Shabbat Shalom. I am honored to be this year’s recipient of the Larry M. Diamond Tikun Olam Award and to have the opportunity to be back at HBT to speak with you tonight. Thank you to Linda Chernick and the Diamond family for honoring Larry in this way. I feel so grateful to have grown up as part of this community and to have learned from all of you.
Tonight I am going to talk about the work that I have been doing for the last two and a half years with an organization called DC SCORES. I am excited to tell you about the impact that we make for youth in DC, what I have learned in the course of this work as well as how I got to this position and how my path has been shaped by my involvement in this Jewish community and others.
Throughout my life I have been surrounded by people and institutions that modeled and expressed the importance of helping others, and that also emphasized being aware of injustice, learning about issues, and taking action. While I have many memories of tikun olam projects at Rashi or volunteering at Rosie’s Place with HBT before my bat mitzvah, it was not until high school that I began to really understand the importance of social justice, of inquiry and action, and its role in my life. In high school I had the opportunity to go on a trip to El Salvador with the American Jewish World Service, which I’m sure many of you are familiar with. We lived in a small village and worked on projects that a local NGO had identified as needs. We had daily study sessions where we learned about global poverty and social justice from a Jewish perspective. Long after the trip was over it led me to new questions. It also led to a shift in how I saw myself. Before this trip I had a hard time finding ways to get involved in school. I did not always feel like I was contributing or growing outside of the classroom. Though I’d adjusted well to high school academically and socially, as I look back now I know that I had not yet reached my full potential. Returning from El Salvador, our group wanted to bring back things we had learned about. We led discussions with peers, ran events to raise money, and out of this work I became a co-president of our school’s social action club. I began to feel comfortable standing up to make an announcement in front of the whole school or sharing my opinions in the school paper. I finally felt like I was part of something meaningful and had something to contribute.
I tell this story for two reasons. First, it was an important part of the path that led me to continue to volunteer throughout college, to study history and anthropology in search of more information about the breadth of experiences in the world, and, after college, to participate in AVODAH: the Jewish Service Corps
AVODAH is a year-long service program where participants are part of a cohort that lives communally and learns together while all working at anti-poverty organizations. In AVODAH I had the chance to think more critically about social justice and its connection with Judaism. One of the most powerful parts of the experience was being part of a Jewish community that valued the fight for social justice as an expression of our Judaism. Together we celebrated holidays, explored a new city, and shared our work experiences. I began working with youth through an organization called DC SCORES, which I will be sharing more about, but other corps members worked in organizations that dealt with homelessness, immigration, hunger, health, and more. I came to understand more about how these issues are intertwined and how we could all support each other’s work.
The other reason that I wanted to begin with my experience getting involved in social action in high school, is to start us thinking about what it takes for a child to reach their full potential. If you think about transformative moments in your childhoods, or perhaps in the lives of your children, many of us will recall participation in sports teams, plays, or art classes, summer camps, music lessons, service projects or class presentations. Reading books by a favorite author, or reading Torah for the first time at your bar or bat mitzvah. Perhaps you remember a time that a parent told you they were proud of you, or a teacher who helped you explore a topic unrelated to what you were learning in class. These are the components that build us into complete people. They help us to develop identities and self-confidence. They make us better risk takers, better communicators, and better students, employees, or friends.
Sadly, many children, particularly those living in poverty, do not have these opportunities. Policy makers or others who make decisions about the supports given through the public school system and other resources often underestimate their importance. But the opportunities that a child has and the mentors and friends that they make have the power to change the course of their life and to inspire them to set goals and reach their dreams. After AVODAH, I was hired to stay at DC SCORES, now as the Director of Content & Learning. I train the 150 teachers that work in our program and support them throughout the season. I get to lead special workshops with our students, and go to a different school each day to help teams with lessons in poetry and service-learning. I also develop curricula and resources for teachers. I love learning and growing in this work and having the opportunity to be part of something that is really effecting a whole city through its children.
DC SCORES is a youth development organization that works with almost two thousand children between eight to fourteen. Most are from low-income families, and all attend one of our 47 public or public charter schools. We believe that if given the chance to be creative, to be active, and to feel confident in themselves, children will do better in school and will become more successful adults.
We work on-site at schools during the afterschool time, and all children in our program participate in soccer, poetry, and service-learning. While this sounds like a strange combination, what it means is that every one of our participants gets the opportunity to become more physically fit, to express themselves creatively, and to deepen their connection to their community. Most importantly, in these activities they form a team with their peers and develop closer relationships with their teachers who serve as their soccer and poetry coaches. Children in our program have a safe space to go to every day after school and develop an identity as part of their team.
Before I continue on, I’d like to tell you how I spent the last two evenings. Every year, all of our students participate in a Poetry Slam. All fall they have met in a classroom twice a week to read and write poetry, and to create a team performance. In a culminating event on Wednesday and Thursday, 600 students got on stage each night to share their poetry in front of about 400 family and community members and 10 guest judges. It’s hard to describe what this is like – I wish you could see it. The DC SCORES slam is one of the most positive and inspiring things I have every seen. The poems kids write show that they are talented, inquisitive and strong. Given this platform to express themselves and the belief that their voices matter, these children comment on issues such as gun violence, human rights, their experience with immigration, their struggles and dreams.
I’d like to read to you one poem, written by Keshaly, who’s in 5th grade. She got up on stage with her team on Wednesday, and participated in two team poems, and then gave this solo performance. In her words:
I am a child with eyes, a mouth, and a powerful voice
I have the right to be a child
I have the right to live under a peaceful roof
I have the right to go to school
I have the right to an education, whether I am Hispanic, black, white, short, tall, smart, or not
I have the right to envision a bright future
I have the right to create, imagine, and express my emotions
I have the right
Keshaly’s amazing poem is a perfect illustration of why this work relates to human rights. As we debate the best methods of education or of eradicating poverty, I can say from my experience that it is critical to give children the opportunities to try new things, to be part of a team, and to share their voice with the world.
Because we partner with close to 50 different schools, I spend my afternoons travelling to different neighborhoods of DC to lead classes with students, work with teachers, or meet with principals and administrators. I see the way that schools differ - how much better students feel in a new, brightly lit school, compared to one that leaks when it rains and has mice in the basement. I see the difference between a student after their PE class, versus a day when they were kept inside during recess and got no chance for physical activity. I’ve seen a wide range of teaching, discipline systems, dress codes, schedules, and more.
I’ve also seen ways that a program like DC SCORES can transform a school. One example is Aiton Elementary School. If you know DC at all, Aiton is in ward 7, near Benning Road. At Aiton, 99% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch and fewer than 1 in 5 students were rated proficient in math or reading. Talking to teachers and administrators when I first started, I sensed that they did not have much pride in their school. It is a school with great need, but also a lot of potential. I feel lucky that through my work I get to see the very best side of a school like Aiton.
Last year, Aiton won the elementary school poetry slam, beating 23 other schools. They got on stage with confidence and recited a poem called “I am a survivor.” Soon afterward, their coach, Ms. Champ, told me that it was the first time the school had ever won anything. They held a party to celebrate the 32 DC SCORES students and had them perform for the whole school. They actually bought a new trophy case to display their Poetry Slam trophy. Students were happier than I had ever seen them, and yesterday they won for the second year in a row, determined to do even better than last year.
By working outside of school time, we are able to reach a different part of the child than during the school day. Students feel powerful because they choose to be part of DC SCORES and it becomes part of their identity. DC is a pretty small city so it’s a regular occurrence for me to see children proudly wearing DC SCORES t-shirts on the bus or at the grocery store, or for them to notice me and wave excitedly.
For some students, DC SCORES enables them to gain newfound confidence. A few weeks ago I went to a school called Thomson Elementary. My first year I taught poetry daily at Thomson, so I know the older kids but not so many of the 3rd and 4th graders. I met a new 4th grader named Dayana who was writing one of the most creative poems I’d seen at the school. I asked her if she’d considered performing it at the slam, but she told me, in a quiet voice, that she didn’t like to read in front of people, and that she was worried other kids would make fun of her. We talked about how she’d have time to practice, and how her team would be there to support her. I wanted to make sure she knew that I thought she had a very special talent. Three weeks later, it was Thomson’s turn to present at the poetry Slam, and Dayana was the student chosen to recite a solo poem! Between my last visit and Wednesday, her poetry coaches had helped her to take a risk and perform alone on stage. Dayana won our individual award that night!
I hope that as Dayana grows older, she remembers that moment and feels more confident in herself and her voice. I believe that she will continue to do better in school and to dream bigger now that she knows she can accomplish something scary. I’ve seen this process in alumni of our program who volunteer after school or come visit during college vacations. They are successful because they are incredible people and I am proud that DC SCORES was there to help them find the talents and strengths inside themselves.
Seeing the way that opportunities can change a child’s life has been so inspiring to me. Following my interest in working with children led me both to a greater understanding of the problems and injustices facing many families, but also to hope about ways that we might make a difference.
I’m going to end with a line from another poem written by some of our middle school students:
With our heritage, we’re bound into one team
Together we’ll accomplish our goals and our dreams
Our generation will change the world.
Rachel Klepper, Recipient of Larry Diamond Memorial Tikun Olam Award