Why Social Justice Education Is Important Now

When students learn to analyze patterns of inequality, they find innovative and empowering ways to effect change.

In today’s classrooms sit tomorrow’s leaders. To move confidently through a global society, future leaders require education that recognizes their passion to learn, grow and foster change

through the lens of social justice. At Village Leadership Academy (VLA), children learn in a culturally relevant and responsive environment — one that empowers them to achieve their desires to make the world a more equitable place, says Dayo Harris, Principal at VLA.

“Through our Social Justice Education, students analyze power structures and patterns of inequality. They build awareness, develop specific language and become intrinsically motivated to act,” says Harris. An independent K-8 school in Chicago’s South Loop, VLA is part of It Takes a Village Family of Schools, a growing independent birth-to-career learning pathway.

Through an innovative approach, children at VLA participate in action-based programs that advance real change — at home in Chicago and abroad.

Voices for change

Social Justice Education is all-encompassing at VLA. “Our social studies curriculum is, in fact, called ‘social justice.’ The naming is intentional and includes perspective-taking, critical thinking and critical inquiry as students investigate whose voices and worldviews are typically left out of dominant narratives,” Harris explains.

Through an in-depth interdisciplinary program called GrassRoots Campaigns, students engage in a comprehensive process to make a positive impact in their communities.

“In every homeroom, students identify a social justice issue and, through a multistep process, research the root cause, analyze power structures and governance, identify influential forces to consider who is unfairly disad- vantaged by the issue, and create an action plan,” Harris says.

Recently, VLA students set a statewide precedent with a multi- year GrassRoots Campaign called “Change the Name,” which began with the issue of police brutality, a concern that Harris says weighs heavily on students. Students wanted to acknowledge the life of 22-year-old Rekia Boyd, a member of their community fatally shot by an off-duty police officer in North Lawndale, and suggested renaming Douglas Park, named for former Illinois senator and slave owner, Stephen Douglas, in her memory.

“The students were outraged once they studied the history of Stephen Douglas and met with the alderperson and park district multiple times to discuss renaming the park to honor abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Anna-Murray-Douglass instead,” says Harris.

Following an awareness campaign, community canvassing and countless presentations and meetings with officials, the park’s name was formally changed in 2020.

Skills for change-makers

Most graduates attend Selective Enrollment High Schools and often remain connected, says Harris. “They’re very confident students who recognize the power of youth voice and work collaboratively to enact positive change.”

VLA’s World Scholars Program cultivates global leaders. By third grade, students are eligible for this elective, where they learn the history of a designated country. “We then travel to the country,” says Harris. “During WSP trips, we intentionally connect with grassroots organizations and engage in meaningful community projects.”

Students have traveled to South Africa, Brazil, Ghana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Panama, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico and Costa Rica — drawing critical connections between these countries and Chicago. This summer, students will travel to Rwanda.

“VLA ensures each child is educated holistically. Students feel empowered academically and families understand they’re being provided with the necessary foundation to lead now and in the future,” says Harris. “It is our hope that families understand the fierce urgency of now, for tomorrow truly belongs to those who are prepared today.”

Learn more about Village Leadership Academy. Visit itavschools.org.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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