Two summers ago, I took a group of students of color on a service learning trip to Pine Ridge Reservation. I call them my students, don’t mind me. My students spent an entire year fundraising (baking, poetry slamming, selling brats, writing letters) and engaging in learning activities in addition to all their homework AND over the summer. We were all so excited when it was time to go.
The trip was life-changing for the kids, but also for myself and my fellow chaperones. Click here to see pictures. My students worked incredibly hard under the scorching South Dakota summer sun: built bunk beds and outhouses, skirted a trailer, and helped roof a house. My students learned a lot about the history of the Oglala Lakota and of the terrible things done to them by our government. They faced extreme poverty with big hearts and open minds. Each student learned something new about themselves. To speak their mind, recognize their own strengths, say no, take risks and try new things, challenge themselves, and that, even when things seem so hopeless, they can make a difference.
On our last day, my co-chaperone told me that the teachers back home would NEVER believe what our kids had done and how hard they worked and learned. My students amazed me while we were there, and I’d been working with them all year to get them ready.
I learned a lot, too. When I first started consulting with the volunteer center about bringing my students, one of the staff shared that they’d had some bad experiences with kids from inner city Milwaukee–as though that suggested anything about what to expect from my students. We were also referred to as “inner city kids” by the staff while we were there at least once—we are from Madison, there is no inner city. I saw firsthand how my students were stared as we loaded on the plane, as we walked into the volunteer center and were the only group that wasn’t white. I watched white kids touching my students’ hair and asking them about rap and if they were from the ghetto (out of well-intentioned curiosity). During our learning sessions with staff at the center, there was a lot of talk about white privilege, which is something my kids are well, WELL aware of. I could sense discomfort from the other groups that this discussion was happening with a group of students who don’t have that privilege.
On the second day, one of the other adults (who I was later told was a bit eccentric) snapped on some of my students for no reason other than they were sitting outside talking and laughing during a break time; I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it included a racially-charged word. My students were upset and I was pissed, but they didn’t want me to talk to the lady. They said it wasn’t that big of a deal—because they were so used to it.
During one particularly long and (yes, I’ll say it) weird and boring lecture, two of my students were whispering. A lot of white kids were doing it, too. The speaker blatantly targeted one of my boys, yelled at and embarrassed him. It was so bad that a number of kids and adults from other groups came up and apologized to him later. The boy’s response…he kind of said he deserved it for talking.
After that, I had to have a talk with my students and say, I don’t care what the rest of the kids are doing, you will be better. And they were. My students never grumbled about having to work all day then have learning sessions THEN have small group discussions and journaling time. Because my students were there to learn and help. My students learned they could use power tools (better than me), conquer their fear of heights to roof a house, open up to people they’ve been in classes with for three years but barely know, and to be proud of themselves. They learned that terrible injustice still exists, but they can make a difference.
Girl: “I wish I had a power saw at home. Then I could make anything!”
Boy: “This trip has really been life-changing…there is no number of times I would say thank you if I did it would go on forever and ever and ever. I’ll miss you and have fun in that foreign place of yours.” (i.e. Singapore, haha)
Girl: “GIRL POWER!”
I’ve been to fifteen countries, climbed over mountains, witnessed sectarianism alive and well, gone to the ruined village from whence my ancestors immigrated to Canada, toured ancient temples, swam in many oceans, walked with elephants. But this service learning trip to Pine Ridge, South Dakota was probably the best experience of my life, because of those students.
Wow, do I miss those kids. And all the dozens and hundreds of other kids I’ve helped through nightmares and pushed toward dreams over the past six years, most of whom were African American.
And as I sit here thinking about Travon Martin and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, all I can think is, what if it were one of my students that was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got killed by police due to what started as a misunderstanding? Or one of their parents? Like Rumain Brisbon and Eric Garner. What Facebook images would be flashed on the TV screen? What tiny mistake would be touted to smear their character so we can reduce our cognitive dissonance over an unarmed human being killed?
But then I remind myself it doesn’t matter if it happens to “my” students. The fact that young black men are 21 times more likely than whites to be shot dead by a police officer is a national travesty.
Back to the Rez…
Two important aspects of the Lakota belief system are Turtle Island (the Earth) and the medicine wheel, which incorporates the colors red, white, black, and yellow. To the Lakota, it symbolizes that we are all one, no matter the color of our skin. We are all brothers and sisters traveling together on Turtle Island. We shouldn’t be colorblind, we should celebrate our differences.
The most powerful thing this speaker said: the Lakota word for child literally means sacred being. What if our society thought of all children this way?