In the face of tragic news about violent crime and clashes with police, students may feel they won’t get a fair shake from those who are in charge.
A new course put together by graduate students at the University of Missouri-St. Louis known as ULEAD was designed to help explain what is going on and how to handle it.
ULEAD stands for Urban Legal Education and Academic Development. In plainer language, it wants students in middle school and high school to have a “working knowledge of the legal and civic nuances” of the communities where they live.
But the legal and real-life lessons they need aren’t likely to be found in most classrooms. Basically, the course is designed to teach students a new language — the way to understand their environment and make their feelings heard and understood.
Those lessons can never come too early.
“We lose our young people by fifth grade,” said Wendell Covington, who heads the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ and Girls’ Club. “And in some communities we lose them by fourth grade, especially African-American males. That means that they are very astute at the justice issues that are pervasive in their communities. They just don't necessarily have the verbiage or the ability to articulate why they feel a certain way.”
After the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, almost two years ago, Covington said it became clear that solving the inherent problems that the shooting exposed would require a cooperative effort.
“Ferguson taught us that the challenges were so great, that you need collective impact,” he said. “You need partnerships. You need people who specialize in curriculum, instruction and counseling to be able to partner with organizations like us. We have a captive audience. We need people to help re-engage them in the educational process.”
Skin in the game
So Covington worked with the three UMSL graduate students — Mario Charles, Rodney Smith and Aaron Willis — to try to turn tragic news and pervasive fear into positive understanding.
“We didn't want to just sit around and complain,” Willis said. “We wanted to come up with a solution-based program to address the legal and civic aspects of the communities in which the youth resided. We figured that we need to go ahead and put some skin in the game and become active and address those particular issues.”
And, Smith added, the heavy topics involved weren’t too much for the students to handle.
“They have to deal with it every day,” he said, “and so teaching them how to think critically about certain topics, it helped us to understand not just that they are aware, but they realize it just doesn't happen to them.”
Charles Granger, a longtime professor at UMSL in biology and education, said ULEAD is a new direction for a longtime program at the university called STARS, which is designed to give high school students a taste for science. ULEAD takes the approach off-campus and into the world where students live, Granger said.
“What these three guys have put together allows the students to interact with the community,” Granger said. “They go on field trips. They decide what kind of professionals they should interact with. I see the two as very compatible with respect to mission and goals, even though they're different.”
The 18 students in the program, from ages 12 to 16, have heard from political officials, a police officer, a former football player and more. They've gone on ride-alongs with the police and had spirited discussions about what goes in their neighborhoods and what's reported by the news media.
Asked what they’ll take away from the program, a few of the students quickly came up with practical lessons.
Isaiah Rivers, 13, said the class “opened my horizons.” He thinks having more black-owned business would strengthen race relations. And he discussed learning more about the way democracy works — or at least the way it is supposed to work. He described how he could “take a stand” on an issue that concerned him.
“We could go to our elected officials,” he said, “our representatives that we elected, and talk to them about our concerns. And hopefully, they'll listen to us, or if they don't, we could take them out of office or something like that.
“Hopefully they'll make a change because we elected them and we saw something in them that we wanted to happen.”
Summer Williams, also 13, said social studies is her favorite subject, and ULEAD provided real-life examples of problems she might have only read about before. And what she read may not have been as clear as she now wants.
“Most of the things that I saw were sugar-coated,” she said. “They told you a little bit, and didn't tell you or explain why it's happening. Now, I have a deeper understanding of why these things happen and how to prevent them from happening to me and further generations of my family and help my friends see what's happening.”
On a personal, practical level, she said she learned how she needs to respond if she is confronted by police — lessons taught in what is often called “the talk” that black parents have with their children.
“Before that,” Summer said, “if I got stopped by police, I was going to run my mouth and kind of tell them off, because that's kind of how the person I am.
“But after hearing about that, now I know that I'm supposed to keep quiet and not say a thing but only speak when spoken to, and keep my hands in the view of the police and not make sudden movements, and ask if I can talk to my lawyer if I’m being accused of something.”
Willis said the teens are natural debaters — and quick learners.
“We did a debate Friday,” he said. “Monday morning the students came in, Mr. Willis, we would love to do a debate again today. Because now not only are they saying how they feel about something, but they're able to back it up with facts and information and to handle any rebuttals that come their way.”
Of course, no one could have known that as the month-long class began on July 5, the deaths of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling — plus the killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge — would provide real-time, real-life lesson plans. Charles spoke of serendipity and a feeling of déjà vu.
“We look at how media addressed the situation,” he said, “and how police addressed the situation, and all of these children have a background in terms of dealing with certain assumptions.
“We all kind of look at them and say, here we go again. Police are going to get off again, it's going to be another travesty, another injustice again. So in terms of dealing with that, we actually created a mechanism where not only we had conversations, but also in terms of how we could actually challenge our assumptions.”
And three words that have been in the news played a part in the ULEAD discussions as well — Black Lives Matter. Charles recalled how one middle school girl put a new twist on the phrase, explaining it this way:
“She said Black Lives Matter does not have a period at the end of it. When we say Black Lives Matter, we don't know what comes at the end of it. We don’t know. It could be death. It could be incarceration. It could be chastisement. It could be any and all of these things.
“So when we say Black Lives Matter, we leave those statements open. Because we want that statement to be available, and we want that to have power in terms of how our future is dictated. This is not a comma. This is not an exclamation point. It's left open-ended because that is how we want our lives to be. That's actually one of the most consummate and powerful statements that we've experienced up to this time.”
Willis compared it another well-known three-word phrase.
“When people say God Bless America,” he said, “nobody says ‘and nobody else. Or nobody else should be blessed.’ So that's the equivalent of Black Lives Matter, just saying hey, black lives are important. Not saying more than or less than or only.”
Covington said, through ULEAD, the students have learned a way to handle tough times a whole lot better than before — a skill that was badly needed.
“That’s what we saw in Ferguson,” he said. “It was rebellion. So what these young men have done is give them a vernacular, a skill set to be able to articulate why many young people in the city of St. Louis and East St. Louis feel like they won't live beyond the age of 22.”
Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger