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Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager
Jul 08, 2021
The school year is finished for students in central Ohio and as anyone involved can attest, it was a rough one. Above and beyond the technical challenges of remote education, there were the heightened tensions and division related to racial justice reckoning in the streets and COVID-19 in the air.
Like in years past, the Wex’s WorldView program offered area students in middle and high schools a unique opportunity to experience contemporary art as a way to expand their classroom learning and inform their perspectives on our world. But for 2020–21, there was a shift in the program to better support participants during a tumultuous time.
As Learning & Public Practice Director Dionne Custer Edwards explains, “Worldview is really about putting young people together to think about issues that are impacting us around the globe and that also impact us right here.”
The program’s half-day seminars, typically held on-site, connect teachers and classes with films, exhibitions, performances, and the artists behind these works, as well as other makers who can provide essential context. WorldView events have focused on topics ranging from climate change to the workings of representative government.
Conscious of the specific needs of kids over the past school year, and bolstered by funding from The Ohio State University Seed Fund for Racial Justice and Ohio State's Global Arts + Humanities Discovery Theme, the Wex's Learning & Public Practice team created two WorldView programs instead of one, opened them up to more students, and dedicated one of the programs to the subject of racism.
“It was the issue at hand, and the educators and I thought that if we don’t explore this issue now, when will we?” says Custer Edwards. “It was in our face and students were asking questions. There’s so much going on with the politics, and how did we get here? This funding came right at the time when we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do, how to discuss social justice and inequities and how those show up in our society.”
Held in March, this WorldView seminar featured a virtual screening of Raoul Peck’s award-winning 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, about the life and work of writer and cultural critic James Baldwin. Columbus-based writers Saeed Jones and Prince Shakur joined over 300 students for the screening and a post-film discussion, and each read works of their own that touch on the systemic presence of racism in America, a problem Baldwin addressed with such sharp insight that, decades later, his words still cut.
“It’s so ever-present and relevant,” Custer Edwards says of the film. “You don’t want it to be, but it just is. And it says some things that people still don’t dare say. James Baldwin can do that."
According to Sarah Thornburg, an educator at Columbus Alternative High School (CAHS) who participated in this event with her students in the school’s International Baccalaureate program, the teens at CAHS were primed for such an experience.
“They poked at us last summer, before school even started, in the midst of uprisings all over the place and windows getting smashed in downtown,” she recalls. “A lot of our kids were down there participating in the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests, and they came to us and were like, ‘Alright, you’ve taught us that we can’t just let this stuff stand and we want to do something, so what are we going to do?’”
“A group of those kids have been actively working all year to basically change the climate at CAHS,” Thornburg adds. “They structured our professional development this year and it was all focused on implicit bias, traumatic teaching… They really pushed it on that end, and these kids were also part of the film talk.”
Although a global focus is baked into the WorldView program, there was special value in the local connections that could be made by gathering a large group of students from around central Ohio at a time in which divisiveness has seeped its way into so many aspects of life.
“Everything is politicized right now, and it’s super easy to silo your world and to otherize people,” says Thornburg. “Events like this chip away at that on both sides. My students really felt the way they were seeing and perceiving these things as students in Columbus, students of color or allies of students of color... was different than the suburban students were viewing it, so they were really keen on looking at, are our stereotypes about these kids right? Are we totally misinformed on this? It’s amazing in Columbus how literally you can drive 20 minutes and get anywhere in the city, but there’s a big distance in the 20 minutes between the Linden neighborhood, where my school is located, and Dublin-Coffman High School [in the suburbs]. It’s a different planet, so getting kids together like this is huge.”
During the virtual program, the chat remained open to allow students to communicate their thoughts about the documentary with the entire group. They engaged with teachers, artists, and peers throughout, sharing reactions that ranged from inspired to shocked, and disappointed. The large quotes that pop up throughout this post are from students in the chat.
As Custer Edwards notes, “There are other things you get from watching it in the theater, of course, but from a learning standpoint, there’s something really profound about being able to watch this together and have a discussion in real time.”
In addition to providing insight from past and current voices to foster shared understanding of an inescapable element of American history and modern culture, the program fulfilled another important need, Thornburg says. “The kids were starved for other kids. We were fully remote at the beginning the year and we didn’t get into the building until mid-March. Even then we were still just two days a week and they’re asynchronous the rest of the time. This was a nice way to get them contact with other students in the only safe way we could in that time period.”
Prince Shakur, a past artist-in-residence for the Pages program, has written a lot about Baldwin’s legacy in his work. Following the WorldView screening, he shared excerpts from his memoir that focus on his political awakening. “I wanted to show what it's like to write about your younger years, years when you felt like you were coming of age, because documenting transformation of life or change, is something that young people, especially with the internet, are doing more and more all the time,” says Shakur. “What is the worth of that process? And how can we be intentional as a means of healing ourselves?”
“I just really wanted it to be a space that they could see artists engage with each other and see how creative conversations can be modeled,” Shakur adds. “That's such an important skill for anyone to develop, how to have creative conversations, and it was really fulfilling.”
Ubah Dallin came away from WorldView with a lot, as well. A class of 2021 graduate at CAHS, Dallin says, “From this experience, I gained a greater glimpse of the viewpoints and beliefs of different leaders in the civil rights movement, from MLK to Malcolm X to Medgar Evans, to James Baldwin himself. In school, the curriculum only focused on some of these figures at a very surface level, so I appreciated being able to engage with their works and their ideas. I learned that while progress may be occurring, many of my opinions on racial issues today have been voiced repeatedly decades ago, meaning that change may not be happening as fast as some people would like to believe.”
“I could relate at certain moments of the film,” Dallin explains. “Especially when it discussed how white liberals react when dealing with issues regarding race. I have been in many situations where my discussion of racism made the white people around me visibly uncomfortable, although many of those people often saw themselves as liberal or progressive. I noticed that those types of people just do not wish to actually hold meaningful conversations and would rather pride themselves on being ‘woke’ without actually doing any work. I felt that rather than talking about my own experiences and issues, I was responsible for reassuring the people around me that I do not hate white people and I do not hate them. It was exhausting and when I saw it shown in the film, I felt seen.”
Top of page: I Am Not Your Negro, image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures