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Looking Back, Looking Forward in Washington D.C.

April 12, 2018

Project Success brought 50 Minneapolis Public Schools students to our nation’s capital to visit Howard University and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in March 2018. This was our largest group of students to travel via plane on a global experience with the organization. Along with nine Project Success professional facilitators, board chair Jody Rodrigues and Shana Moses joined students on the four-day trip. Facilitator Eric Rodgers, who designed the curriculum for the experience, shares the journey.

Above: Project Success students on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C.

“It’s called ‘The Sound You Can See.’ The success of the mural is that you never get tired of looking at it.”

A Howard University faculty member stands between a swirling mural depicting the vibrant history of music at the institution and 50 Minneapolis high school students, standing shoulder to shoulder. Both quietly resound potentiality.

“And the longer you look at it,” he says, “it becomes reality,” continuing to explain the significance of its figures frozen in jubilation, the pulsating rhythm of its colors and gradients. I cannot help but see a parallel between these words and the young people I had the opportunity to serve on this trip. Among them are leaders, healers, artists, and entrepreneurs. Our students, themselves a tapestry of possible realities, stand observing a vision realized. The mural illustrates a journey, one that begins with distant sparks of inspiration, then coalesces into a chorus, and finally explodes into lived reality.

Project Success brought 50 students of color to Howard’s campus in Washington D.C. from their home city of Minneapolis to experience a similar transformation. This trip was a single panel in the mural of each of these young people’s lives. With this shared experience comes the hope that the colors composing each of their individual creations bleed into reality.

Trip Overview

We designed our trip to D.C. to reflect the brush strokes that make up our students’ lives. Touring Howard University, a Historically Black University (HBCU), was more than a college tour. Seeing the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was more than a weekend excursion.

We intentionally chose both the tour and the museum to provide students with spaces to affirm who they are, as they are. Our goal was to present students with opportunities to examine their identity critically and compassionately, providing both internal and communal dialogues wherein they maintain the final say on who they are and what they hope to become.

This is in contrast to a society that is often perceived as adversarial to who they are with regards to gender; who they are as young people; and who they are as people of color, and instead defining for themselves what it means to be black.

Project Success staff and facilitators crafted this trip to accentuate and reflect the complexity of students’ inner lives. “What is your story as you tell it?” “At what point do the stories of history and society intersect with your identity?” ”How do you negotiate that intersectionality?”

Day 1: Howard

Despite rising early and a mild chill in the air, our students set out from the youth hostel en route to Howard University, abuzz with excitement. Upon arriving on campus, students were greeted by a misty rain. Our tour guide arrived equipped with little more than a portable microphone and her charisma.

I was impressed by the patience and tenacity of our students. During the tour, they withstood the rain without complaint and took time to ask questions. The answers from our guide ultimately help them decide whether or not they see Howard as a component of the life mural taking shape in their minds. They inquired about the history of the university, the legacy left by some of its notable alumni, and the programs offered by the institution that could bolster their success.

Before ending our tour at “The Sound You Can See,” our students had the opportunity to engage with one of the university’s most notable faculty members, Dr. Gregory Carr. His presence rapt our students’ attention. Continuing their impressive pattern of critical thinking and patience, students probed his mind to learn about Howard and the ways in which it may or may not be a fit for them.

He ensured students, “You won’t be sold on Howard by its aesthetics. But, I can guarantee you, if you come to Howard, the people you meet here will be unlike the individuals you will meet anywhere else. What makes Howard is the people you’ll have the opportunity to meet.”

Dr. Carr delivered his pitch, and for many of our students, it was well-received. However, as is part of the curriculum with all of our Project Success college tours, our staff still encouraged those students to critically examine the institution they now envisioned attending.

They were able to do exactly that when they had the opportunity to interview current students of the university, two of whom were MPS grads of North and Roosevelt High School. Our students asked questions they could only ask their peers, seeking out honest accounts of what it is like to be a Howard student — the good, the bad, and the real. On Thursday, many of our students left Howard feeling emboldened after viewing the university with the conscientious eye we encourage all of our students to employ. Each individual student saw new shapes in the mural of their future.

Howard stands as a model of possibility. After seeing Howard University, students had sobering realizations of the fact that before this experience, they had not seen that many Black people in one space–learning and living, the Diaspora represented in microcosm. “I didn’t realize that there was this diversity just among Black people,” a student remarked as we debriefed our experience, referring to Howard’s representation of Black people not only from the United States, but the Caribbean, and the African continent. While proudly touting itself as an institution edifying Black people, Howard is an inclusive space, serving as a mosaic containing representation of peoples from all across the world, regardless of their color or creed. Even after visiting Howard,  these young people practiced the same inclusion with their own peers. Around the hostel at any given moment, students from Roosevelt, South and Southwest could be seen laughing or sharing a game of pool. As we explored D.C., students from Minneapolis’ South and Northside mingled and formed new relationships. They began to embody the same model of possibilities demonstrated at Howard. . In coming to DC, our students had the opportunity to forge relationships that might otherwise have remained missed opportunities here in Minneapolis as they further refined their visions of the future: “The longer you look at it, it becomes reality.”

Day 2: Winds of Change and Black Panther

Our second day in D.C., we were scheduled to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Our plans were upset by rising, dangerous winds in D.C. and the surrounding area. Gusts of up to 70 miles per hour led to the closure of all Smithsonian museums and other institutions throughout the city. Our staff put their heads together to change plans. Meanwhile, students received the news graciously. Though they were understandably disappointed, I was again impressed by students’ willingness to adjust and make due. Despite their justified frustration, they did not direct their anger toward staff. In fact, the tenacity of staff—our ability to not only roll with the news and students’ responses to it, but to also find a meaningful alternative—allowed our young people to maintain trust with us and make the most of the situation, a lesson we often discuss in our monthly workshops about facing disappointment..

And they were pleased to find out their trust was not misplaced. An hour and a half after the news, staff gathered students in the dining area of the hostel. We shared with them our mutual disappointment with the museum closing, but also announced our change of course: We were going to see Black Panther! Students erupted with excitement. Through our coordination with one another and students’ trust in our ability to come through, we not only adapted, but presented an exciting opportunity that might not otherwise have presented itself.

Black Panther is currently the highest grossing superhero film of all time in the United States, The film has inspired a pop culture and socially conscious movement around the globe. Black Panther has sparked conversations around representation, notions of Blackness and cultural authenticity. Black creatives like Ryan Coogler took an artistic platform to tell a story that was not laden with the clichéd troupes, such as casting people of color as myopic, or criminals, or recipients of unjust punishment applauded for their resilience. It refrained from fetishizing the suffering Black people undergo in the midst of systemic forms of discrimination. Its characters were complex, the motivations of their actions ranging from the protection of sacred traditions, to the liberation of oppressed peoples around the globe. And our students sat in that theater, some of them having viewed the film already, and became a part of this movement together, absorbing ideas that for many were clear representations of the complexity of our own realities.

After the film, I had the opportunity to lead a workshop originally intended as a debriefing of our trip to the NMAAHC and its stories.  Instead it became a critical analysis of the film and its impact. Students noticed the parallel between characters’ motivations and the distinct ideologies of figures within the Civil Rights movement, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. They spoke about the impact of the trauma endured by Michael B. Jordin’s character, Eric “Killmonger” Stevens; how that trauma can corrupt or bolster one’s vision of themselves and changes they believe need to be made in the world. While enjoyable in its action and humor, this film also presented an opportunity to dissect – as a community – the realities Black people face on a day-to-day basis, and the hopes breathed into lived experiences.

Our workshop then transitioned into a look at students’ identities. As shared above, the purpose of the curriculum throughout this trip was to provide students the opportunity to examine the story they tell, to look at their own identity and its impact on their hopes and dreams.

Self-examination requires nuance, as a myriad of factors inform the experiences that coalesce to form identities and culture. In our workshop following Black Panther, students began parsing out the values, traditions, and messages that join to form their individual stories. They considered a myriad of their sources, ranging from immediate family to society at large. “As what ethnicity do you identify? What were you told success looks like for people who look like you? What messages are communicated about people who look like you / identify as you do?” Students answered questions such as these and many more throughout the course of the workshop.

We then worked as a group to begin identifying the stratifications from which our answers to these questions sit. Some aspects of our identity–race, gender, ethnicity–sit very close to our surfaces, yet their visibility betrays the depth of their impact. Still, more aspects of our experiences are rooted deeper in our identity. When we catalogue the messages we receive about ourselves, the family traditions or values that guide our views of the world, we see the nuances of our identity – that we are more than the sum of our parts. This workshop was an attempt to ignite that self-discovery for our students as they move throughout their lives, the framework from which their personal murals come to fruition. They approached this discovery with grace, as they thoughtfully explored their identity and the vulnerabilities therein.

Wrapping Up: Looking Back to Look Forward

Our trip to D.C. culminated with a redeeming visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. As we walked through the doors, some of our students noticed another group of young people waiting for admittance. Clad in bright red “Make America Great Again” caps, the group began to file in behind us. Our students took notice and immediately began to ask, “Why are they here?” This experience, the tension it presented and the resultant conversation I was able to have with our young people is one of my standout moments from the trip.

Our students were genuinely confused at this presence, a cadre of predominantly white young people brandishing headgear espousing a slogan that has become to many antithetical to its actual words. I pulled aside a group of students that were on edge, and articulated to them that the museum would not become another battleground. “The museum is meant to be a space for learning,” I said. “And if they truly believe that statement on their hats, they need to be here. They need to be here to see how the stories represented here fit into, or challenge, the fabric of the nation they want to create.” My hope was that our reaction to that encounter did not overshadow the purpose of being in the space. The museum is a recognition of our nation’s attempt to acknowledge a history of Black people, one that has all too often been decentralized, if not altogether overlooked.

Again, our students moved on from that interaction with grace, and ventured forward into the museum. The exhibits in the museum were powerful. The impact that it had on students is difficult to put into words, as their responses were as varied as the exhibits themselves. . Some students left the museum sobered by the chronicles of African-American history, from the time of the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the murder of Emmett Till. Other students remarked on the incredible impact Black people have had in forming innumerable American institutions and social consciousness. This look back into the past provided for our students a foundation that has already changed their present sense of reality and from which they have already been building their vision for their futures

“The success of the mural is that you never get tired or looking at it,” precisely because, in doing so, you undertake the task of discovery. Discovery requires us all to re-orient ourselves, accounting for not only where we hope to be, what we hope to create, but also where we have been.

Project Success’ 2018 trip to D.C. equipped our students with additional tools and experiences to aid in their self-discovery. The success of the trip was in the questions it raised within them, and the open space provided for articulating possible answers. The more time and open spaces students are given to sit with, negotiate and nurture their hopes and dreams, the more likely their dreams become reality.