I started seeing invisible people when I lived in Philadelphia, after my first visit to a homeless shelter. An old man with a shopping cart; a woman with her possessions in bulging plastic bags; the people-shaped bundles under bridges. It reminded me of the time I tried on a friend’s glasses and first saw the leaves on trees.
I had another shock 2 years later when I ran a community-based program in Cape Town. I thought I knew a good deal about the townships, having spent some considerable time working with community leaders. But nothing prepared me for visiting a hostel where families rented not rooms, but walls. 1 room 4 families, bunk beds on all sides, belongings, or a child, underneath, clothes hanging from the bedposts. In one room a single woman forced to wake and wash at 3 am if she was to have any privacy.
Last year in London I had my English eye-opening. Guides from Unseen London took a group of my students and I on walking tours around the city. They had all slept rough – they showed us where, as well as telling us where to find the only free toilets (in Covent Garden) or a free cup of tea and a sandwich. They showed us the places where you could find a warm grating in winter or shelter from the rain, although most had recently been closed off or locked. I complimented one guide on her highly detailed knowledge of the city. “And I’m a History teacher” I said. She beamed back “so was my mum.”
Like the transparent overlays that transform the ruins of ancient Rome into the great city it once was, there’s a whole missing dimension to our cities.
Without realising, we have all become partially sighted; without intentional programs and lots of practice there is a real danger that this may become a progressive condition
There are lots of ways you can do this, but here’s one: Community Mapping
2 years ago I collaborated with an amazing English teacher to design a Service Learning program. Ours had a Human Rights theme, but it would have worked equally well focused on people with disabilities, the elderly or refugees. These are all sensitive issues; the trick is to give them a human face. Our inspiration was a highly-detailed map of our local community, produced by the UK Ordnance Survey, which also has a fantastic Digimapping package for schools.
Each Year 8 / 7th Grade class had a map, and a set of pins. The project began with lessons on human rights, looking at the Universal Declaration and all the laws that require governments to act (the UDHR doesn’t.) They also studied definitions of Poverty, widely agreed to be the greatest human rights violation in the world today.
That done, their first task was to find and mark on the map every organisation that worked towards fulfilling people’s rights: doctors and hospitals, schools, churches, a homeless shelter, the police station, a library and a community centre. I’d established community partnerships with many of them the year before, so this was a powerful way to strengthen and extend those partnerships.
The next task was to divide the list up and research each one. For each organisation they identified a leader and made a note of their contact information. As a class, they drafted a letter inviting all the leaders to come to school to be interviewed – on a day we called Write on Rights Day.
The venue for the work now switched from advisory / tutor / form time, to English class. The English teachers launched a journalism unit, with a particular focus on interviews. They studied examples, looked at the most successful techniques for extracting information and opinion, and started practising. In small groups they began deciding the best questions to ask each of the community leaders.
Invitations were emailed out and replies came in. A Friday afternoon was chosen and several parents roped in to bake cakes and man the teapots. Posters went up around school to let everyone know what was happening.
18 local community activists and leaders were interviewed that day – not only one of the most powerful and inspiring collections of role models you could imagine, but also a masterclass in leadership. Student photographers were hard at work. Detailed notes were taken, and for the next few weeks students worked on their articles. Once edited and peer reviewed they were gathered together and indexed. A small group of students then put in a grant application to the parent association, and a month or so later they got approval: the manuscript was sent to a local printer. Copies of the book were delivered to all the community partners.
One boy talked to a student from the neighbouring school about what it was like being in a school with lots of refugees:
“I learned a label can mean a lot of different things. The word refugee is more complicated than just something like illegal immigrants. A student I talked to was a refugee from Kosovo and all these years later, he’s just a normal kid going to school.”
A student I talked to was a refugee from Kosovo and all these years later, he’s just a normal kid going to school
Far from a grim responsibility, this work is a gift. I’ve yet to meet a young person who couldn’t be drawn in, their curiosity piqued by the mystery of the unknown, their brains and hearts engaged by the stories they uncover. They don’t even notice that they’re collaborating, problem-solving, thinking critically and analytically, being creative, storytelling and developing their communication skills..