Students from Mercer Island High School’s Margins program met with various nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles, including Watts Towers, where they speak with a representative about the organization’s sustainable garden. Photo courtesy of Nick Wold/Mercer Island High School

Students from Mercer Island High School’s Margins program met with various nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles, including Watts Towers, where they speak with a representative about the organization’s sustainable garden. Photo courtesy of Nick Wold/Mercer Island High School

Closing the margins | Windows and Mirrors

How a program at Mercer Island High School is helping students affect social change.

Social issues such as homelessness, immigration and recidivism are not typical subject matters that are regularly discussed in the classroom — at least not discussed at length.

But for a group of Mercer Island High School (MIHS) students, discussing these topics at length was exactly what they did this past school year.

It was all part of Margins, an experiential social justice program that Nick Wold, MIHS associate principal and one of the advisers of the program, said includes a deep-dive look into the aforementioned issues. Since December 2018, the 13 students and three administrators (MIHS associate principals Henterson Carlisle and Jenny Foster were the other two administrators) met on a regular basis to learn how the different issues intersect. The program culminated with the group traveling to Los Angeles during their spring break in April to spend time with organizations working in these fields.

I had the opportunity to meet and talk with the group — made up of ninth through 11th graders — both before and after their trip to see what the students’ expectations were beforehand and what they actually experienced while down in California.

Possible to do good

Freshman Lily Clark has always been interested in social justice but always felt there was not a lot just one person can do to affect change. With an interest in becoming a human rights lawyer, the issues they examined in Margins could help her along that career path.

Before the trip, Clark said with all of the articles they read, the videos they watched and from her own personal research, she was surprised by how many people out there are trying to do good.

“It’s not just the 13 of us,” she said.

Clark had “no idea” what to expect before their trip other than it would be intense and educational.

After the group returned from its trip and had some time to process what they experienced, Clark summed it up in a few words.

“It was a lot,” she said, adding that it was very difficult to put it into words.

Both before and after the trip, Clark told me she tends to have a negative view of things and said she thinks of herself as a pessimist. But after the trip, she’s reconsidering because even in bad situations, she saw that there are good people out there willing to help others — amazing people, doing incredible things.

Some of the experiences that stuck out for her included meeting with the folks at Homeboy Industries, an organization focused on gang intervention as well as rehab and re-entry for those who are coming out of prison. Clark said some of the ways the organization helps people include helping people earn GEDs and find jobs as well as removing tattoos.

Clark said just talking with people at the site, which included a cafe staffed by some of the organization’s clients, was impactful.

Visiting with students at Crete Academy also had an affect on Clark.

The school educates elementary-aged students who are homeless and/or living in poverty but there, Clark said, the “kids just got to be kids.” There was one girl in particular she connected with while there — a third grader. The girl just talked to Clark about her drama with her friends and Clark laughed while sharing how the girl asked her who she liked and “lost her mind” when Clark told her she was dating someone.

“Everyone’s just a kid,” she said about the students.

For Clark, the experience taught her that it is not impossible to do something that will have an impact on others.

Big differences

Being from Mercer Island, Bailey Rosengren is aware he comes from a place of privilege. He said he applied for Margins because he did not know what he could do to help others and saw the program as a way to be able to do something.

Before the trip, one of the things the freshman found surprising was what they learned about the criminal justice system, what it can be like for people coming out of prison and what they go through just to be part of society again.

Prior to Los Angeles, he said he just wanted to talk to people who were affected by the issues they learned about and just have conversations with them.

He also said homelessness and criminal justice were the two topics he was mostly interested in learning about.

Upon returning, Rosengren said the trip was not what he expected.

One of the most impactful experiences for him was just seeing Skid Row in Los Angeles. While homelessness is prevalent and visible in the Puget Sound, Rosengren said “Skid Row was a whole other thing.” In that area, there were just entire blocks of closed businesses, with homeless people living on entire streets.

The Margins group spent time at a homeless shelter, preparing a meal for residents and Rosengren had his opportunity to talk to the people there, saying there is more to them than just being homeless.

And like Clark, Crete Academy also had an impact on Rosengren. He noted the differences of his education experience and that of the students he met. He said on the Island, most students have access and the resources to have their own iPad, while at Crete Academy, students of varying ages are in the same classrooms as their academic levels vary. In addition, Rosengren said while academics is the main focus at his school, the students’ medical and health needs take precedent over anything else at Crete.

Following the trip, Rosengren said he wants to find a way to start working in the criminal justice system “and see what [he] can do.”

A new perspective

For junior Adam Kipust, applying for Margins was about broadening his understanding of society.

Going into the trip, he hoped to hear stories from the people they would meet because you learn when you hear others’ stories. As someone interested in going into medicine, he said it is important to be cognizant and aware of what others go through and experience.

Upon returning, he said the experience was “pretty eye opening.”

One moment that stood out for him was when the group was at Homeboy Industries.

Kipust said as they were touring the site, the group ended up in a room where a man was doing some work. Kipust said he was surprised to see the individual — a grown adult, probably in his 30s — working on basic, elementary-level math.

Kipust said his academic experience had taught him that if you work hard in school, you can succeed. But seeing this man and what he had been working on showed him what can happen when someone is let down by the system.

Seeing the anti-recidivism work some of the organizations did in Los Angeles also had an impact on Kipust.

He said people who have committed crimes are often seen as “bad people” with no ability to improve themselves. But he saw the work these groups were doing and saw that people can move on from that part of their lives and be successful.

Margins taught him it is possible to take action and make a change.

“If you see something, do something,” Kipust said.

Action plans

The idea of Margins is for the students to take what they learned from their experiences and apply it to actions they could take when they return home.

When I met with them at the end of last month, they were still in the process of figuring out their individual action plans as they prepared to present about their experiences.

Wold said the the experience of advising the Margins was “nothing short of life changing.”

“We sought out to find experiential learning opportunities for our students and have been more then impressed with the care, passion, and servant leadership our students have shown throughout this seven-month journey,” he said.

Wold said the action plans the students are working on will “most definitely change the lives of everyone around them.”

“The relationships we forged down in L.A. have undoubtedly influenced our students for a lifetime and will continue to give them perspective,” he said. “Our hope was to create a lens for our students to peer through as they engage in social justice issues, and we want all students to develop empathy, understanding, and that any human being can make a difference in the lives of others.”

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