04 | WINTER 2020LEARNING THROUGH LITERACY:THE SOCIAL JUSTICE BOOK CLUBBY ELISA EDGARAfter a critically intense year for social justicesparked by the Black Lives Matter movementthis summer, two teenagers in State College tookit upon themselves to promote one of the mostimportant steps of activism: education. This pastfall, State High andDelta students wereinvited to participatein a book clubcentered aroundinequality, injustice,and activism. Ledby junior AlanisWalters and seniorCamilla Baumer, theSocial Justice BookClub was createdas a communitywhere students couldcome together andspark discussions.After taking aclass rooted insocial justice in hersophomore year,Walters was inspiredto host a book cluband take advocacyinto her own hands.The class was Delta’sBridging Divides,taught by VirginiaSquier and LorraineMcGarry, and it made a deep impact on Walters.Students began the course by exploring thehistory of racism in America, from slavery tomass incarceration. After a field trip to Alabama,students were assigned to create a communityproject centered around social justice that wouldlater be presented at a fair open to the public.Almost immediately, a book club seemed like anobvious answer,given Walters’affinity for booksas a teaching tool.“I feel like that’sone of the bestways of informingpeople and havingactive discussionsthat inspire realchange rather thanjust Instagramposts. I really wantpeople to engagewith this kind oftopic and I feellike books are oneof the best ways tofully understandsomething,”Walters said.After hearingabout the clubfrom Walters’teachers, Dr. SeriaChatters, Directorof Equity andInclusivity at SCASD, approached her and offeredto help put together another one, independentfrom school. This new and now completely
05 | WINTER 2020self-led club would be held during June for thePeer Advocates Program. Over the summer, thebook club discussed Despite the Best Intentions:How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools byAmanda Lewis and John Diamond. The club wasa success, and in August, Walters was approachedby Baumer for the first time, along with Dr.Chatters and equity liaison Ashley Diaz, whocurrently moderates the club. Baumer wanted toexpand the club to more of the school community.“I really wanted to shed light on the issues withinour community and I thought a book club wouldbe a really great way to do that because it canbring a lot of people who maybe aren’t alreadyparticipating in activism together,” Baumer said.To prepare for meetings, Baumer and Walterscreate discussion questions for each chapterand during the meetings, they fill the roleof facilitating discussions. Since November,the club has had two online meetings.The book they’re discussing now, The New JimCrow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindnessby Michelle Alexander, is what Baumer and Waltersboth saw as a good segway into topics of racialjustice. The six part book is a winner of multipleawards, has become a staple anti-racism piece toread, and is highly renowned among many for itsacute social commentary. It introduces topics suchas “preservation through transformation,” a termused to describe how racist structures are preservedin society through renaming and rebranding.The New Jim Crow details the transition fromslavery, to Jim Crow laws, and now to what is theprison industrial complex. Walters explained howthe author skillfully personalized issues such as thecriminal justice system by including testimoniesof people whose lives had been ruined by it. Itforced readers to pay attention to the issue at hand.“It’s not something you can just ignore. Bookshelp make it feel like a real problem that needsto be encountered and dealt with,” Walters said.“Again, that’s why book discussion is my favoriteway of inspiring that kind of stuff; engaging withtext is really one of the best ways to do that.”Walters and Baumer recognized that with theheavy topics that come with social justice, manydifficult conversations have to take place thatcan be sensitive or personal. As co-facilitators,Walters and Baumer devised certain groundrules to keep the atmosphere secure for everyoneinvolved. At the first meeting, they encouragedparticipants to add to their list of ‘norms.’“The biggest ones are that, ‘we can share what islearned here but not what is heard here.’ That meansthat if people might share their personal stories,we can talk about the gist of what we learned fromeach other but we can’t share personal recounts oranything,” Baumer explained. “We also just want tomake sure that when we’re saying what we’re sayingwe recognize our own privilege and where we camefrom, so as not to discredit anyone’s experiencesbecause we all have different backgrounds.”The student leaders hope that the club can helpeducate members about these types of issuesand relate them to their own community.The experience of running the club hasbeen just as, if not more gratifying, for thestudent leaders as it has been for participants.“Watching these people be so passionate aboutit and being able to experience a discussionthat is your doing is incredibly rewarding,”Walters added. “That’s the best part.”Being part of a group that strives to create positivechange in their community is meaningful toeveryone involved. Walters and Baumer haveprovided an opportunity for students to engagein important conversations that help developa safe and reflective school environment.