'They can’t vote, but they have a voice. That voice matters'
May 20, 2021 – When NyRee Clayton-Taylor asked the five students in her Mill Creek Elementary School Justice Now class what they needed to do to address “houselessness,” all hands went up.
Wearing their matching JusticeNow502 T-shirts, the students cited local and national statistics about houselessness – “It’s not who you are – it’s the condition that you’re currently in,” Clayton-Taylor reminded them – and discussed finding vacant lots suitable for housing and working with family resource coordinators to identify families for a Habitat for Humanity project. They even made an impromptu pitch to Mayor Greg Fischer for funding.
Heady work for fourth- and fifth-graders.
Breathing life to the mission to ‘Make Louisville our Classroom and Justice our Curriculum,’ these Mill Creek students and nearly 200 of their peers across Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) have spent the better part of this year discussing and crafting solutions to the city’s most persistent justice and equity issues, as part of the district’s Justice Now program.
“They can’t vote, but they have a voice,” said JCPS educator and 2020 Kentucky High School Teacher of the Year Matthew Kaufmann, who along with Clayton-Taylor, herself the 2019 Kentucky Elementary Teacher of the Year, and Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, 2016’s Kentucky Teacher of the Year, created the Justice Now initiative. “That voice matters.”
There are no winners and losers at the end of the one-day Justice Fest event, Kaufmann said – only collaborators. “We don’t want kids competing against each other,” he said. “There are bigger enemies. The bigger enemies are injustice, apathy, indifference.”
The students have worked across schools and age groups to identify issues that are important to them, and developed plans for combating those problems, Kaufmann added. In addition to looking at solutions for affordable housing, students will present a total of 18 proposals to address a myriad of issues.
Among their plans:
- An educational mural campaign highlighting justice workers, from activists to medical workers to teachers, and topics such as environmental concerns.
- A book of poetry that documents the Black experience.
- A “Race for Justice,” with multiple entry points to appeal to runners of all levels, and a course that goes past significant social justice sites and markers.
- A renovated school bus known as the “Justice Express,” that would help address equity and access issues by providing transportation to everything from doctor to haircut appointments. The bus would serve as a “social innovation hub on wheels,” Kaufmann said.
- An adaptive playground to accommodate students with special needs.
- A radio play in coordination with Actors Theatre that examines racial justice issues of the past and present, and a book that highlights Kentucky’s “hidden figures” in the justice arena.
The students will showcase their proposals to community and business leaders in the related fields to build awareness, develop relationships and get buy-in for their projects.
“Every project is creating a tangible thing,” Kaufmann said. “These aren’t just ideas. Ideas are powerful, yes, but these plans are happening,” he said. “These murals are going up. This book is getting published.”