The opportunity to travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a group of students this past summer was nothing short of amazing. Over the course of our trip, I watched our students transform into engaged world travelers as they embraced a new culture and effortlessly connected with their Congolese peers. Our students had spent the year learning French and studying the history of the Congo, including the brutalities of the Belgian exploitation of the region. (In fact, they still make references to the Berlin Conference and the “Scramble for Africa” more frequently than you would imagine!) Because our social justice curriculum helped students develop a critical framework for understanding the current socio-economic disparities in the DRC, our travel objectives felt more significant than the typical cultural exchange trip. We could not and did not arrive as simple tourists; rather, we embarked upon our journey as global citizens in solidarity with the struggles of the Congolese people. To our astonishment, entire communities, whose leaders ceremoniously affirmed us as long lost brothers, sisters, and cousins, enthusiastically welcomed us as we traveled throughout the Congo. This alone was an overwhelming and healing emotional experience—the impact of which cannot be measured.
Traveling to the DRC not only afforded our students with the opportunity to expand their experiential learning, but it also enabled our students to acquire a deeper perception of themselves as members of the African Diaspora. Students readily recognized many of the commonalities between themselves and the people of the Congo while also noting some of the cultural contrasts. Increasingly, students began paralleling the various social disparities we were learning about in the Congo with the social inequalities they experience within their own Chicago communities. Village Leadership Academy students were synthesizing information and critically evaluating our world by analyzing shared oppressions across borders. More importantly, our students were compelled to action—their desire to work towards the eradication of social injustice both within their communities and in the world was palpable. As a teacher, I was truly inspired by our students and the opportunity to witness the manifestation of our social justice curriculum goals within this international context.
Students remained invested learners and engaged problem-solvers throughout the duration of our trip. Whether addressing the Minister of Education in Kinshasa or speaking with doctors at a resource-depleted hospital in Karawa, our students asked thought-provoking questions, often making connections between social justice concepts learned within the classroom and their real-world application. VLA students were eager to go beyond discussion and often asked, “What can we do to help the people of the Congo?” Most of the time, people answered by stating that they wanted us to help counter Western media’s biased coverage of the DRC; they wanted us to share our travel experiences with others and to tell the world about the beauty of their culture, land, and people. Thus, our students have been sharing their stories both inside and outside of the classroom while finding relevant opportunities to identify with other marginalized
peoples of the world. They continuously draw from the breadth of their travel experiences as they interpret the world around them and broaden their critical perspective, for Africa and the DRC remain an incalculable asset to our students’ learning and their understanding of social justice and self-determination.
We left the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a tangible sense of indebtedness to the people. Collectively, we were fundamentally changed. Our shared experience has helped to foster a greater sense of global responsibility as we teachers, students, administrators, and parents work together as a community to develop projects to help support our people of the Congo and to honor our commitment to social justice worldwide. (Please contact Village Leadership Academy if you’d like to help support our efforts.) As VLA students continue to learn about social justice and global advocacy, I am confident that they have the potential to radically transform our world, and I am thankful to be on this journey alongside them.
Take a look at this short film about VLA in the Congo.