by Meghann Persenaire
A young man, formerly incarcerated, stood on our auditorium’s dimly lit stage, and asked our scholars the following question: “Raise your hand if you know someone who is currently or was recently in prison.” With each moment of silence that followed, dozens of scholars quietly raised their hands. Refoundry, a nonprofit that trains formerly incarcerated people to re-purpose discarded materials into home furnishings, is one of a few organizations that our scholars partner with each year.
Each month, our scholars select a social or environmental issue or organization that is relevant to them, for which they are passionate. Our scholars select a social or environmental issue that directly affects their families and/or their communities in Harlem and the Bronx. Mrs. Stephanie Fernandez, who also mentors our student government, and Ms. Karina Perez, who also mentors our National Junior Society, mentor scholars and guide them as they write lesson plans, contact organizations, and write proposals to our school’s Board of Directors and administration. However, it is because these issues are selected by and relevant to our scholars that we witnessed the marriage of service and learning, that we saw a month dedicated to “Reducing Recidivism” or “Equality” go beyond the canned food drive
In its beginning, our scholars raised money for Refoundry via traditional methods. Scholars at St HOPE Leadership Academy are required to wear uniforms, so it is exciting to wear “free dress” occasionally. Each month, our scholars selected a color and that color represents the month’s theme. Scholars could come to school in “free dress” and either seek sponsors to make a monetary donation on their behalf or make a monetary donation themselves. Through a relationship, our scholars knew the current needs of Refoundry and used the money they raised to purchase a drill press and band saw. Through a continuing relationship, our scholars then visited Refoundry at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to see firsthand how the drill press and band saw would immediately be put to use. These founding scholars were not satisfied with this and wanted to deepen the relationship and make the topic more relevant. Our scholars wanted all scholars, all members of the St HOPE family, to share their passion for and desire to reduce recidivism. The following year, our scholars added another layer. Scholars and teachers who wore red to represent their desire to reduce recidivism also created and wore signs, signs that communicated statistics around recidivism.
While Mrs. Fernandez and Ms. Perez initially mentored scholars as they wrote lesson plans for advisors and teachers, lesson plans that connected the month’s theme to topics in advisory and/or content areas, it is the scholars who now independently email faculty and staff these lesson plans, often times from their own student email accounts. In community circles, our scholars suggested that we ask past, present and future questions on recidivism and, with the help of the talking piece, a central part of community circles, give scholars a space through which to communicate their past and present understandings of recidivism but, more important, answer, “What will you do, first as a teenager and later as an adult?”
In addition to “Reducing Recidivism” and following a similar service learning models as the one described above, other topics, selected by the scholars, include: “Equality,” “Slavery & Human Trafficking,” “HIV & AIDS Awareness,” and “Hunger & Homelessness,” to name a few. While Mrs. Fernandez and Ms. Perez are excellent educators and invaluable members of our St HOPE family, they were and continue to be mentors in this model. They created a space through which scholars felt safe enough to choose topics that were relevant to them, and they provided the fertilizer that allowed relationships with and knowledge of their community to blossom and thrive. They handed the baton to the real change makers – our kids.