Students at Minneapolis North High School are heading into summer after a year of mind-expanding travel to the slums of Kibera outside Nairobi, Kenya. To Harlem and the Bronx. To universities and government offices.
They did most of it without having to leave their classroom, thanks to an innovative global education program called World Savvy and a dynamic Human Geography teacher named Courtney Bell.
World Savvy (worldsavvy.org) came to the Twin Cities in 2008, working quietly but impactfully with school districts and teachers. The mission is for youths to see themselves as key players in finding solutions to big problems facing our planet, from sex trafficking to water shortages to race and gender discrimination.
“There is a sense of feeling legitimized,” said World Savvy’s executive director, Dana Mortenson, whose organization already has reached upward of 375,000 students and 2,200 educators locally and in New York and San Francisco.
“This experience shifts the dynamic and makes them experts,” she said. “Rather than being examined, they are at the table.”
Beginning in February, Bell brought three of her high school classes to the table to dissect an issue deeply personal to many: gentrification. Yes, it creates more retail, jobs and luxury housing — but also heartache for many longtime residents faced with physical and cultural displacement.
“I believe that the residents of north Minneapolis, those who have been invested in this community over time, should absolutely be the first people who are consulted, who are considered,” Bell said. “This is the community we have built. It is a product of those who have lived here and who have made it their home.”
For three months under Bell’s guidance, the students learned relevant language — what, for example, is the difference between gentrification and urbanization? They developed questions and interviewed urban planners and public transportation experts. They dug into case studies on the largest slum in Nairobi and the impact of urbanization in Harlem and the Bronx.
They discussed the role the U.S. government played in historically marginalizing people of color and immigrants in housing opportunities. And then they looked in their own backyards.
“This is happening in my neighborhood, where I live, where I’ve grown up, where my family and friends are,” said ninth-grader Edward Beamon. “The issue is very important to me.”
“There are no jobs in our community,” added a 10th-grader, Kymari Love. “There is no reason why we have to go all the way to Bloomington to work.”
A documentary is born
Bell, a 2007 North High graduate who calls her students “scholars,” was adamant that they do something productive with their growing knowledge.
The students decided to produce a 20-minute documentary, giving it the title “Progress to You, Gentrification to Us: The Devastating Effects of Urbanization.”
They created storyboards, wrote a script and conducted interviews for voice-overs. “Getting the interviews,” Beamon said, “was really hard.”
Production had its challenges, Bell agreed. “We had to record a lot of interviews on my phone, so our quality is not the best,” she said. “But the skills they took away will be so much more important than the sound and image quality.”
In April, a group of Bell’s students presented the documentary at the annual World Savvy Festival at Macalester College, where it won first place in the documentary category.
Christy Kujawa was impressed. “They were very clear that their goal was to raise awareness about the issue of gentrification in their neighborhoods, particularly regarding the light rail coming through,” said Kujawa, a Minneapolis Public Schools parent-educator who has served as a festival judge for seven years.
“They were very surprised by how few people in their community knew this was happening.”
Bell is confident that her scholars will change that reality. “The first step is awareness,” she said. “This project is the feeding ground for learning.”
What her scholars already have learned is that their voices matter. Many are attaching themselves to other social justice efforts, Bell noted.
“Now that we’re done with this documentary, we can do more,” said ninth-grader Glenn Carter. “We really just showed everyone that there are kids our age doing positive and productive things with their lives.”
Love agreed. “I feel happy that we have it out there,” she said of the film. “The best part was being able to show people how strong and powerful we are.”