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Community Centers: Social Media

Suzanne Guillette MFA '05

Ilan Weissman ’00, MS Ed ’01 couldn’t have scripted a more perfect teaching moment if she’d tried. Four years ago, as the director of media studies at the Ella Baker School, Weissman and her students were studying the power of youth movements across generations. Then Hunter College announced its intention to build a new science center—by leveling the complex in which Ella Baker and other schools are housed.

After months of looking at the role that youth played in the civil rights movement and making connections to present-day issues that affect young people (gay rights; high stakes testing), Weissman’s students seized the opportunity to put their lessons into action. They wanted to save their school.

Weissman teaches that activism is not a one-day affair to be celebrated only on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but rather a socially conscious way of being in the world. In her media studies class, Ella Baker students, the majority of whom are African American and Latino, discuss real-life experiences—an uncomfortable interaction with a police officer, for example—and relate them to larger social issues like race, class, and gender. From there, Weissman helps the students find creative ways to tell their stories using a wide range of media, including film and performance.

In response to the proposal by Hunter College, Weissman’s students, along with other students from the complex, organized 1,000 people to march through the Upper East Side. They chanted, sang songs, and held posters, landing finally at the office of Hunter’s president. Al Sharpton made an appearance—and so did FOX News. Weissman recalls holding a student on her shoulders during the march and hearing her shout, “Is this civil rights?”

Four years later, the building is still standing—and the students have proof that their actions do make a difference. “When asked about activism, saving the building is the first thing most students will mention,” says Weissman.

A self-described “educational reformist,” Weissman came to Ella Baker as a student teacher in SLC’s Art of Teaching Program. Upon graduation, she taught at the progressive K-8 public school for four years, and then the principal invited her to create her own program. Her media studies program involves students of all ages and combines three of Weissman’s passions: social change, community building, and the arts.

“There are many after-school programs that do this, but I wanted to create something that would happen every single day,” says Weissman, who is guided by John Dewey’s concept of education as a social process. “I wanted to have the kids be able to tell their own stories through multimedia, where they would be accountable to the arts the same way they’re accountable to other disciplines.”

When asked about activism, saving the building is the first thing most students will mention.

An important aspect of Weissman’s work is the community that she’s helped build among the students. “These students, coming from all different backgrounds, have the emotional safety to express themselves.”

In her quest to create “multiple points of entry” to learning, Weissman has designed an extensive program that includes a visiting activist/artist program; biweekly “Town Hall” performances that showcase student art; the annual talent show featuring parents; fundraising for larger causes, including earthquake relief in Haiti; and a documentary on the life of Ella Baker, the civil rights activist and colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr. Calling the students “Baker’s Legacy,” the film will incorporate footage from student performances and protests, including the march to Hunter College.

The centerpiece of Weissman’s program is the annual Ella Baker Commemoration, a year-end show that honors the school’s namesake. Every one of the 300 students at the school has a role in the production, and Weissman estimates that 90 percent of the parents attend—no small feat for an alternative public school with families scattered across the boroughs.

The result? “The confidence that these activities build in the students is remarkable. It’s the first thing people notice when they come to our school,” says Weissman.