Inside Lagunitas Middle School, Katherine Sanford is trying to change the way her eighth-grade students think about justice.
Twice a week, as part of her new Equity and Activism Project, students take seats on the floor or in high-top desks and learn about inequity: how the discrimination and prejudices of the past set down roots that originated many of the issues we see today. As part of the curriculum, students discuss the differences between slavery and immigration, the state of the modern-day prison system, and local socio-economic issues like affordable housing.
“If you display ignorance,” she told her students during a discussion about the complexity of free speech in schools, “the school’s job is to illuminate that ignorance for you.”
On the Monday after Thanksgiving, eighth graders shared takeaways from episode nine of the Washington Post’s “Constitutional” podcast, which focused on prison conditions in Parchman Farm—Mississippi’s infamous state penitentiary—and the parallels between enslavement and incarceration.
“It’s brutal, how prisons are, and how similar they are to slavery, and how most people don’t even know what’s happening with the prison system,” one student said. Others recounted the cruel and unusual punishments prisoners underwent in Parchman: being shot, living in squalor.
When a student asked what rights prisoners have while inside a prison, Ms. Sanford backed up to discuss sentencing itself. “In theory, you have a trial, a jury of your peers. [You are] sentenced if found guilty, and the totality of who you are should be taken into account,” she said. “But we now have something called mandatory minimums.” She then walked students through the term’s definition: a statute that requires specific minimum prison terms for certain crimes.
The class was borne in part out of the Change Project, a community-focused school initiative started last year that asked students to identify an issue they cared about and then design a project to address it in some way. Afterwards, students delivered TED-style talks.
Ms. Sanford had been inspired to create the project after attending the bar mitzvah of a friend’s son and thinking about the milestone’s service component, which “builds up for kids the idea that they can take ownership of something,” she said.
She also thought it would be a good way to instill soft skills—like showing up on time, using proper email etiquette and organizing. One group of boys collected hygiene products to make packages for the homeless; Ms. Sanford’s son worked with a partner to collect 120 gallons of Legos for Marin Foster Care.
But last summer, after the project’s pilot year, Ms. Sanford noticed that students were making racist and homophobic jokes on social media. She began to ask herself how she could create a curriculum that had a lasting impression on students’ conception of social justice and community.
“It’s an epidemic,” she said. “Many of the stars they look up to, the humor is based in being inappropriate. Some think we live in a post-race world, but of course none of that’s true. Over the summer I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could morph the Change Project into something bigger, where the lessons they learned [connected] to these larger concepts like racism and equity.”
The result was the Equity and Activism Project. As part of the curriculum, Ms. Sanford requires her students either to read three news stories a week or watch the news three times in a week. “Before, I’d kind of listen to it in the background, but I had never really watched it or read articles until this year,” said Achilles Das. His classmate Bella McCourtney added that when the class began earlier this school year, she “worked really hard to learn about the news and current events, because it’s really important to know what’s happening in the history and the current time—that affects us and our generation.”
Classes occasionally feature guest speakers. Last month, Josh Fryday, the mayor of Novato, came to speak about local activism. In the future, Ms. Sanford hopes to bring in Carroll Bogert, the president of the Marshall Project—a criminal justice news organization—as well as advocates and activists from around Marin.
Lagunitas School’s student body is 75 percent white, and Ms. Sanford feels it is deeply important that students are given the informational tools to look beyond the bubble in which they live. “A lot of my students are insulated from experiences, or assume things are ancient history that aren’t history. I wanted them to understand why their communities look the way they look,” she said. “It’s important for students to realize that the way the world they live in [looks] didn’t just happen. We can only choose to unravel it if we understand the issues.”
Eva Thomas said that before her class embarked on the project, she hadn’t been aware of the ways in which racism still persisted in American society. “In school we mainly learn about how racism was abolished, but that’s not true,” she said. “There’s still racism within the prison systems, and that is still affecting millions of people in the U.S. and their families.”
Last Monday, when Ms. Sanford asked the class to guess the color of most of the people locked up for possessing marijuana, a small, quick chorus replied, “black people.” (Although black and white populations use marijuana at roughly equal rates, black people are over three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.)
In April, the group plans to travel to the South, where they will visit a host of social justice monuments: the Rosa Parks Museum, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Southern Poverty Law Center Memorial, the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum & Lynching Museum, the 16th Street Baptist Church, the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
“What I wanted to do was take my students to Alabama and Georgia and walk in the footsteps of the civil rights movement and put it in the context of activism throughout history,” Ms. Sanford explained.
To help fund the trip, she has organized a benefit featuring a conversation between her father and brother: Peter Osnos, a former correspondent for the Washington Post, and Evan Osnos, a staff writer at the New Yorker. Michael Krasny, host of KQED’s Forum, will moderate the event, scheduled for Dec. 23 at 3:30 p.m. at Sir Francis Drake High School.
“The civil rights movement was ultimately a bunch of individuals deciding they were going to make change, and many of them were children,” Ms. Sanford said. “I think we underestimate the power of students.”
In order to foster that change-making power, Ms. Sanford is folding in the work of the Change Project as an action component of the Equity and Activism Project. Two students have already decided they want to work on affordable housing; others are working to help victims of the Camp Fire.
The more the class explores civil rights, the more Ms. Sanford hopes students will think about the power of organizing and its constantly-shifting methodologies. She doesn’t want the class to feel punitive—“You don’t hold them accountable for the sins of their parents or grandparents,” she said—but she does want her students to understand inequity.
“I think if you do it in a way where they feel like knowledge is power, and you tell them a lot that you’re teaching them this because if they have the information, then we aren’t bound to repeat history,” Ms. Sanford said. “My hope is that after this experience they will forever view the world through a wider lens.”