Cultural Leadership

High school students become agents for social justice

Webster Groves High School's Kyman Caviness pictured with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. photo courtesy of Cultural Leadership (click for larger version)
May 18, 2012
Earlier this year, about 25 students from the award-winning Cultural Leadership program "swapped" schools with students from underperforming schools.

It may have been just for a day, but students got a feel of how different life can be for high school students throughout the St. Louis area.

For Kirkwood High School senior Brandon Rush, who completed the Cultural Leadership curriculum two years ago, the school swap was just one event that altered his perspective on life.

"Through the experience, I learned a lot about myself and the kind of person that I want to be," Rush said. "I am now challenging myself to make a difference if I see an injustice around. I used to think, 'Oh, man, that sucks, but that's just the way the world is.' Now I think, 'Oh, man, that sucks, what can I do to change about it? What can I do to make it better?'"

Cultural Leadership is a year-long program that teaches enrolled students "to become change agents, social justice advocates and troublemakers of the best kind," said Holly Ingraham, Cultural Leadership's executive director.

The first half of the program mainly educates students on the history of the African-American and Jewish experience in the United States. The program's second half is geared toward encouraging and empowering students to fight injustices in their own schools and communities.

"When I came to St. Louis, I was told that I shouldn't live in certain neighborhoods because of my skin color," Ingraham said. "I was told that I shouldn't live in other neighborhoods because of the skin color of the person I wanted to have as a roommate. It's a very real situation in St. Louis that your skin color makes a difference in terms of where you're accepted and welcomed."

Cultural Leadership is open to St. Louis-area sophomore and junior high school students. The program was formed in 2004 by Karen Kalish, who modeled Cultural Leadership after Operation Understanding DC, a Washington, D.C., organization Kalish founded in 1993.

Cultural Leadership was originally open to African-American and Jewish students exclusively. Three years ago, Cultural Leadership became open to all St. Louis-area high school students, enabling students like Barrett to join the program.

Brandon Rush photo courtesy of Cultural Leadership (click for larger version)
Students interested in Cultural Leadership fill out an application and are interviewed and selected by a committee comprised of community leaders, and Cultural Leadership alumni and board members. The year-long program begins in January, consists of about 460 hours of programming, and costs $700.

Along with the school swap, one of the highlights of the Cultural Leadership program is a three-week summer trip known as the "Transformational Journey," which will take place June 6-27 this year.

The Transformational Journey takes students from New York City to Philadelphia to Memphis, with plenty of stops in between. Students visit sites of historical importance to civil rights and social justice, They will meet with more than 65 civil rights activists and policy makers.

For Kyman Caviness, a Webster Groves High School junior who completed Cultural Leadership last year, seeing Regina Holliday's mural in Washington, D.C., was his favorite part of the Transformational Journey.

Holliday painted the mural in memory of her husband, who died of cancer in 2009. Before her husband died, Holliday wanted access to his medical records, but the hospital told her it would cost 73 cents per page and she'd have to wait 21 days to get the papers. The story received national media attention.

"That hit close to home, just because I want to be in the medical field," said Caviness, who plans on majoring in pharmacy in college. "It's just crazy how these people come to you at their sickest hour, they're faced with a family issue and they're treated badly. There was so much passion in that mural. Even though it was on the side of a gas station, it had a big message and people from all around came to see it."

Recently, Cultural Leadership students met with Sarah Riss, Webster Groves School District superintendent, and Kelvin Adams, St. Louis Public Schools superintendent. Riss and Adams gave students advice on how they might use what they learned to improve their schools and communities.

"Cultural Leadership really is a powerful and emotional experience for kids, and typically it's something you'll hear them talk about that really changed their lives," Riss said. "It changes how they look at things, and it's designed to give them energy and the skills they need to make a difference in their communities. That's just a great learning experience for kids, and they'll hang onto that hopefully their entire life."

Many students who participate in Cultural Leadership decide to utilize what they learn right away. Caviness works with Webster Challenge, a group Riss helped implement four years ago at Webster Groves High School. Caviness said Webster Challenge works closely with African-American students to improve their grades and help narrow the achievement gap.

Rush, who will attend the University of Dayton next year after graduating from Kirkwood, is on the National Youth Leadership Council's Youth Advisory Council. Like Caviness, Rush chooses to focus on the achievement gap. Rush said his career goal of becoming a psychological researcher was influenced by his time spent as a Cultural Leadership member.

"Cultural Leadership lets me be a change agent, and of course, after all the stuff we learned about black and Jewish-American history, I take more of a stance on racial issues," Rush said. "Cultural Leadership blessed me with a really good understanding on how to be a very, very effective youth advocate and youth leader."

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