Gin and I last week attended a high school symposium called "Do the Right Thing," at the Baltimore Freedom Academy. Walking down the tan hallways covered with bright student artwork, I did not know what to expect, but I soon found myself engaged in a complex conversation about how our daily choices can affect others, both locally and globally.
The program began in the auditorium, where two high school students and a teacher discussed their work with Art on Purpose and their reflections on the theme. One student, Quorren Bullock, described a painting she'd made depicting a man saving a girl from drowning. Another high-schooler said an example of doing the right thing can be as simple as answering a teacher's question in class when no one else has a hand raised.
"I think that every student should have the right to dream and have visions without anyone taking that from them," Bullock said on stage.
We watched an audio presentation in which students interviewed their peers and teachers and asked them to interpret the theme "do the right thing" (borrowed from a Spike Lee film of the same name). The audio was descriptive, and the student-taken photos were evocative.
Teachers who were interviewed described "putting 100% effort into anything and everything you do" and referenced Socrates' quote, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Students who were interviewed talked about making good decisions related to bullying, dress codes and making fun of teachers. The creators of the presentation also included photos of people who've done "the right thing" throughout history, including Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. Images of civil rights protests in the U.S. were juxtaposed with global events.
I was impressed with a note at the end of the screening that told us that all of the music and images used in the presentation were used for educational purposes and that copyright law was considered -- a small but thoughtful example of doing the right thing. (BFA also had vegan snacks for participants, which was another nice touch.)
After the introduction in the auditorium ended, we split into groups for more personal discussions. Gin and I attended a session on "doing the right thing in your community," hosted by the middle school principal, Danielle Shylit. There were several students in the room, as well as parents, teachers and community members. We were asked to reflect on the "First they came ... " quote from Martin Niemoller, a German pastor who was sent to a concentration camp during World War II.
Shylit described herself as a "third-generation Holocaust survivor"; her grandparents met in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, and her mother was born there. Shylit was very open about her family's history, telling us that her grandparents chose love over hate. She also told us about some frank discussions she had with her grandmother about race while she was still alive, part of her grandmother changing her worldview in her 80s.
Group participants applied the quote to current world events, including the revolutions in the Middle East and Africa, and also made links to how individual behavior can inspire change in others. Shylit conducted the session in the Socratic tradition and at one point asked, "In what ways does my identity play into what I believe is the right thing?"
I thought it was an interesting question, about both our individual identities and our global perspective as Americans.
As the session wrapped up, Gin and I spoke to Shylit in the hall, and she told us about a song she sings her daughter every night before bed, called "Everything Possible." And then she sang it for us, right there in the hallway, between sessions, with students and parents stopping at times to listen.
It was a powerful and thought-provoking evening, and I left feeling inspired, both by my own reflections on "doing the right thing," and by the evidence of the important work that's happening at the Baltimore Freedom Academy.
Photos by Mary Hartney