#BeLove: Troublemakers of the Best Kind

Cultural Leadership class with Julian Bond

Today, twenty-four lively, high school leaders are boarding a flight for their first summer trip together. In addition to the requisite pillows and playlists, these youth will also be unpacking tough questions about race and equity in the US during this trip. After a year of studying about race, equity, and activism, they’re embarking on a transformational journey across the northeast and southeast. With any luck, by the end of this 3-week trip, they’ll all have gotten into a bit of trouble.

In 1985, a Black congressman and pastor joined forces with a Jewish financier and philanthropist to inspire a new generation of Black and Jewish community activists. Operation Understanding started in Philadelphia and in 1993, Karen Kalish was inspired to start a Operation Understanding DC in Washington D.C. By 2004, Kalish had returned home to St. Louis and continued this vision with a new organization, Cultural Leadership.

Based on the lenses of Jewish and Black culture, Cultural Leadership engages middle and high school students from all cultures towards social justice and civil rights. Through programming dedicated to identity, education, and leadership, students gain the knowledge and experience to influence the lives of individuals in their current communities as well as the opportunity to continue strides towards social justice in college and beyond.

  • Identity: If you’re going to do change work around race and religion, first you have to understand yourself. Students spend a year reflecting about who they are and understanding other identities. This includes exchange visits to places of worship, schools, and community events. Through these visits, students gain exposure to the disparities in their lives that often spark their first social justice projects. For example, once they see that the quantity of AP classes and enrichment experiences differs between majority Black and majority White schools, they start to understand the structural racism in their environment.
  • Education Students learn Civil Rights history and implications on contemporary rights movements like the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter. Their civil rights study is bigger than discussing primary source documents. During their summer journey, they actually march across the Pettus Bridge, meet with leaders like Claudette Colvin, Congressman John Lewis, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Bryan Stevenson to understand their potential as young leaders.
  • Leadership: Students learn basics of social change and engaging people in a vision of change. From giving speeches to fundraising and writing, they apply these skills to personally relevant problems that they want to change. They return to their circle of influence, whether it’s their school, community group,or neighborhood and take action. By January all students are trained to facilitate Courageous Conversations and learn how to engage others to support their passions.

Leadership development now continues with a new college summer internship program for their alumni. Cultural Leadership alumni are highly sought after for placements with corporate and non-profit partners. Officially, the companies provide pre-professional experiences, but these alumni are sought after for their capacity to engage in and lead challenging conversations about race and equity. Holly Ingraham, Executive Director of Cultural Leadership, is hopeful about the changes that she’s seeing with corporate partners. “We made progress in addressing issues of poverty by working with schools where children spend six hours a day; corporations are addressing race relations at the office, where we spend eight hours a day. If our alumni can reach colleagues in an office setting, we can engage even more people in conversations about race and equity.”

These students take Congressman Lewis’ call to action to “Get into trouble. Good trouble,” quite seriously. Seventy percent of Cultural Leadership alumni go on to fight for social justice issues in their communities via diversity clubs in their high schools, addressing their local school board about the impact of busing on school diversity, advocating for more AP and enrichment courses, opening chapters of Hillel and Jewish Student Unions, or launching equity consulting practices. In 2016, Matthew Kincaid and Hannah Rosenthal received Cultural Leadership’s Distinguished Alumni award, for their work in college and beyond.

And the teenagers who started their road trip today? If you want to see what kind of trouble they’re getting into, you can follow their adventures on Facebook.

Transformational Journey 2017

#BeLove profiles organizations committed to ending structural racism and bias. Our goal is to tell the stories of change in our communities that result from the capacity-building work at individual and institutional levels. In the words of Assata Shakur, “ We need to be weapons of mass construction, weapons of mass love. It’s not enough to change the system, we need to change ourselves.”