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Illinois teachers spend a week at 'Social Justice Summer Camp'

Educators take in a session at NIU's Social Justice Summer Camp
Peter Medlin
Educators take in a session at NIU's Social Justice Summer Camp

The campers were up until 2 a.m. on the first night, talking and telling stories. They’re bunking in a Northern Illinois University residence hall, so there probably weren’t s’mores. But, then again, there's a lot that’s different about this than a traditional summer camp.

For one, the campers are adults. They’re K-12 teachers representing various Illinois school districts. And the stories they’re up all night telling are about social justice education. This is the sixth annual “Social Justice Summer Camp” hosted by professors at NIU.

“Most of us came into it because it was a calling," said Zehra Tahir, a kindergarten teacher at Harriet Gifford Elementary School in Elgin. "We are passionate about children and making a difference in their lives."

Tahir’s the child of an immigrant. She says her group was up late talking about how they can learn from their unique perspectives and help students from every background.

“We're here with like-minded people who see that there are issues systemically," Tahir said, "and we're trying to change it one bit at a time."

Several teachers said this camp is the most important professional development they get all year.

Joe Flynn is the executive director for equity & inclusion as well as an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at NIU. He helped start the social justice summer camp back in 2016. Instead of a one-day conference, they wanted to give teachers the chance to process and reflect on the information.

Flynn says it feels even more urgent this year, during a wave of anti-trans laws and education legislation restricting how teachers can talk about race and history.

“I know folks in Ohio and Texas," he said, "who've talked to me about how one day their position was Executive Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. And the next day they literally had to sit with someone and change their title and redraft their position responsibilities because now, what they were doing is illegal."

But Flynn says it’s important to talk about what social justice even is.

“When we talk about social justice it gets so politicized that it just gets reduced down to a bunch of sound bites and buzzwords when, in reality, these things are really happening in schools," said Flynn. "And they're having a profound impact on the quality of not only the work experience for educators, but on the quality of learning for students.”

Amonaquenette Parker is the DeKalb School District’s first ever director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. She says she hates to oversimplify, but she’s got an even shorter definition for social justice.

“It's doing right for people," she said.

Parker loves the social justice camp experience. And part of the reason why is because, in some ways, it never ends. She says organizers like Joe Flynn and NIU professor James Cohen stay in contact with her.

“They have actually come into our schools many, many, many times," said Parker, "and done the digging, the work with us, got in the trenches with us, and extended what we learned here and helped us to put it into practice."

This year’s camp featured sessions about the disproportionate discipline of Black students, a panel of students in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program and much more.

The morning of the first full day of camp, NIU professor Michael Manderino conducted a group activity walking through the history of education laws in America and their legacy today.

Teachers scribbled notes and talked with their groups between Manderino’s slides.

“You have cards at your table. Let's look at our local context," he said. "I think this is where it gets uncomfortable. Because sometimes it's easier to look back and go, ‘Well, in 1957, Congress passed that -- it doesn't have anything to do [with me].’ But what's the legacy of policies in our districts? In our schools?”

They talked about how after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. The Board of Education, school districts demoted or fired around 100,000 Black teachers and principals. They discussed the lack of teachers of color in their schools and their districts’ hiring policies.

“A lot of times, said one teacher, "the policies that are being made are not by educators but by our board, who are common folk that don't have any working knowledge about the school."

Many educators say they leave camp fired up to make change. The challenge is how to share those lessons about multicultural education and equity with their fellow teachers back home.

Lisa Holbrook is a high school biology and chemistry teacher at the U-46 district in Elgin.

“When we go back to my school," she asked, "how do I engage with those people who have very, very different perceptions?"

Organizers say Social Justice Summer Camp tries to help teachers start to have those uncomfortable conversations that might happen back home. NIU professor James Cohen says social justice summer camp is like a rollercoaster. It’s exciting, and it can be uncomfortable and challenging, but in a supportive community that’s built for it. So, when they go back to their school this fall, they’re ready to make a change.

Peter is an award-winning education reporter who has been at WNIJ since 2018. He’s also the host of Teachers’ Lounge: a listener-driven podcast & radio show telling the story of education through conversations with teachers and students. He grew up in Sandwich, Illinois, and graduated from North Central College. When he’s not writing & reporting, Peter loves to run at forest preserves across northern Illinois, cook, & hang out with his cat.