Student Group Presents Unique Program to Raise Awareness of Homelessness and Poverty | Schools
A bearded, disheveled man sleeps on the sidewalk and stops passersby for money. His breath smells of alcohol, and it's clear he hasn't taken a bath in days, if not weeks. That’s the stereotypical image that comes to mind when we hear the word “homeless.”
For a few hours on a "dress-down" Friday, November 30, the Buffalo Seminary community was inspired to think beyond this stereotype. Students and faculty alike participated in a half-day program organized and hosted by Sem's Justice League, a student group devoted to exploring issues about social inequities, injustice, diversity and tolerance. Activities included a hands-on simulation, a presentation by a guest speaker, a documentary screening and small group discussions.
“The program put together by the students in Justice League represents another unique aspect of learning here at Sem," explained Head of School Jody Douglass. "We don’t shy away from complicated or uncomfortable topics. We want our students to be fully aware of the challenges that face the world, and we want them to explore the issues creatively and in a setting of mutual trust.”
The all-school Morning Meeting began with a welcome message from senior Eliza Hopkins, president of Justice League. English teacher Benjamin Joplin, Ph.D. then shared memories of his childhood living on a commune in Tennessee with his mother. He explained that while his mom took a vow of poverty, most people who live below the poverty line do not choose that lifestyle. He also underscored the power of privilege in our society when describing how his life changed once he began living with his father in a gated community near Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Joplin concluded his testimonial with an invitation for Sem students to keep a clear perspective. “What I urge you to do today is to consider that when we talk about the poor and the homeless, we are doing so from a place of extreme privilege.”
Following Morning Meeting, students met in their advisory groups to read a Rock Center report about homelessness and play the online game Spent. The interactive game challenged players to manage an imaginary budget based on a minimum-wage salary for one month. Each student had to make quick decisions about expenses that included housing, childcare and insurance.
Students then moved to the Margaret L. Wendt '03 Performing Arts Center, which became the site of a unique simulation. Randomly assigned groups of students became fictitious families representing different socioeconomic classes and life circumstances. Members of Justice League role-played various societal figures, such as a mortgage officer and social worker, overseeing different stations throughout the simulation. Stations included: Social Services Office, Employment Center, Bank, Grocery Store, Utilities Agency, Emergency Medical Care Center, Pawnbroker, Police Station and Interfaith Services. Two faculty members, Lisa Pritchard and Ben Priest, also participated. Mrs. Pritchard doled out "calamity cards," while Dr. Priest's job was to convince families to resort to crime to ease their financial burdens.
A late-morning presentation in the chapel, designed to complement the simulation, featured guest speaker Kristin Cipollone, Ph.D. as well as the screening of My Own Four Walls, a two-part documentary on homeless youth.
Ms. Cipollone focuses her research on social inequality and the intersections of social class and race. For several years, she worked at the Homeless Alliance of WNY, where she collected regional data on poverty and homelessness, and also developed community education programs on poverty. Her presentation, which included statistics about Buffalo, helped us further understand the concept of “the working poor.”
The film My Own Four Walls, winner of a National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth Media Award, highlights children and youth who are living with their parents or on their own in shelters, motels, abandoned buildings and substandard trailers. The interviews were filmed by Diane Nilan, president and founder of HEAR US, who traveled across the U.S. to small town and other rural communities.
During a sitdown lunch in the Atrium, Sem students and faculty were encouraged to discuss and write down their own reflections of the morning. A series of questions culminated with the following: If you had to sum up your experiences today in 1-2 sentences, what would you say? What did you learn about homelessness? Socioeconomic status? Privilege?
The half-day program concluded with everyone gathering in the chapel. Members of Justice League took turns at the podium and invited fellow students and faculty to share their reflections. Several individuals spoke about feeling humbled by the facts revealed through the activities and presentations. A parting message from Justice League was projected onto the screen during the debriefing: “Don’t feel bad! Be grateful for what you have and be aware and accepting of those less fortunate.” Eliza Hopkins thanked everyone for participating. Students were encouraged to keep thinking about homelessness and poverty — and how each person can make a difference by volunteering or becoming better-informed.
Buffalo Seminary, or Sem, is located at 205 Bidwell Parkway in the historic Elmwood Village neighborhood of Buffalo, N.Y. Founded in 1851, Sem is Western New York’s only independent high school for girls, and the only all-girls school in the area with a residential program. We offer an independent, nonsectarian, college-preparatory curriculum and are a member of The New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS), The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), The National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS) and The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS). Sem is also a charter affiliate member of The Online School for Girls (OSG). To learn more, visit www.BuffaloSeminary.org, follow us on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/BuffaloSeminary or "like" us on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/BuffaloSeminary.