An exhibit of twenty AWTT portraits has been at the ArtRage Gallery in Syracuse for the past two months.
On October 28th, 120 fourth and fifth graders from the Dr. Weeks Elementary School – just a few blocks from the gallery – were brought in three groups to see the portraits and talk with me.
As you can see from the photos, the school is predominantly African American. I asked the kids to first spend some time looking at the portraits and reading the quotes, and then we talked about the people and the issues.
Several things came up – mostly in response to the vocabulary in the quotes – as I had students take turns reading the quotes out loud to the group.
When we were talking about Jaysa Hunter-Mellers we came to the words “environmental racism.” No one knew what that meant. I asked, “What’s racism?” Every hand went up and it was defined by these kids as the way white people treat and talk about black people. Then I asked about “environmental.” They knew what the environment is but had not yet considered the idea that race prejudice could be used to inflict pollution on the poor and BIPOC community so that white people wouldn’t have the environmental costs in their own neighborhoods.
Then we talked about how some people have the power to do such things, and how victims get powerful enough to resist. Again, we looked at Jaysa’s words when she says,
“Even though I didn’t have money, I had words. And words have power. . . .”
We talked about the importance of speaking out about injustice and organizing to oppose it.
Later, when looking at the portrait of Paul Chappell, we came across the word “citizens.” Paul says, “A democracy is only as wise as its citizens. . . .” I asked them what a citizen is. They defined it as a person who lives in a particular country. Then I asked, “What is a good citizen; how should a citizen act?” They said that a good citizen is kind. A good citizen cares for people. A good citizen shows respect for others. No one mentioned voting; they were focused entirely on the behaviors that create loving and cohesive community. They have their priorities straight. Sometimes I wish that fifth graders were running the world.