Social Justice Summer Camp 3.0 to foster growth via discomfort, ‘intellectual threat’

Jennie Hueber
Jennie Hueber

Jennie Hueber felt uncomfortable at NIU’s first Social Justice Summer Camp in 2017 – and that was a good thing.

Hueber, the director of curriculum and instruction for DeKalb School District 428, already had begun her personal and professional journey to recognize, examine, question and replace her “implicit bias” and “white privilege.”

Some of what was said during the camp confronted her conclusions, she says, forcing her to dig deeper.

At the same time, however, hearing those difficult words from NIU’s James Cohen and Cohen’s mentor, J.Q. Adams, provided welcome affirmation to Hueber that she had enlisted the right allies in her mission to equip District 428 with a strong, dynamic and workable diversity plan.

“Twice before, the district actually was able to move forward on a diversity plan. Twice before, there had been events that precipitated us to reach out to two different groups of people to have conversations. We collected data, but then we just kind of admired the data and did nothing with it,” Hueber says.

“Our most recent event, in February of 2016, precipitated my reaching out to Northern Illinois University, which resulted in a very intensive, six-week social justice educator training,” she adds. “We knew that we had to do more.”

Enlisting Cohen launched that “more,” which in June of 2018 yielded approval from the school board to adopt the diversity plan now in place.

“More” also has included sending around 55 local teachers and other district employees to the first two Social Justice Summer Camps – 19 attended the first year, Hueber says, and nearly twice that many the second – as well as implementing social justice activities at faculty meetings.

District 428 will enroll 52 campers for this year’s event, which begins Tuesday, June 11, and continues through Friday, June 14.

“Unless we become uncomfortable, we’re never going to change. We’re never going to grow, and that’s what we’ve been doing with our own social justice activities: We’re trying to challenge people. We’ve been trying to make them uncomfortable so they’ll grow,” Hueber says. “Maintaining the status quo isn’t going to help our students.”

NIU will welcome nearly 130 campers from District 428, Elgin’s U-46 and beyond, Cohen says.

Camp directors Joseph Flynn and Cohen, who will present via Skype from his Fulbright trip to Uruguay, have chosen new movies for the evening film series, new speakers and new topics.

Keynote speakers are Adams – the professor emeritus at Western Illinois University is back for his third year – as well as Patrick Camangian, an associate professor and department chair of Teacher Education at the University of San Francisco; and Joao Salm, an assistant professor in the Criminal Justice Department at Governors State University

“I’m really excited about the keynote speakers we’ve invited this year,” Cohen says. “We always invite J.Q. to come back as the third keynote speaker because he’s the mainstay. He’s a mentor to me, and he’s one of my closest friends. To listen to him speak is powerful and moving.”

Patrick Camangian and Joao Salm

Breakout sessions will cover topics such as diversity in children’s literature, valuing all varieties of language, LGBTQ issues as well as the intersections of diversity with science and technology.

Panel discussions will include the voices of LGBTQ students from DeKalb High School, as well as students from the NIU Asian American Resource Center, who will address the “Model Minority Myth.”

What awaits all campers, whether in their first, second or third years, is “intellectual threat.”

“You’re not learning anything if you’re just confirming your ideas,” Cohen says. “To have that intellectual threat is really important to anyone’s learning process, and whether you’re ready for it or not, the seed has been planted and the roots will start growing. The hope is that, eventually, you’ll come around.”

Hueber is confident that DeKalb’s participants will experience some sort of transformation or evolution in their beliefs and actions.

“I just hope that our staff who are going immerse themselves and allow themselves to feel uncomfortable, because that’s where the growth comes,” she says. “It’s a very safe space that’s been created. You’re with people you know and people you don’t know. And in the evenings, when you’re watching the documentaries and films, and allowing yourself to seep into that and to reflect on that, that’s really where the power of Social Justice Summer Camp happens.”

Many will find the camp reminiscent of the District 428 diversity plan and its work to improve the culture and climate within DeKalb’s public schools, she says.

The diversity plan is built on data collected during nearly two dozen focus groups of students, parents, faculty, staff and community members.

J.Q. Adams

Guided by Cohen and Adams, Hueber says, “a core group of us who lived and breathed this every single day,” including parents and school board members, put the plan on paper.

Seven recommendations turned into seven goals.

Among them: develop a welcoming process; strengthen district and school unity and collaboration; develop a plan to implement a two-way dual language program; implement courageous leadership education; and promote and prioritize school safety.

A chief goal to implement strategic professional development on equity/inclusion/cultural competence and responsiveness education is among the ways the plan remains dynamic.

DeKalb teachers regularly receive professional development, learning about concepts such as NVCC (Non-Violent, Compassionate Communication) and PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports).

Guest speakers, Cohen included, visit with faculty to talk about how to support students who have experienced trauma, immigrant students, LGBTQ students, students with disabilities and the ways in which those students learn.

They also are challenged to reflect “every single day,” Hueber says, “about how we respect our students’ humanity and how we are respecting our families’ humanity.”

“It’s not just about race and ethnicity. It’s much more global,” she says. “It’s about putting these best practices in place in our classrooms so that we have an inclusive, welcoming environment.”

Doing so is vital, she adds, and helps to advance Cohen’s philosophy to replace judgment with curiosity.

From left: James Cohen, Michael Manderino and Joseph Flynn welcomed David Stovall as a keynote speaker for the 2018 event.
From left: James Cohen, Michael Manderino and Joseph Flynn welcomed David Stovall as a keynote speaker for the 2018 event.

“We’re preparing our students to live in a global society, and that means they need to learn how to interact with everyone. They need to know how to be responsive to anyone and everyone, depending on who they are and what they’re bringing to the table,” she says.

“We have a long way to go, but I am really proud of the work we’ve done this year. This is a plan. This is a process. We are never going to be done. We are constantly reviewing this and, as our needs change, tweaking this. We are dedicated to carrying out the vision.”

Cohen likes hearing that.

Schools bear an “ethical and moral” obligation to teach children and adults to behave humanely, he says, and communities need to focus their attention on that journey.

“We are living in an era where people feel emboldened to express themselves in ways that are hurtful and are harmful to people who don’t necessarily look, think, act, believe or speak like they do,” he says.

“Having a diversity plan that guides a school district on how to attempt to overcome that harm that people give to other people, by simply not understanding them, is paramount in allowing the district to move forward in a productive, effective, ethical and moral way.”

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