FSSA’s Newest Class: Social Justice and Anti-Racism
By Olivia Stripling and Ansel Stover-Whilden
In the early hours of the morning, students curiously file in the first floor black box theater at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (FSSA). There are feelings of confidence, excitement, and overwhelming anxiety. Some students are just glad to be back in the building of the school they love so much, while others are entering the building for the very first time, and there is a common feeling of uncertainty among everyone.
It is mid-September, and the Social Justice and Anti-racism class is meeting for the very first time. Mr. Mwanki, (former guidance counselor and now the assistant principal for equity, inclusion, and student experience) and Ms. Frias, (a special education teacher at Sinatra) administer the class and hold all the same emotions as their new students.
The first class is spent sharing emotions and acknowledging anxieties and worries, something Mr. Mwaniki and Ms. Frias value greatly.
The class is the result of discussions and meetings about the Black Lives Matter movement that surged during June 2020. The movement had lasting effects at FSSA, finding its way into classrooms and after school activities. The Black Student Union was formed to foster a sense of community among black students, and the Instagram account @blackatsinatra was created to give people of color a place to report racism in the school community. The anti-racism committee, led by Mr. Frankel and Ms. Pridgen, was formed as a club for students to foster discussions on race and inflict positive change in the school.
“As a result of seeing the power, relevance, and importance of meaningful conversations and dialogue that was happening; realizing that students are at the forefront of this positive change happening at this school. So, not only is it worth providing a more consistent space for that work to happen, but also I think it’s time to more concretely, and intentionally, embed this focus into the fabric and foundation of our school.” Mr. Mwaniki said.
The Anti-Racism and Social Justice class has students from all grade levels at Sinatra, and from different backgrounds, which gives this class many diverse perspectives and results in rich conversations. Students have the opportunity to learn about their peers and their struggles through discussion, while also reflecting on themselves.
“We have so many people and so many different kinds of people, not even just diverse in race and ethnicity, but also everyone just has their own different thing,” Dallas White said, a senior dance major who is currently the president of student government at Sinatra. Dallas has had a voice in these discussions since the pandemic, as she was in the anti-racism committee and the anti-racism curriculum committee, a club set up for students to meet with teachers and diversify their course.
Now, almost two months into the school year, the class is focused on creating community within the black box walls before diving into more serious topics.
“[Mr. Mwaniki and I] have been very intentional about making sure that we’re building community. That every single student, regardless of where they’re at in terms of how confident they feel discussing certain topics, that they feel comfortable and safe and they know that this is a space where they belong, and that they have the comfort and ability to learn and show up as they are regardless of where they’re at,” Ms. Frias said.
The proof of this intention lies in the fact that Ms. Frias and Mr. Mwaniki debrief after every class, something Mr. Mwaniki is really appreciative of. Ms. Frias refers to this class as a living, breathing unit that requires care and attention to keep it running smoothly. During these debriefing sessions they engage in discussions around how to build community and how to cultivate leadership skills. Both administrators try to be mindful of all student’s needs and expectations so as to understand where the class should go next.
“One of my biggest approaches is always: ‘What are we doing to better ourselves? What are we doing to develop ourselves? What are we doing to become agents of change in our community?’” Ms. Frias asks herself these questions during every debrief, and discusses them with Mr. Mwaniki.
Since it is a new class, both the teachers and students have had a constructive approach to it’s curriculum. Teachers serve more as facilitators of the conversation, and they both really want students to lead.
“We didn’t have a lot of time over the summer to come up with a fully fleshed out curriculum. Two, we were completely okay with that because we wanted the curriculum to be very flexible, like really, really flexible. So I think, coming into the year we realized this wouldn’t just be a class to have a space to talk about social justice and anti-racism, but it would be a class also to develop student leadership, because students have been real leaders in this work at this school.” Mr. Mwaniki said.
The content of the class is, as one would assume, about social justice issues and anti-racism ideals, with an emphasis on the school community and student leadership.
“The umbrella is social justice anti-racism, and understanding what goes into doing that work and being engaged in that work in an active way, with intentionality. With a deepening of understanding and learning that can contribute to, and add to, conversations that are really hard and difficult at times.” Mr. Mwaniki said.
“The last question we got asked was about sympathy and empathy, because that whole week we’d been discussing that. It was about: ‘How do we kinda navigate empathy within the class?’ and ‘why is it important for social justice work?’ Those are the kind of questions we get about the activity we do that day,” Dallas adds.
As for the future of the class, students believe more work needs to be done in order to foster community, have more inclusive conversations, and make the anti-racism work more efficient in and out of the classroom.
“I think that we have to work on, myself included, not making such judgemental stares, which I often do with my black peers and friends. And then, listening more. I think many times someone will say something and it’ll be a little like, what did you just say? But I didn’t listen to the rest of what you said, so what you said might have actually been insightful, but I only listened to the first part. So, I think listening is definitely a good one. But I do think the class has a lot of potential to move in the right direction with people participating and talking,” Dallas said.
Devin Moss, a senior drama major and former member of the anti-racism committee, also has hopes for the class’ future.
“Hopefully, I think we should make it to a point where everyone has to take this class, and that it’s a really informative and community-building class for everybody,” she adds.
Mr. Mwaniki and Ms. Frias have hopes for the future as well. They really hope that the work done in the class is impactful, and sticks with their students for the rest of their lives.
“I hope that students in the class think about Frank Sinatra as a school community, and think about ways to impact positive social change in the school community. I would love for the students to lead a workshop for teachers in this building. Something that’s meaningful, that’s not coming from Mr. Mwaniki who is spearheading equity and inclusion and student experience, but like these are students that are leading, facilitating, and modeling what being active in this work looks like and why it’s relevant,” Mr. Mwaniki said.
Ms. Frias wants everyone including herself and Mr. Mwaniki, to be able to walk away better because of the class.
“That we can say, ‘I am a better person’, ‘I am a better part of this community because this happened’, and that better is defined differently for everyone,” Ms. Frias added.
This is the first year the class is in session at Sinatra, but it won’t be the last. Students and faculty alike work passionately in and out of the black box theatre to refine this class. This year is an experimental one, with a loose curriculum and lots of debriefs, but it’s building up to be an historic class and one that administrators plan to keep.