Students seek social justice on spring break

MIDDLEBURY — Spring break finds thousands of American college students flocking south to sandy beaches for mindless fun. But, 23 Middlebury College students traveled to Chicago on their recent spring break for an intensive and at times deeply personal examination of race, poverty, religion, social justice and the arts.
“Social justice is really important to students — racial justice, the Black Lives Matter movement, and really how to think about race and inequality in a way that engages something more than just texts and theories,” said J Finley, a post-doctoral fellow in American Studies who teaches African American studies at the college.
“This trip really gave students the opportunity to go out and actually experience that and actually participate in that in ways that they’re never, ever going to forget,” she continued. “They’re never going to forget the places that we went.”
Sponsored by the Scott Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, this year’s Alternative Spring Break trip was in part inspired by last year’s trip to Montgomery, Ala., which commemorated the historic 1964 march from Selma to Montgomery led by Martin Luther King. That trip gave students the opportunity to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Students appreciated the history behind the Montgomery Alternative Spring Break trip, said Associate Chaplain/Rabbi Ira Schiffer, but they wanted to connect to current struggles for social justice.
“What I took away from conversations with students last year was that the Montgomery trip was wonderful in helping us understand our parents and grandparents, but we would love to look at the social justice issues that we’re facing today,” he said.
Sierra Jackson, a Chicago native and co-president of the Black Student Union who was a key student organizer for the Chicago trip, agreed with Schiffer.
“I think last year’s trip was incredibly important,” said Jackson, a sophomore and a film and media culture major. “I just think that having this trip and having the sort of ‘now’ element just adds to the conversation.”
Over the eight days in Chicago, students bagged rice and Pop Tarts for a food shelf; took part in a poetry slam where experiences of poverty, violence and abuse were voiced with startling eloquence; attended Christian, Jewish and Muslim services at religious institutions where social justice was central to their mission; talked with high school students at an inner-city charter school about their dreams and experiences; helped shape — literally — the clay being molded into a memorial in Marquette Park to honor King’s 1966 march for fair housing; and explored culture, history and identity through a wealth of museums and art centers.
SIERRA JACKSON, left, Amari Simpson, Anna Iglitzen and Lin Georgia Wei, four current Middlebury College students, speak with Chicago-area Middlebury alums at a reception during their alternative spring break.
One important stop, said Finley, was the DuSable Museum of African American History’s new “Freedom, Resistance and the Journey Toward Equality” permanent installation, which takes visitors on a journey from the slave trade through the election of President Obama, in ways that are both visceral and informative.
“It starts off and you’re standing in front of a door that looks out onto an ocean, and it’s the door to no return, the last place that enslaved people saw in Africa before they embarked on the middle passage,” said Finley.
For many, a trip highlight was the poetry workshop and open-mic organized by Chicago Young Authors, which uses writing and performance as a way for young people, often in difficult circumstances, to give voice to their experiences.
“At the open mic night, I could feel the pain in some of the voices and the hope and determination in others,” said Rachel Nelson, an environmental studies and studio arts major from Claremont, N.H. “It really struck me hard. I learned I don’t hate cities. I learned a good bit more about the black urban experience of America, though I can’t say I knew much before.”
Added Georgia Wei, a senior in comparative literature from Queens, N.Y., “The amount of talent I saw was incredible, but moreover, the way they used art to express the hardships in their lives — rape, gang violence, structural racism — blew me away. And perhaps even more touching was the way they found joy in their art and in each other.”
Many enjoyed working at a food pantry alongside ordinary Chicagoans.
“My highlight was volunteering at the Greater Chicago Food Depository,” said Nia Robinson, a freshman from Chicago. “Both times we went, many of us connected with each other and with people outside of our group. Afterwards, several students said they would like to volunteer at a food pantry at home.”
Perhaps most important, observed Schiffer and Finley, was the way the trip brought a disparate group of students together to learn not just about social justice in Chicago, but about each other’s lives and differing points of view. The trip brought together students from different countries, regions, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations and faith traditions, ranging from freshmen to seniors.
“You had a person who was the captain of the football team teach to a person who was from one of the inner-city Chicago neighborhoods that we went and visited,” said Finley.
The past school year has seen difficult and sometimes divisive discussions and events around race, free speech and justice both in the Middlebury campus and nationwide. On this trip, students found that in the context of the one-on-one and small-group discussions that were an ongoing part of the trip, they were able to speak and listen constructively.
Schiffer said the alternative spring break trips have helped “create a framework and a camaraderie among students from very different backgrounds — international, geographic, socioeconomic — who share a common experience and have the opportunity to engage in thoughtful, deep conversations.”
Schiffer continued, “We’re trying to take the challenges and deal with them in really constructive and growing ways rather than falling into the traps of contemporary discourse that might not always be helpful in bringing people together.”
Student Sierra Jackson contrasted the “tense spaces” that can sometimes accompany discussions of diversity or inclusivity on campus, with the way that the trip allowed people to connect on an honest and personal level.
“For me it kind of solidified what I’ve always envisioned college or life to be, right? You’re interacting with different people. You are in these spaces where you can talk about serious things,” she said.
“And rather than it being something that’s a tense conversation, you can talk about race, you can talk about class, you can talk about sexism in a way that’s fruitful and just out of genuine curiosity. So having so many people of different backgrounds come together and just be open and receptive to other people and willing to be vulnerable and willing to share things, that for me was like the icing on the cake.”
The Middlebury sophomore hopes this kind of learning experience will be open to more people.
“This trip should not be the last trip of its kind,” she said. “More people should be encouraged and empowered to take people to their home town and unlock their history.”
TWENTY-THREE MIDDLEBURY College students along with faculty and staff sponsors gather after Easter services at St. Sabina’s Roman Catholic Church in Chicago late last month during an alternative spring break trip on which they explored issues of social justice.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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