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Summer Institute 2017: What does it mean to teach for social justice?


On July 19th, 2017, twenty-nine Teaching Artists came together to focus on teaching for social justice and enhancing their skills in the classroom at Community-Word Project’s (CWP) 7th annual Summer Institute. This year’s community was made up of writers, musicians, media & visual artists, dancers and theatre artists from all over the country, including New York, Tennessee, Arizona, and Texas. Facilitated by Program Director Patti Chilsen and Program Facilitator Karla Robinson, the training spanned an intense three days, building upon the social justice pedagogy that is the foundation for CWP’s Teaching Artist Project.

We were lucky to spend the institute in two beautiful locations: the Langston Hughes House and the LeRoy Neiman Arts Center. We spent the first two days in Langston Hughes’ home thanks to Renée Watson and the I, Too Arts Collective, and day three at the LeRoy Neiman Arts Center, where we were privileged to create with the beautiful works of Donovan Nelson surrounding.

What does it mean to teach for social justice?

That is exactly what these participants spent three days focusing on and defining. Using Bree Picower’s six elements of social justice, the participants explored a variety of teaching activities, techniques, lessons, and the intersection of art and activism, all while cultivating a deep understanding of what it means to teach for social justice.

Self-Love and Knowledge

From day one, the facilitators had the participants questioning and exploring their own artistry, navigating their own creative elements so that they can clearly translate them in the classroom. They did this, by first having each participant define the tools they needed in order to create and share art, and what they need in order to be fully present and a supportive community member during the three days together.

This foundation of self-exploration and love made it possible for this community to grow close and strong together in such a short amount of time. It paved the scene for this community to accomplish all of the other elements of social justice effectively and in the most impactful way.

Respect for Others

As a community, these artists got to know one another by discovering the reasons they each choose to teach for social justice. From the beginning, the conversation started with challenges that the participants face in teaching for social justice, what it means to them, what it feels like, and more. They spent time asking each other questions and getting to know everyone on both an artistic and activist level.

Each day’s agenda was layered with activities that target different learning types, assessment to have a better awareness of the environments we work with, and reflection and inquiry in order to have a deeper understanding of every creative lesson implemented.

By creating pedagogy that serves multiple populations and builds strong community, we show respect for those we teach and those we teach with.

Social Movements & Social Change

A number of the activities during this year’s Summer Institute targeted different movements and calls for social change in fun and engaging ways.