Reaching Beyond Our Walls

8, August 2017

Color photo of the north entrance of the Missouri History MuseumHere at the Missouri History Museum we’re committed to connecting all St. Louisans with our shared history. That includes those who face barriers to visiting us, like the youth at the St. Louis County Juvenile Detention Center.

Since last summer we've been partnering with the center to bring our education programs out from inside our walls to theirs. We kicked off with a program called Mapping Justice, which gets students to assess their own experiences and those of their peers, the perspectives of other communities, and historic events in order to create their personal definitions of justice. The result is a large map that visualizes what justice looks, feels, and sounds like.

Our work at the center has been a positive experience for all involved. "This program allows the kids to openly discuss their personal views about justice, discussions they may not have been able to hold otherwise. They also get to have their voices heard and learn to respect others’ opinions,” says Janet Johnson, program specialist for St. Louis County Family Court. On our end, we're thankful for and humbled by what facilitating this program has done for us as educators here at the History Museum. Since starting the program, we've learned two big lessons that inform our work every single day.

Lesson #1: Acknowledge and Challenge Your Biases

This program challenges us to rethink our biases and how we act on them. For example, although every student at the detention center has firsthand experience with the criminal justice system, each of them ultimately defines justice differently. Some reflect on how they were unfairly treated by law enforcement; others have a newfound no-tolerance stance on crime. Some see the issue as black and white; others can find the gray space between the two. The diversity of their justice maps is a continual reminder that these students are individuals with vastly different worldviews.

Color photo of portion of a justice map created by students at the St. Louis County Juvenile Detention CenterStudents ask questions challenging each other and society on their justice maps.

We still occasionally walk into the detention center with a bit of apprehension. Will the kids be disengaged? Will they be difficult to deal with? This nervousness stems from our biases around youth who've been arrested. Luckily the students quickly challenge our assumptions with their kindness and eagerness to engage. We're reminded that they're kids, like any other kid—we're reminded of their humanity.

Lesson #2: Our Work Does Make a Difference

Sometimes it's easy to feel like you're not making an impact. As museum educators, we spend just one to two hours with groups of students we're likely never going to see again. But the relationships we've been able to build with these students have produced some amazing moments of trust.

Case in point: As we were packing up the students’ justice maps during one of our first visits, they all protested, asking if they could keep them. Several weeks later we saw those maps still hanging on their walls. The center’s staff tells us that the kids still look at and discuss them, even though some of their creators are no longer there. Our time with these students has had an impact: It started a conversation that they feel empowered to continue long after our time together has ended.

Because kids are detained for varying amounts of time, we interact with some students only once and see others on multiple visits. Once we were nervous that students we'd spent time with the previous week would be annoyed at having to participate in the same program again. Contrary to our assumptions, those students took it upon themselves to initiate conversations, assure the other students that we were “cool,” and explain to their peers the stories behind some of the historic photographs and how those artifacts resonate with them.

One student, upon his third time seeing us, exclaimed, “Wow, you guys must really care about us since you keep coming back!” We believe that behind that statement is the student’s realization that there are adults, and by extension a cultural institution in his city, who care about him. That’s a powerful message for these students in particular to internalize: that the Missouri History Museum cares about them, and we’re proud and honored to help communicate it.

—Sarah Sims, Manager, K–12 Education Programs; Rachel Crouch, K–12 Programs Coordinator; and Sarah Moldafsky, Museum Educator

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