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 about.”
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 difference.”
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 city.
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.