Empowerment in the Classroom

How do we teach high school students to see themselves as protagonists in history? One idea involves Lupe Fiasco, Matt Damon, and the late Howard Zinn.
people's history students by mojdeh stoakley

Photo by Mojdeh Stoakley. © Voices of a People's History.

On Chicago's far Southeast side, past streets lined with boarded up buildings and 24-hour liquor stores, ten high school students buzzing with nervous energy enter a room full of adults—who may be just as excited as they are.

The school is Team Englewood High School, located in one of the city's poorest communities, and the students are part of a group that will perform a local spinoff performance of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States in the spring. The adults are a small group of movie stars, rappers, publicists, photographers, producers, teachers, and reporters.

And, no pressure, but they've all come to hear what Team Englewood's ten sophomores have to say.

As part of the promotion for a new education initiative based on Zinn's book, Matt Damon and Lupe Fiasco, both of whom appeared in the 2009 documentary, The People Speak, have come to Chicago to perform in a benefit show and to talk to the Englewood students about American history and hear them perform some of their own pieces.

A key message of Zinn’s work, Damon told the students, is that “change always, always comes from the bottom up.”

"If [students] can connect to these historical figures, hopefully they will see themselves as part” of history, Damon said, touching on one of the central goals of Zinn’s work—and of the nonprofit Voices of a People’s History of the United States, which has created a curriculum based on Zinn’s book. The group’s mission is to “bring to light little known voices from U.S. history,” including those of inner-city students of color. As part of this goal, they are rolling out an educator’s toolkit for 1,000 teachers in Chicago, complete with videos, lesson plans, and locally relevant readings.

“We select material from the past that speaks to the present,” said Brenda Coughlin, founder and director of the nonprofit. “We want students and people in the communities to be able to … say to young people: you make history.”

“We’re expanding the notion of what literature is: a canon for the people, of the people,” says Kevin Coval, a hip-hop poet, educator and co-founder of the teen poetry festival Louder Than A Bomb, who is overseeing the project in Chicago. Students will be asked to respond to speeches from Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and others with their own text in their own words.

matt damon reading by mojdeh stoakley

Matt Damon reads from Howard Zinn's November 1970 talk, "The Problem is Civil Obedience"

Photo by Mojdeh Stoakley. © Voices of a People's History.

“It’s really nice to hear you guys own your own voices and have power,” Damon tells the group. Having grown up next door to Zinn in Boston, he says bringing the project to life with the voices of students is particularly exciting for him. Damon, who was in elementary school when A People’s History was first released, in 1980, brought the book to class on Columbus Day that year, and read from the first chapter on indigenous people.

A key message of Zinn’s work, Damon told the students, is that “change always, always comes from the bottom up.” It’s up to anyone “at the bottom to agitate and demand what is due to them.”

For students like those at Team Englewood High School, the empowerment aspect is central. The Englewood neighborhood led the city in homicides last year, and, according to the Chicago News Cooperative, about 32 percent of residents live below the poverty line. 

“It touches me that you guys would come here to Englewood and do work like this,” said Jerome Wade, 17, who said he was born and raised in Englewood. “The first thing [about Englewood] that comes to your mind is gangs, but it isn’t only like that. You may not have the funds to do something, but everyone has a voice.”

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The student’s excitement at the celebrity appearance—and at simply being listened to—says Chicago-born-and-bred rapper Lupe Fiasco, “shows the oppression of their voices and their experiences.”

The program also hopes to challenge a contentious trend in education: the push to edit out parts of history. In Arizona, ethnic studies were banned and defunded because of allegations of “ethnic chauvinism,” while a conservative group in Tennessee wants to remove any mention of the Founding Fathers being slave owners from textbooks.

In contrast, the curriculum is meant to be an antidote to much of mainstream history, which “teaches a watered-down version of the victors,” says Coval.


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