Carol Lewis is a middle school teacher at One World Middle School in the Bronx. Carol and her students have done an extraordinary thing: they have organized and are preparing to lead a Children’s March in Washington D.C. on June 3rd. This goal of the march to raise awareness of UNICEF’s Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) treaty and to lobby for U.S. ratification and worldwide enforcement. Nectar News was lucky to catch up with Carol and a few of her students to interview them about the upcoming March and the role of youth activism in our society today.
NN: Tell me about how the idea for this march on June 3rd was generated and why it is important right now.
Carol Lewis: A year and a half ago my students created a project called the “Heart2Heart” campaign for peace. It developed out of them looking at their circumstances locally, nationally, globally, and creating an experiment to collect a lot of data from different places. Their idea was to cut out paper hearts and ask people to write their name, age, and region on them. They also gave them a sentence pop “I experience violence when___.” They asked the participants to fill in the blank as well as sign a pledge for peace. They thought they may get 100 – 300 responses when they started this work last year, but they are still collecting hearts today and we have over 3,000 from all over the country and around the world.
What we noticed while doing this work was that most of the people who signed their hearts wrote about incidents and memories of violence from when they were children. This led us to study the CRC a UNICEF Treaty called the Convention of the Rights of the Children.
In studying this document, the students realized that the data that they had collected in “Heart2Heart” had shown how important it was for the United States to actually ratify this treaty right now. There are 193 countries in the United Nations, and 192 countries have ratified it and the United States is the only country that has not. When the students found that out they were outraged and moved to do something to make a difference. They also recognized that in the 192 countries that have ratified that document most aren’t enforcing it properly, because if that were the case kids would not be refugees from their own homes, they would not victims of war, they would not be starving and they would have clean water to drink. We know that for most children in the world that is not the case.
So my students decided to take their classroom studies, the initial data collection, and turn it into a point of social activism and they created this Children’s March. What we are doing is we are going to rally on June 3rd in Washington D.C. and we are going to ask President Trump and policy makers in D.C. to listen to the kids and be educated by them. The kids are going to teach them about the CRC, and ask that they ratify this document now instead of waiting for 30 years. It usually takes 30 years for this country to go through the process of treaty ratification but it may only take 30 minutes to decide to go to war and our kids are not pleased with that fact either.
NN: For those of us who don’’t know about the CRC – can you give a little background on what the treaty is for?
CL: Yes. The CRC was created by UNICEF to protect mother’s and children, especially in undeveloped countries. They go in and they feed families, give medical care to families, and provide refuge from war to families. It is a very powerful document. It is 42 rights in total and it basically lifts the moral responsibility society should have for children. Some of them are: Children have a right to equal education; Children have a right to healthcare; Children have a right to housing; If a family cannot take care of the children the government has responsibility to take care of them in like kind. So a lot of the debates that are happening right now aren’t debatable. When our President says “if you are muslim you can’t come into this country,” well that’s a violation of a human treaty. When families are being split a part because children are born here and their parents are not, that’s a violation of a human treaty. Families are supposed to stay together by law, because the U.N. understands the moral regard. So it is a very very powerful document.
NN: Carol – I am interested in how you found your way to this unique middle school in the Bronx, and what led you to teaching kids about activism.
CL: I think I’ve been teaching all my life. Even when I was a little kid and I had dolls I used to line them up and give them lessons. I didn’t care what they looked like and I didn’t comb their hair I just wanted to be their teacher. Even before I became a formal teacher, I was a personal trainer, yoga instructor and award winning poet. That led me into teaching workshops on how to get kids passionate about reading and writing. I wrote a book about this which was published and bought by a lot of principals for their schools. I ended up writing curriculum for the book and going in to teach. In that process, the kids would read my book with their teachers and write me letters and I would answer their letters. It was really powerful. From there I realized that there is a quiet power as a teacher when you can empower kids to feel not only good about themselves but positive about the world. I began to see that maybe I was meant to work with kids. So I signed up for the teaching fellows program.
When I first came to the One World Middle school I was as an English teacher and then I taught social studies. The way I taught was that I connected the history to our social systems today, and that’s when my kids started talking as activists. While they were speaking as activist and wanting to do more, I found myself getting written up a lot because it wasn’t the traditional way of teaching. So I was very frustrated by that and I was about to quit. My principal knew this and she came up to me and said “what if I just gave you a class that you come up with yourself.” I thought about it and said “I would like to teach a class on social activism.”
So I created this class called Global Connections. I wrote the curriculum for it but it was very skeletal because I really wanted the class to be driven by student wants. It was in that class that the Heart to Heart campaign for Peace was created by the students. The structure was a very non-traditional class setting. I have conference tables in my room and the kids invite each other to speak very politely. They essentially control the classroom. The hardest part for me was in finding the perfect primary and secondary sources to help funnel their passion and learn more about what they cared about. But when I say this was all them, I mean this was all them.
For the kids to pull off a march like this takes lots of work and persistence, and they did it within a week! They reached out to over 200 people: co-sponsors, the media, everybody. They quickly got it out on all twitter pages, put together all the social media, I mean, they are doing everything. When they realized that they weren’t getting any sponsorship from celebrities for the rally they quickly put together their own speeches that I really believe are more powerful than any celebrity could do because they are speaking from their heart. It is moving. I am telling them, even if no one shows up on June 3rd on this march I am already so proud of them. I know they have grown leaps and bounds in this classroom . They are not just little babies who get told what they are able to do – they set their own goals and then set them higher when they are surpassed. They are so confident and it’s amazing how they take care of each other. It has been really incredible to watch.
NN: That is so inspiring. I understand you have a few student organizers there as well who I can speak with.
CL: Yes. Let me put you on speaker phone with Wendy Lopez, Gia Stern, and Merelis Peralta. Wendy is a documentary filmmaker who has put together all of the footage on our website. Merelis is a poet and Gia has been in charge of our social media campaign
NN: Hi ladies! I am so moved by the work that you guys are doing. I’d love to hear more about your experience as young activists and what it has been like to work on this March.
Wendy: It is actually very interesting because when people get together to do something this outstanding it is very powerful and you get surprised by the improvements you make by doing something that you want to do with other people who feel the same way.
Gia: It’s been very motivating for me. There was so much I didn’t know before working on this project. Now I really know what’s happening to us and what we are being deprived of. It’s definitely not ok. It never has been and it never will be.
NN: What advice do you have for aspiring young activists?
Merelis: I would tell them to never stop believing and keep going because you are going to make a change either way. If you feel nervous or that no one is going to give you the rime of day just be patient, persistent, and know that what you are going to do will help the world and will have a big impact on the community.
How can we, the public, help your efforts of June 3rd? What will be the most effective forms of support?
CL: We are asking people to support us in similar ways that they supported the Women’s March, meaning if you can’t make it to Washington D.C. we understand that but please show up in your own community. Raise your voice for children’s rights in the name of peace for the entire world. That’s what we really want. We want people to document by taking pictures, video and posting it on their social media and loading it up onto our. My kids feel right now like they have been alone in the world, and I think that a lot of kids feel that way. We have an exercise called A-Day at our school, where we begin asking very innocent questions like “cross the line if you like vanilla ice-cream” “cross the line if you like hot dogs” and by the end of it gets more serious and we ask “cross the line if you have ever had thoughts about killing yourself.” I sat in on the 6th grade A-day and I was shocked to see that most of the 6th graders crossed the line on that question. SO the idea of kids feeling alone and alienated is very real. Even in the process of trying to get this march going they have felt that way. They had gotten a lot of promises from UN that have fallen through and the women’s march founders. Not to disparage those groups – maybe they are just busy, maybe they think oh they are just kids they won’t pull it off anyways but it’s happened. And It’s been disappointing but it has been really interesting to watch my kids take every “No” as an “I can” statement for themselves. It’s like “Oh they won’t help us get the permit, we will do it our selves” or “ they won’t connect us to who they are in contact with, well we’ll find out who their contacts are and we’ll do it ourselves” and I have watched them do this. They come into my classroom, they sit on the floor, they sit outside and they do what needs to be done. And they support each other in getting it done. There have been tears of frustration. There have been tears of sadness from coming across stories of kids who have been tortured and they are moved by them and it inspires them to do this work.
SO I think what we need everyone to do who wants to help is if you can’t go to D.C. show up in the bronx, show up in Brooklyn, show up in Nevada, show up in Palestine, show up in Kenya. On our twitter page we have been reaching out to people all over the world and asking them to do the same. That’s what we need most. To share the information. There is a treaty that protects children around the world. We don’t know why our country is the last hold out. North Korea has signed it. Somalia has signed it. We have a new President who claims he wants to make America great, but kids in America are starving like nobodies business and are neglected and he needs to recognize that.
Wendy: Our dream is your support. Please spread the word and the message. We are not kidding around, this needs to get done now or our future’s are over.
PLEASE VISIT THE WEBSITE FOR ALL MARCH INFORMATION