Social Justice Week Thrives

For the past three years at Friends Select School, Social Justice Week has become a fixture of the upper school’s educational program. This initiative honors the work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and is typically kicked off by Friends Select’s MLK Teach-in. Social Justice Week creates authentic learning experiences in the Philadelphia community, integrates learning with building community, and provides opportunities for student choice. This week-long immersive program consists of guest speakers, wellness activities, experiential learning and field trips, research, discussion, and planning action that guide the remainder of the school year. 

Though Social Justice Week was postponed from January to March this year owing to the school’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, the program continues to thrive. “Social Justice Week is a great partnership between DEI work and our city curriculum,” said Toni Graves Williamson, director of equity and inclusion. “It initially came together in such an organic nature from examining what we have done in the past and listening to our students, and we continue to rely on them to enhance it each year.” According to upper school director Chris Singler P’20, ’22, ’27, “This program has become a hallmark of our work, and rather than being something ‘different’ from school, has actually come to inform how we engage students throughout the school year.”

How It all Started
“InterSession was the predecessor of Social Justice Week and, for eight years, it was a program designed to explore global issues, politics, and history,” Chris said. InterSession was funded in part by the Edward E. Ford Foundation. 

“While effective and mission-centered, there was a growing desire for exploring topics a little closer to home, especially those related to perceived injustices in the world.” Additionally, the school’s strategic effort led to the creation of faculty positions that promote cross-cultural competency and connecting the school community with the larger community of Philadelphia and our society. “The desires of students to shift from regions to topics and to more deeply studied social justice issues here in Philadelphia with opportunities for student choice and agency inspired the switch,” explained director of city curriculum Margaret Smith, who works with Toni and the student committee that drives Social Justice Week programming.

How the Week Works
Social Justice Week is largely student-led and -organized, and invites all upper school students to participate in the planning process. Members of Clerks, a club of student affinity group leaders, meet in the months preceding to Social Justice Week to develop a guiding focus, plan and schedule speakers, and organize their peers and faculty into small groups designated by a “track,” such as Combating White Supremacy, Gun Violence, Education Reform, and Healthcare. “Each year, Clerks brainstorms a list of overarching questions that aim to guide our work for both the entire school year and Social Justice Week. This year, our questions focused on a theme surrounding unheard, forgotten, and marginalized voices as we identified how to highlight them and take meaningful action to support these groups in our lives,” shared Zion Todd ’22, a member of Clerks who has been integral to Social Justice Week since its beginning. “I think my desire to educate our community on topics involving diversity and a need to create better understanding motivated me to get involved. Working with people is some of the most consistent and rewarding work we do, ensuring that our community is educated and can understand others is important.” 

Students Lead the Way
In being responsible for Social Justice Week, student leaders learn the importance of organization, communication, and time management in the  lead-up to the program. “There are a lot of students and faculty to account for who are being organized into different groups, with schedules to make, speakers to identify, and transportation for off-site elements,” Zion explained. The skills students garner as they work together are ones that will benefit them long after graduation from Friends Select. “In planning Social Justice Week, students learn how to navigate situations that I know they will confront later in life,” said Margaret. “Regardless of the personal and professional choices they make, they will have to navigate budgets, making scheduling choices while balancing competing desires, learning to set mini deadlines in order to reach long-term goals, and even recognizing when they are in over their head and need help.”

The Power of Recognition
Students build confidence knowing Friends Select supports their leadership. “That this is a student-run initiative highlights the trust that the school has in the voices of the students involved in diversity work,” said Zion. “It also emphasizes how committed Friends Select’s student body is to this type of work, as they are willing to sacrifice their time to create real change.” As Toni said, “What makes it so meaningful is that students see their work being realized, and see their place in society as a result. It’s not just about what they’re learning, but also how they’re learning it.”