Victor Harbison always starts the year in front of his civics
class at Gage Park High School with a question: What's the most
important issue facing you and your community?
Usually, he hears the same chorus of problems facing this
poverty-riddled but historic neighborhood on Chicago's Southwest
Side: Guns, drugs and gangs. But in the fall of 2008, he got a lot
of blank stares. "They couldn't think of anything," Harbison says.
"I said to them, 'Look, you live in a neighborhood with this
incredible history of civic activism. Dr. king walked just a block
from here. Don't tell me you can't find anything to be passionate
The kids didn't believe him. If that were true, one said, there
would be a sign or a memorial or something.
"From the mouths of babes," Harbison says. "They got excited, I
got excited and we realized there was an opportunity to make a real
It took two years, but the final project, completed this summer,
is a rich fabric of the neighborhood's past and present: oral
histories from those who were at King's 1966 march in Marquette
Park, original photos and video footage, and reflections from the
students who created the project, all housed in an electronic kiosk
that will be permanently housed in the park.
The kiosk will be at the DuSable Museum of African-American
History in Washington Park on Monday for the museum's Martin Luther
King, Jr. Day celebration, and it will remain their through the end
of February. Then it will spend two weeks at Oak Park River Forest
High School, where civics teachers hope to inspire similar
community projects in their own students, before returning
permanently to Marquette Park.
In December, Harbison was awarded the OPPY Award for Excellence
by the Oppenheimer Family Foundation, a non-profit that supports
education in Chicago, for his innovative approach to teaching.
Harbison says the original goal of the project was to present
the idea to decision-makers -- the mayor's office, state
legislatures in Springfield and museum curators -- to try to spur
action. Instead, they got a donated kiosk from smarTECHS, a
Chicago-based technology solutions company, that came with a
challenge for the students: Make it happen.
"[This project] transformed my class from getting kids to be
advocates, which is a worthy goal in and of itself, into being
storytellers," Harbison says. "This kind of civics isn't just how a
bill becomes a law."
The students hit the streets, tracking down original photos from
the rally, taking oral histories from community members who were
there, compiling video and doing all the graphic design work
themselves. In process, writes junior Antonio Granados in his
reflection, they learned that "even in our streets there are
footprints of history."
Harbison is looking for a corporate sponsor for the project, and
with funding, hopes to have three or four kiosks around the
At the unveiling of the project, which was attended by the Rev.
Jesse Jackson and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, student
Jasmine Parrot said: "Do you think there's one child in Selma,
[Ala.] who does't know about the boycott? Is there one child in
Atlanta who grows up not knowing that Dr. King lived there? Why
have generations of Chicago children grown up without knowing the
history of our own city?"
Harbison hopes that's a problem of the past.
To learn more about the project, see video and photos and read
the student's reflections, go to communitytransformed.com.
See more of Liz's stories here.
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