Students inspired by Anytown social-justice program

Jill Goldwasser (far right) is pictured with other students from Anytown. Jill and her friends get to hang out together, coloring during their free time. Photo courtesy of Connor Schlereth.

BY JENNA GOLD, SOPHOMORE, LADUE HORTON WATKINS HIGH SCHOOL

High school students interested in social-justice issues had the opportunity to attend the Anytown Youth Leadership Institute during the summer at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. The students involved in the Anytown program came from the St. Louis area and other parts of Missouri to work together in hopes of achieving a safe environment for people of all backgrounds and affiliations through group discussions and activities. This summer, 41 students ages 15 to 18 from 26 Missouri schools attended Anytown.

Jill Goldwasser, a sophomore at Ladue Horton Watkins High School and a member of Congregation Temple Israel, decided to attend the institute after her ninth-grade history teacher informed her about the program.

“Once I found out what Anytown was and what its mission was, I decided that it would be a great opportunity to grow and be an asset to the community,” Jill said. “It allowed me to learn and understand the ways others are oppressed and how I can use my platform to aid in the fight against their oppression.”

From June 25 through July 2, Jill lived on the St. Louis College of Pharmacy campus while learning about modern social issues and how to work on them. A typical day at Anytown consisted of morning, afternoon and evening programs along with time to relax with friends.

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“My favorite activity was one toward the end where they had people come up in front of the group based on a quality they identified as, such as female or Jewish,” Jill said. “We talked about why we were proud to have that identity, and similar things. It was really inspiring to see.”

Former Ladue Horton Watkins High School social studies teacher Rob Good was a staff member at Anytown for six summers. The school sponsored five students at Anytown this summer after racial incidents that shook the school during the school year.

“Last year’s events and the student protests demonstrated that we still have quite a bit of work to do to make Ladue an inclusive and equitable place for all students,” Good said. “The institute is an important aspect of developing an open and caring environment in the school because it provides students with the tools they need to serve as agents of change. In combination with work occurring among administrators, faculty and staff, these programs support more equity in the school community.”

Anytown is not only about being present during the eight days of the program, but also using the knowledge gained to help create change in a student’s school and district. Jill has become involved in activities that she believes will allow her to achieve diversity in her school district based on what she and her peers discussed at Anytown.

Established in 1992, Anytown became a part of the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ). Anytown began as a six-day residential program with the mission of promoting diversity in different societal groups. Ro Kicker, a St. Louis native, has served as the youth project coordinator of Anytown for two years and leads the Aligning and Leveraging Leadership in Youth program (ALLY), which has discussions about social rights. Kicker’s job also includes recruiting students for the Anytown program, continuing the involvement of alumni and speaking with people in the community about social justice.

“I believe in promoting inclusive environments for all of us, not just some of us, and in order to do that, there is work to be done to address all identities and social justice issues,” Kicker said. 

“None of us are free until all of us are free,” Kicker added.

After participating in Anytown, Jill decided to be a part of ALLY, Kicker’s program. The program hosts meetings once a month and allows students to learn about social rights throughout the year, even after completing the Anytown program. Jill’s feels her involvement in ALLY can help further expand her knowledge of social justice. 

“I’ve already gone to a meeting where we went to the St. Louis History Museum and went through a civil rights exhibit that taught me a lot about St. Louis’s forgotten history,” Jill said.

Working with the youth at Anytown greatly inspired Kicker. Before becoming an administrator of Anytown, Kicker held many jobs in the food business. In addition, Kicker was a full-time student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, in the university’s School of Social Work, and received the opportunity to work with the NCCJ as a part of the Anytown program. Kicker did not anticipate the drastic changes this program would trigger.

“My entire career path took a turn, and I haven’t looked back since,” Kicker said. “I am fully invested in the young people that I have the privilege to work alongside and cannot wait to see what they do next.”

Jill said that in addition to what she learned at Anytown this summer, she believes she has gained an enhanced worldview and a deeper understanding of the differences of those around her, along with the challenges they face. 

“My biggest takeaway from this program was that the best way to change the world is by planting the first seed and tackling one issue at a time,” Jill said. “Hearing the stories of the people I met there about issues like sexual assault, racism, classism and more really brought me to understand these issues and gave me ways to teach others.”

From his many roles as a former public school teacher and Anytown facilitator, Good has achieved a firm set of beliefs about social justice and his own purpose. Since retiring from Ladue after last school year, Good has continued his work to promote equality and fairness in society by serving as a facilitator in the YWCA’s Witnessing Whiteness Program and as a member in the Episcopal Diocese Commission on Dismantling Racism. 

“I believe that our primary purpose on this planet is to promote love and humanity in the midst of the multiple forces that seek to diminish the essential dignity of every person,” Good said. “As a student of history, I am aware of how systems of oppression are created to divide us and provide advantages to some at the expense of others. However, I am also aware of the tremendous power of people, working together, to strive for equity and justice.”

Kicker believes the significance of Anytown, as the lessons learned in this program, serve as a reminder of respecting the insights and diverse perspectives of others. 

“I think critically about each situation I find myself in, and how all of my intersectional identities come into play in each of them,” Kicker said. “I try to remember to ‘work the issue, not the person’ when I feel offended by someone.

“I remind myself that everyone has experienced a cycle of socialization that has led them to the beliefs that they hold today, and that it is important to meet people where they are at so that we can move forward together.”