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Mount St. Mary Academy students learn about social justice during 2-day program

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Students learned some hard facts about inequality during Mount St. Mary Academy’s Service and Justice Days. Then they challenged themselves to end the injustice that they now see in society.

Mount St. Mary Academy students sand down beams to be used to build benches that will be used in local greenspaces. The benches were just one project taking place during MSM’s Service and Justice Days held April 6-7. (Photo courtesy of Mount St. Mary Academy)

Service and Justice Days is a two-day workshop-filled experience where the students learn different aspects of social justice. Topics include everything from Accessibility of Sustainable Energy in Developing Countries to the Inequality of Women in Sports to Building Benches. The program aims to put Catholic faith into action by having the students look at life and dignity of each human person and be called into community participation.

One group of students examined the representation and lack of diverse characters in children’s literature. The workshop made the students look at their own bookshelves to see if what they read is a mirror of themselves or a window into another culture.  

Riley Stanton, a sophomore at the Kenmore high school, works at a preschool and never thought too much about what she read to her kids. Now she’s rethinking the subject matter.

“We don’t read anything that has much content about social justice. Most of them are jokey books and light hearted,” she explained. “I think (more diversity) could be beneficial to our curriculum because their student body is so diverse. One kid’s family doesn’t speak English. We could use these books to teach children about that, and we never really do. So, it made me think in a whole new light.”

Maria Pawelczyk doesn’t see a ton of diversity on her bookshelf either, but she plans to change that. “I get recommendations from people who look like me. I want to try and get more books that aren’t as similar from what I usually read,” she said. “I challenged myself to read books that I wouldn’t read based on looking at the cover. I thought it would be a good way to learn new things and get other people’s opinions.”

Victoria Wedgewood found that 90 percent of the books she read as a child were about animals, often used in children’s literature as portraying a neutral race. “They have some sort of meaning, but you’re not getting the full gist of any other culture because they’re children’s books. They’re animals. You’re not going to get a Native American story from a dog,” the senior explained.

She feels that stories can still be relatable to all people, even when using a specific minority as a protagonist rather than a generic bear.

“People are people. That’s the bottom line there. I’m sure a Black person loves their mom just as much as I love my mom,” she said.

Another workshop explained “redlining,” the act of dividing cities into “desirable” and “undesirable” neighborhoods based on the ethnic makeup of a particular area. Funding goes into improving the desirable neighborhoods. While the undesirable neighborhoods are ignored.

“Usually there’s no grocery stores or good jobs in there, so people that live in the undesirable areas aren’t getting good food to eat, because the grocery stores don’t think they should invest over there because it’s undesirable,” explained Savannah Valentine, a junior.

Also, more funds go into education into the desirable areas, thus perpetuating poverty.

A couple Mount St. Mary Academy students gather food after learning that some areas in Western New York are food deserts that have no grocery stores. (Photo courtesy of Mount St. Mary Academy)

Students spent two days of intensive workshopping on a topic of their choice. Then construct a project to lessen the negative impact. For instance, the girls in the literature workshop made bookmarks with a classic much-loved book on one side and a more inclusive and diverse alternative on the other side. Other made benches to provide more seating space in urban areas.

Over four years at the school, each student will have taken four different workshops, thus receiving a well-rounded education on social justice.

This is only the third year of the program, which began shortly after Katherine Spillman came on board as principal.

“We had given a lot of thought during my first year here around how do we make education and curiosity come alive for these students, but in a way that we’re living out our mission as a Catholic school,” explained Spillman. “We know that in a lot of ways our students love service. But how do we help our students and our faculty and staff dig a little deeper?”

Living out Jesus’ message to uplift the poor and be the voices for the voiceless, the students don’t just lend a hand, they making change.

“So, they have been exposed on an initial level, to some issue of social justice. I think more than anything that they’ve been made more curious,” Spillman said. “They’ve been maybe sparked to think about, for example, food deserts. There are places in Western New York where people don’t have access to a Wegmans. So, when we do our food drive the next year, ‘I learned last year in Service and Justice Week that …’ There’s that ongoing rumination on the experience and how does that relate to my decision-making.”

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