regarding Breonna Taylor’s case, and ahead of the ruling, George Washington High School on the Southeast Side created a plan to support students in processing this news.

They gathered their crisis response team, which included the Dean of Students, social workers, guidance counselors, psychologist, and CIS of Chicago Student Supports Manager Sydney Hammuck. Together, they arranged a place in Google Meet where students could come for the day and seek support from a staff member. During one student session, Ms. Hammuck and the Dean of Students facilitated a Black Lives Matter meditation.

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