As a part of their Cultural Leadership experience, four CHS seniors spend three weeks on the Freedom Riders' Trail through the South in an exploration of the connections between African American and Jewish history.
September 19, 2017
“I had always had doubts about being able to make any sort of difference in the world, and I think everyone worries about that to some degree and feels kind of insignificant,” CHS senior Chenny Lee said. “But there were so many people who were willing to listen to my story.”
In a tumultuous time of both political and social changes following the 2016 presidential election, Lee found refuge in the atmosphere provided by Cultural Leadership, an intensive St. Louis-based program that explores historic and present day social issues primarily through a combined African American and Jewish lens.
Through 420 total hours of programming, dialogue sessions, public speaking, leadership training and travel spanning the entirety of their junior year, four current CHS seniors – Lee, Olivia Joseph, Lizzy Mills and Josh Hagene – gained an increased awareness of each other’s histories and prepared themselves to facilitate cultural discussions and promote change.
In order to be a part of the program, each student had to apply and interview for a spot. For Joseph, however, the decision to apply was easy.
“My sister and brother both went through the program when they were juniors in high school, and my mom was a big part of it – she worked for the program, actually, and was on the board for it, so it definitely runs through the family,” Joseph said.
Hagene, too, had a preexisting connection to the program– his mother, the Executive Director of Cultural Leadership.
But for others, the program was far more unknown.
“I applied initially because my mom’s best friend at work knew that I was really into social justice and that I always had been as I was growing up,” Lee said. “The thing I didn’t know was that [the program] was African American and Jewish oriented. I found out the day before my personal interview, and being Asian, I had a lot of hesitation because I didn’t know if I would belong or if my story would be relevant.”
Despite Lee’s fears, she went to her interview and earned a spot in the program, becoming the first Asian to ever participate in Cultural Leadership. While certain aspects of the learning were certainly oriented around African American and Jewish history, Lee quickly found that the 23 other members of the program were eager to learn about her story too.
One way Lee was able to share her experiences with the other members of the group was through an activity known as the Fishbowl. In this activity, a specific group of people with a similar identity, such as African American women, went into the center of a circle and discussed how race and gender had shaped their life experiences.
When it was Lee’s turn for the Fishbowl, she stood alone in the center of the room.
“I knew that my experience wasn’t as common as some other experiences in America, but everyone had really great questions, and I felt really good about people learning things about me that they would never have known,” Lee said. “I definitely focused a lot on my immigration. I was the only non-citizen in the program, and with current immigration issues and prejudices against immigrants, I shared my experiences with the discrimination I have personally faced and also shared the stories I have heard of people who are similar to me.”
Born in Korea, Lee moved to the United States with her mother and younger sister when she was just four years old. But even after living here for 13 years, she still battles the obstacles that her immigration status presents.
“The whole immigration process and the complications that come with that really affects my life. Even for college, I only have five schools in the entire US that will give full rides to non-citizens. And for the PSAT, I couldn’t qualify for the merit scholarships because I’m not a citizen or permanent resident. There are a lot of things like that that have kept me from going for opportunities,” Lee said.
While Lee helped the members of Cultural Leadership better understand her experience as an immigrant, other CHS members shared their own experiences with discrimination.
When it was Hagene’s turn for the Fishbowl, he stood in the center of the circle with the other African American males in the program.
“For me, it was kind of weird having people from a different group watch us and listen to what we said, but at the end I think it opened up a lot of people’s eyes and created a better understanding for what different groups go through. It gave each group the opportunity to share different experiences and struggles that the members of each group experience,” Hagene said.
Ultimately, the students felt that the Fishbowl pushed them to voice the emotions that they had always kept inside. The activity also helped teach them about the connections between African American history and Jewish history.
“Both of those groups have been discriminated against in different ways and different eras. But during the Civil Rights Movement, blacks and Jews were always allies and were always sticking together,” Joseph said.
“A lot of people think that African American history and Jewish history don’t really mix, but a lot of what [Cultural Leadership] did was help people realize that, especially in American history, Jews have had an influential role in pushing toward more equality. For instance, a lot of schools in the south for African Americans were mainly funded by Jewish business owners. And the struggles that have faced African Americans and Jews are similar, definitely not identical, but there have been similar themes throughout both cultures,” Mills said.
And while the special relationship between Jews and African Americans certainly thrived in history, it is equally strong today.
“I think that it is really good that the two groups are still connected, because the more people we have working towards justice and equality, the better,” Hagene said.
As the participants learned to recognize these connections, they were also preparing for the transformational trip that occurred this past summer.
The first day of the trip was representative of the next 20: a plane ride at 4:00 a.m., a meeting with a speaker at 10:00, yet another visit with a speaker before lunch time, a series of museums, and then bed at 1:00 a.m.
The group started their transformational journey in New York, progressed to Philadelphia, Washington DC and Atlanta, and ended with a two-week road trip through the South that loosely followed the trail the Freedom Riders traveled during the Civil Rights Movement.
“The whole trip was just constantly moving,” Mills said. “It’s the most tired I’ve ever been.”
But just as much as the trip was tiring, it was rewarding. In only 21 days, participants met with dozens of Civil Rights leaders, social activists, religious organizations and government officials.
Out of all the speakers, Joseph most enjoyed meeting John Lewis, an African American civil rights leader and politician.
“The amount of hope that [Lewis] had for youth and groups like Cultural Leadership was really inspiring, especially in times like today. He said one quote in particular that everyone on the trip remembers. He said, ‘We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there.’ America isn’t there yet, but the Civil Rights Movement was getting us there, and groups like Cultural Leadership will continue getting us there,” Joseph said.
The group’s meeting with Lewis was so special because of the unique way Lewis conversed with them.
“We all piled into his small office and it was a really hot day, and we were all pretty miserable because we had been walking around all day in hot DC and meeting a bunch of people,” Joseph said.
“And then John Lewis came in, and we had met Supreme Court justices before and they all sort of had this prestigious attitude which they’re inclined to have, and Lewis just didn’t have that. He just sat down, talked a bit about the Civil Rights Movement, and asked us if we had questions. He just immediately got to our level.”
Another memorable speaker to present to the group was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first female member of the Harvard Law Review and, currently, an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
“She’s so idolized in my household,” Mills said. “I had strep throat on the trip, so right after meeting her, I had to go to an urgent care, and the doctor was like ‘Are you alright?’ and I was like ‘Yes! I just met Ruth Bader Ginsburg!’”
The Cultural Leadership group was even able to watch as CNN filmed a documentary about Ginsburg.
“I remember she was talking about how, before she came, [the first female Associate Justice of the Supreme Court] Sandra Day O’Connor had to run all the way back to her chambers to change and use the restroom because they didn’t have a women’s restroom close to the conference halls. And I remember Ruth saying ‘Well, that just didn’t do, so we had them put in a bathroom!’ I went to bed that night thinking ‘Wow, that really just happened.”
While the CHS students met with these civil rights leaders and government officials, they were also able to learn the less familiar stories of the people they refer to as “foot soldiers” – those who were there to experience history before it became history written down in a textbook.
While in Selma, they talked to a woman named Joan who had been there to experience the horrific events of Bloody Sunday and who is still there today, working to progress and protect civil rights.
They also met an African American woman who was not part of the original Little Rock Nine – the group of African American high school students who first integrated Little Rock High School in Arkansas – but who was part of the second group of African American students who integrated the school after it reopened following its year of closure.
“She was a very small girl physically, and she also felt completely neglected by the entire student body and the people living in her neighborhood. She wasn’t able to go out and play with her friends, and she always felt like she was a nobody, but now looking back at it, she knows that her actions were so crucial to the changing of history,” Lee said. “That concept really resonated with me. Listening to her changed the perspective I have of myself. A lot of people don’t have any confidence and they just feel really small. Being put down by an entire society of people can do a lot to a person, but she knew that what she was doing was good for the entirety of America, and sticking to her mission like that was really inspiring.”
Beyond meeting with important cultural leaders in American history, Cultural Leadership participants also visited museums and important geographic locations in history.
In Washington DC, the National Museum of African American History and Culture was an especially important experience for the group. In contrast to the rest of the trip, it was one of the only places where participants had a chance to move at their own pace and reflect on their experiences.
“People who are really into history say that it takes them ten hours to go through the whole museum. On multiple occasions, I was actually crying as I was walked through the exhibits. It was kind of overwhelming. I was bombarded with the most knowledge and experience in that place, and I finally had alone time to really absorb and process everything,” Lee said. “The modern exhibit of Barack Obama’s time in office was especially bittersweet because I was so proud that our country had elected such a good person to office who was able to speak for the millions of people who have been oppressed and are still being oppressed, but it’s over now, and look at who is in office right now.”
While the museums of the Northeast certainly resonated with the students, the historic locations in the South were even more powerful.
In Birmingham, the students visited the 16th Street Baptist Church which was bombed in 1963, resulting in the deaths of four young African American girls. It was Father’s Day when Cultural Leadership visited, so they sat in for the service.
“I always thought of the events that occurred in these cities as isolated events. We never really talk about what happens to these cities after these huge civil rights events, so in my head, I almost never pictured them as modern, functioning cities,” Mills said. “But 16th Street Baptist Church is still there; it’s still a preaching, functioning congregation. They aren’t the bombed church; they’re a church that got bombed.”
Right outside the church, the Cultural Leadership group saw the park where African American children and teenagers were sprayed by fire hoses and attacked by police dogs. While the group was there, a festival in remembrance of this violence but also in celebration of the Civil Rights Movement was taking place, and Cultural Leadership participants joined the people who were dancing.
But not all of their experiences in the South were so uplifting. When the Cultural Leadership group stopped to eat in a restaurant on their first night in Montgomery, what they found inside both shocked and saddened them.
“Being a pretty colorful group of diverse kids, we all walked in, and all across the restaurant, everyone just stared at us. And there was this little wall that separated two areas of seating. It wasn’t really a wall; it was more of a separation so that there could be booths directly against the divider on both sides. But what shocked us was that all the black people in the restaurant were sitting on one side, and all the white people were sitting on another. We never thought we would see something like that in 2017. It was a seat yourself place, and it just showed how history is still so ingrained in our subconscious. It was clearly just the atmosphere of the restaurant,” Lee said.
Other aspects of the South presented an equal challenge.
“I had never really been in the south before, so I didn’t know what to expect. We went through a few places that might be labeled as ‘the hood’ and we actually had a really big argument there, because one girl in our group was really mad because she felt that the trip was turning the hood into some kind of spectacle,” Lee said. “But our trip leader was trying to explain to us that that area was due to the government, which doesn’t allocate enough money to certain areas of the state and the city. That girl who had personally experienced living in a type of neighborhood like this one really didn’t like how the trip was kind of turning it into a spectacle, but I think it was really good for us to see how the system of racism isn’t just social interaction; it’s actually an economic and geographic thing, and it’s still there today.”
An even sadder surprise awaited the Cultural Leadership group in Money, Mississippi, the city in which Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American, was beaten and brutally murdered by two white men who claimed that Till had offended Carol Bryant, a white woman, in a grocery store. Both white men were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury.
Outside the grocery store stands a memorial to Emmett Till. But when they arrived, the Cultural Leadership group found that the part of the memorial presenting information about Emmett Till and the trial of his murdered had been defaced. The writing had been peeled off so that visitors could no longer read it.
“When I saw that it had been defaced, I just kept thinking about John Lewis’ quote ‘We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there.’ This just showed that we’re really not there yet, and for people to still feel the hate strongly enough to deface a memorial is just devastating,” Joseph said.
The three other CHS students were equally devastated.
“When we saw it, everyone was shocked. We couldn’t imagine that someone would try to deface such a painful but important part of history. Now, we would think that people are willing to finally accept history and reflect over it and repent, so it was so disheartening to see that there are still people who are refusing to accept history,” Lee said. “I really couldn’t understand how human beings can do such a thing to another human being. Emmett was only 14-years-old, which is just one year older than my sister, and she’s a baby. Obviously it’s wrong whenever a human being does something that terrible to another human being, but the fact that Emmett was a baby, essentially, an innocent soul when it happened to him – that just hit me even harder.”
Hagene, too, was hurt by the defacement of the memorial.
“Seeing the defaced sign just reaffirmed what I had already thought about this country and was ‘proof’ that we still have a long way to go,” Hagene said.
Fortunately, the Cultural Leadership Program took the first steps in shortening the distance that still must be covered before true equality can be obtained.
For a long time, the group didn’t know what to do. Although Cultural Leadership had spent the last year training them to be leaders, it was still difficult to understand that they had the power to step forward and do something about the defacement of the memorial. But slowly, they formed an idea.
They would remake the memorial.
“As soon as someone suggested that we should almost remake the memorial, everyone was so excited to do it, and everyone was jumping around trying to gather facts. Someone drew a portrait of him, and we tried to restore the sign as much as we could even though we only had scraps of paper and colored pencils,” Lee said. “I think it was really nice to see our whole group come together and accomplish such a thing. It felt like our first true action toward social justice. We were really just channeling our fury that something like this had happened, and I think that’s what made it so much more meaningful and passionate.”
Ultimately, Joseph chose to write on the sign details of the unfair trial.“I wanted to show the inequity of the whole trial and how it might have been different if it hadn’t been all white people,” Joseph said.
While some students taped up facts about Emmett Till’s life and the unfair trial of his murderers, Mills opted to contribute a short but empowering message of her own creation.
“I wrote ‘Rest in power, Emmett. They can destroy this marker, but they can’t destroy history.’”
They talked to the Americans in the history textbooks, they repaired a national memorial and they stood in the exact places where race and religion had once divided America. Most of them never understand their strength until the trip forced them to use it.
“The most challenging part of the trip was having to constantly be engaged with topics that are so depressing and mentally draining,” Hagene said.
“I would never have thought that I would be able to wake up at 6:00 am, go to bed at 1:00 am, and the whole day have zero breaks, zero alone time, and be constantly on our feet, meeting new individuals, taking notes, asking questions, and continuing that for 21 days without bursting. Knowing that I can get through that and the training that it took to get up to that point was impressive to me,” Joseph said.
Lee, too, came to understand and respect herself on a deeper level.
“Being a non-citizen and growing up always dealing with a lot of stereotypes about me being very quiet and not being able to speak English well – all of that has always hindered my confidence, and so meeting all these different people who have directly combated issues of racism and sexism and hearing their words really gave me the idea that I don’t have to be some kind of great person to actually make the world better,” Lee said. “Even just sharing my ideas and my story is definitely making the world a better place. I’ve always thought of myself as being really weak, and I never thought I’d be able to do anything, but the people in our history textbooks felt the same way. It was pretty cool to actually have that idea be tangible.”
In fact, it was the gaining of exactly that – that deeper understanding that those who shape history are human just like everyone else – that most inspired the students in Cultural Leadership. Having talked face-to-face with the people whose faces fill our history textbooks, Lee, Joseph, Mills, and Hagene have gained a deeper understanding of what it means to alter the course of history.
“At the beginning [of the trip], I almost felt desensitized. I wasn’t feeling anything. I had thought that I would get this rush of emotions, but I just didn’t feel it at first,” Lee said. “But then I thought about it more and reflected on my first few days, and it suddenly hit me, and I actually got goosebumps. It was such a strange feeling. The first time I really felt it was when I was standing in front of the gravesite of Martin Luther King Jr. and we met one of his current generation family members. Talking with her just changed everything. It was the fact that these people were just human, yet they were able to impact the world in such a big way. It was really hard to wrap my mind around it at the time, but it was definitely an experience that most people never get to have, and it was so meaningful.”