Engaging Teens in Global Issues

On April 14, more than 50 Chicago high school students gathered at Student Center West and assumed the roles of delegates from nine nations around the globe. In five topic-specific committee sessions they presented formal resolutions advocating for enhanced quality of life for women and girls. The young men and women, students in social studies classes at Benito Juarez Community Academy and Prosser Career Academy, were participating in the fifth Model World Conference on Women’s and Girls’ Rights, a program of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies.

Students discuss rights issues

High School students from Prosser and Juarez engage in discussions of human rights issues.

The MWC program provides UIC students enrolled in gender and women’s studies coursework an opportunity to experience fieldwork, using their academic knowledge and MWC project training to engage with teachers and students in the Chicago Public Schools. High school students are exposed to new knowledge about women’s issues and political processes, global cultures, and ethnic and gender diversity, as well as developing research and analytical skills while working on a collaborative project. The initiative was begun in 2007 by former GWS Associate Professor Katrin Schultheiss, now director of graduate studies and associate professor of history at George Washington University.

Deana Lewis and Barbara Ransby

MWC co-organizer Deana Lewis (left) and Barbara Ransby at the 2012 MWC.

[MWC] is but one example of the life-altering social justice scholarship and practice that UIC faculty, staff and students are engaged in across campus and throughout the city. 
                          -- Barbara Ransby

“The young people who participate in MWC, as well as their teachers and coaches, make me hopeful not only because of their analytical and oratory skills, but because of their big hearts and deep empathy for the suffering of others and the power we collectively have to change that reality,” said Barbara Ransby, director of GWS. “It is but one example of the life-altering social justice scholarship and practice that UIC faculty, staff and students are engaged in across campus and throughout the city.”

UIC students who mentor high school students

The UIC students who worked with high school students and teachers. Left to right: Juleigh Nowinski Konchak, Catherine Jacquet, Angeles Sandoval, Erin Blanchard, Amanda Vasquez.

For the 2012 conference, graduate and undergraduate students teamed up with the social science teachers on-site at Juarez and Prosser, meeting with classes several times during the semester.“Through the mentoring process, high school students learn to make arguments, redirect conversations, employ analytical and critical-thinking skills, and really learn how to engage in a serious conversation with people who may be very different from themselves,” explained Natalie Bennett, GWS assistant director.

The conference committees were facilitated by UIC students and addressed issues of economics, education, health, politics and violence. High school students representing Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Somalia, Jamaica, Mexico, Uganda, Central African Republic, Vietnam and China presented resolutions on topics including “Child Labor,” “Improving the Literacy Rate of Women and Girls,” “Health Issues Due to Human Trafficking,” “Underrepresentation of Women in Politics,” and “Political Violence and War.”

Teacher and students from Juarez high school

Juarez teacher Andrea Drew (fourth from left) with freshman students (left to right): Adriana Brambila, Ariana Palma, Juan Reyes, Grecia Zavala, Teresa Nava.

Juarez social studies teacher and UIC alumna Andrea Drew (MEd 2006) has been a CPS MWC sponsor/teacher since the first conference in 2007. This year 27 of her freshmen students and four returning sophomores participated in the conference. Angeles Sandoval, a political science undergraduate, and Amanda Vasquez, a 2007 alumna in criminology, law and justice and psychology—
who is currently pursuing her PhD in CLJ—served as the Juarez UIC mentoring team. Sandoval facilitated the politics committee and Vazquez facilitated the violence committee.

“MWC allows me to raise the bar for my students. It is not a requirement and they are not just working for a grade but because they care about human rights,” said Drew. “Many of my students understand that there are a lot of problems in the world but have never before been given the opportunity to think creatively about how to solve these problems.”

“Honestly, before I arrived at the conference I was like, ‘great, more work’,” said Juarez freshman Blanca Aguillon. “But when I got there I had the opportunity to meet new people, deepen my friendship with my friends, eat delicious food and overall, I was able to have a voice! It was a great experience.”

Teacher and students from Prosser high school

Prosser teacher Sarah Quinlan (center) with college-bound seniors Tyshae Dunbar (left) and Jose Pereyda.

Twenty students from Prosser worked with their social studies teacher Sarah Quinlan and UIC mentor and College of Medicine alumna Juleigh Nowinski Konchak to prepare for this year’s conference. Konchak, who is planning a career in global and women’s health issues, facilitated the health committee.

“Cultivating this club at our school has been an amazing experience,” said Quinlan, a teacher/sponsor of MWC since 2009. “It has motivated the students to become conscious global citizens and given them the advantage of speaking in public and participating in civic discourse.”

Many of the Prosser students were participating for the second or third time. “Being a part of MWC has given me the opportunity to grow as a caring individual on global issues,” said Marlen J. Mendoza, a Prosser senior who has participated for three years. “As a young lady living in the United States, I tend to take my rights as a woman for granted. MWC opened my eyes to the world outside my comfort zone, made me more aware of diplomatic issues, and made me a strong advocate for this cause.”

“My experience moderating the economics committee at this year’s MWC challenged my own understanding of what factors are involved in economic change,” said Erin Blanchard (history 2012). “It also tested my ability to really listen to how the students understood these mechanisms so that I could address their questions sincerely and encourage them when they discovered really new and brilliant ways to handle complex economic problems.”

Natalie Bennett

Natalie Bennett.

A lunch presentation by Bennett about her own international arts activism was followed by plenary sessions during which selected delegates from each committee presented resolutions which were debated and then adopted or rejected by a general vote. The evening featured a banquet and awards ceremony with keynote address and performance by Laila Farah of DePaul University.

Catherine Jacquet (PhD, history 2012) who—with PhD candidate and Grace Holt Scholar Deana Lewis—has co-organized the event since its inception, facilitated the education committee. A scholar-activist dedicated to social justice and the anti-violence movement, Jacquet continues to be impressed with the MWC experience. “The conference day was really fantastic. The student delegates put tremendous work and energy into creating their resolutions and they came in ready to have smart and critical conversations about women's and girls' rights globally,” she said.

Professor Ransby eloquently summed up the real meaning of the conference: “During the MWC the principles of justice and human rights take us beyond our own communities and our individual identities to find common ground and our common humanity. It is wonderful to listen to and see an African American teenager from West Lawndale speak eloquently on behalf of Indian farmers in Gujarat, or a Puerto Rican student speak on behalf of Congolese rape victims, or an Irish-American male student advocating to end sex trafficking that victimizes women all over the world.”

Photos by Joshua Clark