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Wheeling middle school students advocate for social change

2020 February 13
by HandsOn Suburban Chicago

HandsOn Suburban Chicago amplifies the voices of London Middle School students through letter-writing service project

What matters to young people in our northern suburban community? HandsOn Suburban Chicago (HOSC) recently posed this question to the students at Jack London Middle School in Wheeling and uncovered how the decisions of elected leaders impact the daily lives of our adolescent neighbors.

This winter, 69 eighth graders advocated for social change by writing letters to Illinois Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin and Representative Brad Schneider.

HOSC, which has provided service learning opportunities to Community Consolidated School District 21 since 2015, organized the project as part of a lesson on social justice advocacy. This exercise in civic engagement enables students to practice their self-advocacy skills, familiarizing them with their roles as constituents of a representative democracy.

“We forget that the accumulation of knowledge and the holding of convictions must finally result in the application of that knowledge and those convictions to life itself.”

– Jane Addams

The lesson frames social justice as a set of actions anyone can take to help create a fair society where groups of people that do not traditionally hold power are protected from discrimination and exploitation through laws, policies, and norms that acknowledge this power imbalance.

The lesson cites the achievements of early 20th-century social justice pioneer and Chicagoan Jane Addams. In her work Democracy and Social Ethics, she wrote, “We forget that the accumulation of knowledge and the holding of convictions must finally result in the application of that knowledge and those convictions to life itself.”

The participants practiced their persuasive writing skills to assert their perspectives on various laws and public policies that affect them and their families. 

Issues that matter to students

The eighth graders wrote about a wide range of issues, including gun violence, immigration reform, refugee admissions, climate change, racism, and gender inequity.

School gun violence, in particular, was on the mind of many students. One wrote, “In school it is unfair that I have to worry if I’m going to die today. What has our society come to? Now, I know this clearly isn’t your fault Mr. Schneider, but something has to be done.”

With over 40% of Wheeling residents being born in another country (according to the United States Census Bureau), issues related to refugees and immigration reform were likewise at the forefront of students’ minds.

After detailing a plan to accept and house refugees while vetting them, one student appealed to Senator Duckworth, “The United States is supposed to be the land of the free. How are we supposed to call ourselves this if we can’t even let refugees in? How can they get a second chance in life if we just send them back to their war torn homes? I hope you seriously consider this plan and help the refugees that need our help dearly.”

“Thousands of families are separated each year. I never thought mine would be one of them.”

– London Middle School 8th grader

In a particularly gut-wrenching letter about deportation and immigration reform one student bravely related their own story to the senator, “Thousands of families are separated each year. I never thought mine would be one of them. There’s a lot of things we don’t do anymore due to the result of my dad having to go. I wouldn’t want anyone else going through the same as I am. I really hope you can get this letter. I’d really love if the immigration issue was solved and families wouldn’t have to be separated.”

These poignant words remind us that policy decisions impact youth in the same ways they do adults, and thus it is important to make their voices heard. Environmentalist Greta Thunberg and gun control advocate Emma Gonzalez have risen to prominence in recent years, demanding a seat at the table and holding decision-makers accountable for their inertia. It is these young leaders who remind us adults that civic responsibility extends beyond voting.

Get involved!

What are you doing to stay engaged and help your community? Consider taking a stand, writing your own letter, or volunteering at a local organization that needs your help!

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