On a recent Friday afternoon, a handful of high school students in Philadelphia met over video chat from their respective homes to dissect the lyrics of songs by jazz musician Billie Holiday and rapper J. Cole.
The artists, from two completely different eras, have something in common: their songs of protest. For Holiday, it was the 1939 song “Strange Fruit” that stunned listeners with its horrifying depiction of black lynchings. For J. Cole, it was his 2020 single “Snow on Tha Bluff,” which he released in response to police brutality and ongoing protests over racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
This may not seem like a typical class curriculum — and that’s the point. The workshop is called “Protest Writing,” and it’s hosted by non-profit Mighty Writers, which provides reading and writing classes to low income and marginalized students in the Philadelphia area for free. The goal is have students meet and discuss pieces of protest inspired by the civil unrest they are seeing in their own communities in recent months.
“With the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement and the unfortunate murder of George Floyd, that just added to the conversation,” workshop instructor, Bartley Jeannoute told CNN. “I just felt like this would be the best avenue to leverage my skills as a teacher and get in touch with what kids are saying and how they’re feeling.”
Jeannoute, a private school teacher at Abington Friends School in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, said a colleague encouraged him to reach out to Mighty Writers with his protest writing workshop proposal.
He said he felt it was important to teach a class where he could lay down some groundwork and arm his students with context from history so that they can better understand the movements happening right now.
“There’s so much that gets left out of the curriculum for these kids,” he said. “The conversations that these kids are having now, while they’re at the forefront, they’ve been going on for a long time.”
Creating a space to creatively channel ideas
A group of six students began meeting on July 6, with the workshop’s end date set for Friday, July 17.
During the afternoon hour-long class, students read the historical work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells and contemporary writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones. They also analyze lyrics from artists, like Holiday and J. Cole, as well as Kendrick Lamar and Lauryn Hill.
The workshop culminates with a final writing assignment in the form of a poem, essay or spoken word, Jeannoute said.
“After surveying the history for Black oppression and protest writing, we are now examining current examples of protest writing in journalism,” he said. “We facilitated a very engaging conversation about how oppression manifests in almost every aspect of life as POC in America and in underfunded schools.”
Over the weekend, students will take time to work on their own narratives, drawing inspiration from the week’s conversations.
Jeannoute said he’s assigned two writing prompts: In what ways has Covid-19 directly impacted your life and learning? And/or speak about a specific event or instance of oppression. How can you use your voice to bring about change?
“We want to highlight the student experience and response but we are asking them to use Dr. Stephen Wilbers’ ‘Five Elements of Effective Writing,’ he said. “We’ll give them the space to tell their story but it needs to be clear and structured.”
With the events of this summer being the kind that make history, Jeannoute said he wanted to make sure students had a space to cope with what’s going on in the world and discuss and creatively channel ideas.
Protesting through a social media platform
Zion Perry, 16, a rising junior and workshop participant, told CNN she loves being able to log on from home and learn how to strengthen her writing and voice.
“I just want this workshop to help me become the powerhouse that I want to be,” she told CNN.
Perry’s mom signed her up for the class. Having taken another class with Mighty Writers, she Perry she was excited at the thought of tying her ongoing social justice initiative with lessons from the workshop.
Perry used to travel over 30 minutes from her Philadelphia home by public transport to get to her private school, Academy of the New Church in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania.
But since the pandemic forced her to stay at home and transition to an online-only format, she said it also gave her time to reflect on the education she was receiving and the racial inequality she was facing.
“It brought me to tears when I thought about how I was treated at my school,” Perry said. “There were many teachers at that school that just didn’t believe in Black students being smart kids.”
Perry said she felt like teachers at Academy of the New Church would openly praise White students but wouldn’t speak highly of any of her Black peers.
The workshop became a more formal extension of a project Perry was already doing on her own: Using Instagram as a form of protest to show what it is like to be “Black at” her private high school.
“I wanted to create this platform for Black women and men who don’t feel like they’re strong enough to stand up for themselves,” she said. “I used to be that student that would never speak up for a racial injustice so people could treat me any type of way.”
As protests over the deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks have filled US cities, Black students and alumni of some of the country’s most prestigious private high schools have taken to social media to share their experiences of being Black at majority White elite private schools.
When asked about Perry’s account, the school told CNN they are listening to stories from students past and present in an effort to learn.
“We support all our students, alumni, and families in courageously speaking out about the hurt they experienced while attending our schools and we thank them for sharing input on how to make our schools better,” an ANC spokesperson said.
“We are using their input and their voices together with other voices and professionals to help in formulating and implementing a plan to move forward with greater love and respect.”
An ongoing fight for justice
Jeannoute said he’s humbled to have been able to teach a class of this nature. In his experience, he said private schools provide “a bit more latitude” for kids to speak up about their ideas, whereas in public schools, some of those “kids’ voices get lost in the shuffle.”
“This is an opportunity for me to give back to one of my principles of teaching, which is to give a voice to those who have been overlooked,” he said.
Perry said she and her siblings will not be going back to Academy of the New Church because of the racial inequality she said she has faced. Her family has moved to the Willow Grove area where she said she plans on attending a new school in the fall.
And though she’s changing schools, Perry said she will continue her fight against racial injustice — because she doesn’t want others to fight as hard as she has had to.