Classroom Conversations on Injustice and Oppression

Apr 24, 2018

When Leigh Ann Erickson taught in Chicago and New York, she witnessed the effects of social injustice every day.

But the view from small town Iowa can be very different. That’s why Erickson founded a social justice course, an African American literature course, and the CARE Conference at Mount Vernon High School. Through this curriculum, Erickson hopes to broaden her students' perspectives about income inequality, race, and the criminal justice system. 

"Our system of oppression is just continually pushing down young people. Coming to Mount Vernon, I felt a great responsibility to do something with that knowledge," Erickson says. "My goal was to provide students with experiences that would help them build relationships with people who were different from them."

On this edition of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with Erickson about the social justice course she designed for Mount Vernon students, what she's learned from teaching it, and how the course has changed over time. She's joined by Mount Vernon High School students Sam White and Alanah Malone, who share how the course has impacted them beyond the classroom. 

"The course is based on Bryan Stevenson, who wrote Just Mercy," Erickson says. "He says that to achieve social justice there are four things that we must do: get close to whatever problem it is that we're trying to understand better, change the current narrative that surrounds that problem, give and receive hope, and be willing to be uncomfortable."

Her students, White and Malone, say the course has made it easier to speak up about the issues they care about. 

"Knowledge is my defense, my weapon, when I'm speaking to people about my beliefs and what I think is right," Malone says. "I feel so much more comfortable getting in a conversation about capital punishment after reading Just Mercy."

This hour, Nebbe also talks with Jessica Welburn Paige, an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at the University of Iowa. She says that students at the collegiate level often come to the classroom without ever having had conversations about injustice and oppression.

"When I get students from Iowa City and from other places around the state, a lot of students just haven't had the classroom experiences like we've heard about in Mount Vernon," she says. "While it's great that they've signed up for the classes that they're taking in college, these conversations need to be initiated before students make it to this level."

Erickson encourages other high school teachers to fill this gap by designing similar curriculum for their schools.

“The resources are there. I just think we need to boldly step into these spaces that feel uncomfortable and be willing to take risks and be willing to fail and learn from that," says Erickson.