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Prairie service-learning group fosters activism in students

Prairie service-learning group fosters activism in students

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WIND POINT — A volunteer group of about 40 students at The Prairie School takes a different approach to serving the community than the typical high school Key Club.

Whether meeting an immigrant farmer at a Milwaukee food market, Skyping with a student in Afghanistan or having lunch with a homeless heroin dealer in Racine, the student members of CLASS seek to understand injustices in the local and global community by meeting the people who face them.

“That moment when a fourth-grader starts going ‘hmm, what’s my moral system?’… that’s the beginning of activism, I think, to start questioning what’s going on in the world,” said Dominic Inouye, 12th-grade teacher and one of the group’s creators.

About the group

In its fifth year, CLASS — an acronym for Character, Leadership, Accountability, Sustainability and Service — focuses on a student-selected topic for an academic year. Students must apply to be in the group and commit to being involved for the whole year.

Inouye, along with fourth-grade teacher and CLASS co-creator Chris Henke Mueller, set up field trips, research projects and guest speakers at monthly meetings to help students understand the social issue and form relationships with those connected to it.

After months of interviewing and research, the students collaboratively come up with their own small, unique way to combat or raise awareness of the injustices they find.

Giving voice to the homeless

Toussaint Cruise, a senior from Caledonia, said his interviews to explore homelessness, the group’s focus last year, opened his eyes to a community issue he would not have experienced otherwise.

“I think if I hadn’t become aware … I never would have started thinking of ways to improve these people’s lives; it would give me a skewed outlook of life in our community and our society,” he said.

The group created a website called “Voicebox” last year to share the perspectives of members of the local homeless community who use the Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization’s shelter at 2000 DeKoven Ave.

“Right now it’s not a very well-known thing — the Web page, what we’re doing — but it’s there and it has the potential to grow and bring people together,” Cruise said.

Challenges for immigrant, migrant farmers

With a focus this year on immigration — specifically the issues faced by immigrant and migrant farmers — about 20 of the group’s members posed about 90 minutes of questions to administrators of the Fondy Food Center in Milwaukee and its cooperative farm near Port Washington.

The farm is operated primarily by Hmong immigrants who sell fruits and vegetables four days each week at the inner-city food center, which CLASS visited earlier in the year.

While the message that resounded with Cruise was that farming should transition from a large corporate enterprise to small-scale community businesses, Norly Rueda, a junior, focused on the difficulties immigrant farmers face when they don’t know the language or culture.

She reflected on her own experience as an immigrant when her family moved to Caledonia from Mexico when she was 9 years old and she had to make new friends and learn English.

“It was really hard and I can’t imagine getting a job,” Rueda said. “I’m still aware of what people go through when they don’t understand.”

After the question-and-answer period, members of the group broke into smaller groups and brainstormed how they could make their own impact, with older students leaning toward their own TED Talk. A TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk would emulate a like-named speech series in which speakers present a new way to look at one or more current issues.

While Henke Mueller explained that the ideas change as the year goes on, she said the process is key: experiences that reshape students’ perspectives about the world and a collective decision on how to act on that knowledge.

“Once you’ve understood it, so what?” she asked. “If they then do something, if they be of service to immigrants whom they’ve met, if they understand and they go out and meet them — that’s that moment where we’ve prepared them to be an adult.”

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