Students return from ‘life-changing’ trip

BY MIKE SHERWIN, ASSISTANT EDITOR

Forty-two years after Bloody Sunday, when peaceful civil rights marchers were brutally attacked by police, students from the St. Louis program Cultural Leadership walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in the footsteps of some of the Civil Rights Movement’s now-legendary figures.

“Holding hands, two-by-two, one Jew and one black, we walked across the bridge singing negro spirituals,” recalled LaParis Hawkins, a student at Hazelwood East High School, and a participant in the Cultural Leadership program, which brings together a group of Jewish and African-American high school students for one year to learn about each other’s culture and history, and about becoming active as leaders in the community.

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Cultural Leadership’s “Class 3” (the over 20 students taking part in this, the third, year of the program) shared vignettes of their travels during a key part of the programming for the year: a 27-day bus tour of the East Coast and the South, visiting sites of significance to Jewish and African-American history and culture.

On July 4, the tour bus returned to St. Louis, pulling in around 4 p.m. at Temple Emanuel, where the Cultural Leadership students were reunited with family members, and where they spoke about the profound impact the journey through New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, Little Rock and all over Mississippi and Alabama had on them.

“My most memorable experience was probably the day we spent on Capitol Hill, mingling with some of America’s most influential political leaders,” said Richie Gallant, a student at Whitfield School and a congregant of Shaare Emeth.

He said meeting Congresswoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and hearing her view on the importance of education was a highlight of the trip.

“My mother is an educator, so I guess I have a love of education from my mother…and another member of the program, Tyjuan Morrow and I spent the day at each other’s schools in April,” Gallant said.

“Tyjuan is a product of St. Louis Public Schools. He is a Beaumont student, a 100 percent African-American High School and I’m a product of Whitfield School, a private school in West County, predominantly white. Experiencing the achievement gap and the difference in education and economic and social backgrounds really touched me and has inspired me to start a peer-to-peer tutoring program between St. Louis Public Schools and schools in the county,” he said.

Gallant said that when he told Waters about his idea for the program, he found her response deeply touching.

“The way she was just so responsive to a 17-year-old kid from Missouri, exchanging her phone number and her email address, telling me to keep her posted and expressing personal interest in my program helped me connect with her on a personal level,” Gallant said.

Waters was not the only notable politician the students met with.

Hawkins recalled meeting with Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., who spoke about being on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during Bloody Sunday, which made the group’s visit to the bridge all the more heartfelt.

“It was so touching. Just to know that my ancestors were beaten at the same place I was walking, it made me feel a sense of accomplishment, like I was living out part of Martin Luther King’s and Congressman Lewis’ dream,” she said. “I will never forget that experience. It has changed my life.”

Alyssa Hadzima, a student at Parkway West and a congregant of Temple Emanuel, said one of the most poignant moments for her was in New Orleans, where the group helped rebuild homes destroyed by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“It was dirty, nasty, disgusting and hot and I’m not exagerating. We carried drywall…we put up walls together, we worked on flooring and caulking. However, at the end of the day, I don’t remember anyone complaining,” she said. “Never in my life have I seen this great level of cooperation and teamwork, in my elementary school years, middle school and high school years, and I’m a senior in high school now. So this is pretty impressive,” Hadzima said.

“It suddenly made me realize why we’re here, and why we’re speaking to you today. We’re here to change the world, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” she said.

Princetta Brown, of Ladue High School, and a congregant of Grace Church, said one of the stops took the students to a Slavery Museum that was unlike any museum she had visited before.

“This wasn’t an ordinary museum, full of historical documents and pictures, but it was a museum that took you back in history and put visitors in the shoes of past generations,” she said.

“As soon as we got off of the bus we were immediately treated as slaves, and we had a master, who either killed us or beat us if we didn’t do what he said,” Brown said. The interactive museum gave students a glimpse at what life was like for slaves, from small, dark spaces, to living with cockroaches. However, Brown said she was particularly moved at seeing a mother and child separated.

“I have no idea what I would have done without my mother,” Brown said. “I barely lasted these 27 days.”

“Going to the slavery museum really made me appreciate my school, my mom, and all of the things she does for me, and all of the wonderful things God has blessed me with,” she said.

The students visited sites of significance to Jewish culture and history, including a synagogue that was bombed and another that was affected by Hurricane Katrina.

CeCe Campbell, a student at Nerinx Hall and a congregant at St. Norbert and Shalom City of Peace, said visiting the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. was a powerful experience, particularly the exhibit which surrounded visitors in photographs of those who lost their lives in the Shoah.

“I saw faces of people who were dehumanized during the Holocaust,” Campbell said. “This really impacted me because I saw the parallel between slavery and the Holocaust.”

Dakin Sloss, a student at Clayton High School, and a congregant of Central Reform Congregation, said there was a recurring theme in meeting with Jewish and African-American civil rights leaders.

“Many of the people we spoke to would refer to Martin Luther King’s quote, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,'” Sloss said. “This quote really meants that in the Holocaust Museum, the Slavery Museum, all of these horrible injustices we’ve learned about, are not just an attack upon the individual people who experienced them,” he said.

“They are an attack upon every person in the world who wants to live a life of freedom and liberty,” Sloss said, noting that the quote has contemporary relevance, particularly in the Darfur region of the Sudan.

Sloss echoed several of the students’ sentiments that the 27-day trip, which comes in the middle of the one-year Cultural Leadership cycle (January to January) was eye-opening and helped broaden their perspective and propel them to be active in their community.

“After 27 days of being on this trip and talking to some of the most influential people in the world, I have changed tremendously,” he said.

“I’m a white rich boy from Clayton and I have become best of friends with students from all over the county and the inner city, and people that just have nowhere near the same opportunities that I have had,” Sloss said in an interview.

“I definitely have a greater appreciation for the privilege I have, and for why I have to go out and change the world.”

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