By JOY ROBERTS and NATANIA KREMER, with RACHEL MAZOR
Natania Kremer is the Director of Service Learning & Civic Engagement at Brooklyn Friends School in New York City. She is also Co-Chair of the Department of Equity, Justice, & Civic Engagement. She holds a LCSW from Columbia University School of Social Work, a MSEd from Bank Street College of Education, and a BA in Psychology and Education from Swarthmore College. Natania is an alumna of CWI”s Summer Institute on Place Based Service-Learning
Eighth grade students at Brooklyn Friends School recently gathered for a collection in the Pearl Street Meetinghouse to share and reflect upon their service learning experiences throughout this school year. Their thoughtful and engaging work brings an awareness of HIV and AIDS, and the profound effects this disease has on people throughout the world.
The service-learning curriculum for the 8th grade focuses on HIV/AIDS awareness and advocacy, building on the knowledge they have gained in their health studies. After watching a documentary about the founding of ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a grassroots organization that formed in response to governmental inaction in the face of the AIDS crisis and hearing from Joe Kopitz, founder of TOUCH (The Outreach Using Communal Healing), the students were offered ways to expand their learning and connect with the community through direct and indirect service, research, and advocacy.
One of these experiences was the TOUCH Dinner. TOUCH is an independent, 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporation founded in 1985. Their mission is to serve a weekly dinner to people living with HIV/AIDS. Each Monday evening at 6:00pm, approximately 15–25 people gather at the Brooklyn Meetinghouse at 110 Schermerhorn Street for a free, nutritious gourmet dinner prepared by a group of enthusiastic volunteers. Volunteering at this dinner has been a long-standing tradition for the 8th grade, and students enjoy the process of preparing, serving, cleaning up, and sharing the meal with the guests.
Other students engaged in research, learning important facts about HIV/AIDS transmission worldwide, then organizing a presentation for World AIDS Day that they shared with their classmates. Still others raised awareness by joining the AIDS Walk in NYC on May 21st, while raising money to fund research, treatment, and advocacy programs.
This year ten 8th grade students also embarked on a unique opportunity to learn more and help raise awareness about the reality of living with HIV/AIDS. This group chose to participate in a pilot program to connect the knowledge they had gained with a new direct service learning experience as 8th Grade Oral Historians. This project involved being trained as oral historians, conducting oral history interviews with people living with HIV, bearing witness to firsthand accounts of their experiences, and then amplifying their voices in our community.
From preparing themselves for the interview to considering what they wanted to do with the information, the students carefully and thoughtfully planned out the process. To learn the skill of ethically and responsibly conducting an interview, they attended a training given by the Brooklyn Historical Society. Students reached out to TOUCH Dinner participants offering to share their stories to help raise awareness, and four adults living with HIV in New York City agreed to be interviewed.
The students also had to think about what to ask in the interviews. They came up with 20 queries that would encourage their narrators to speak candidly about their lives and how they have been impacted by living with HIV. Answering questions like “What was your life like after you found out you had HIV?” and “How have your relationships changed since you got HIV?” they started deep and meaningful narratives with the students, giving them a real insight into how this disease impacts the person’s world who is affected by it.
Using their own personal experiences, the stories of their friends and others affected by HIV, and even poetry, the four narrators gave voice to the different ways that HIV has touched lives over the decades. 8th grade oral historian, Kayla, was struck that it “takes a lot of trust for people to share a vulnerable part of themselves with you. If you are going to engage in oral history and learning about people’s stories, you need to be prepared to stay engaged throughout the process and listen actively.” Daelynn found that it was important to know how the narrators were feeling throughout the process, and to be prepared for the narrators to feel difficult emotions. Danny noted that the oral histories were “like snowflakes — no two stories were the same” and appreciated that it took a lot of courage and generosity for our narrators to share their experiences with us. Daelynn added, “It can be bittersweet to learn from someone’s experience when it may be difficult for them to revisit.” Alex echoed that “we were grateful that our narrators were willing to share their stories with us.”
Two of the oral history narratives were incorporated into the 7th and 8th grade dance classes after the interviews were completed in April. Students were inspired by the words of Larry and Lubin, and created dance pieces that integrated their life stories. With permission, the dancers integrated the actual voices of the narrators from parts of their interviews into the dances as well.
The collection on Thursday, June 1st included all of the 8th graders along with three of our oral history narrators and featured the 7th and 8th grade dance performances, a presentation by the 8th grade oral historians, a Q&A with our narrators, and group reflection. Students shared clips from the interviews that highlighted how the narrators’ families and friends received the news of their HIV positive status, moving from feeling depressed and isolated to engaging in HIV/AIDS activism efforts, the benefits of medical treatment in New York City, how the HIV/AIDS epidemic exists because of flaws in our social structure, and the importance of destigmatizing HIV/AIDS and reminding others that those living with HIV are still normal people. The collection was beautiful — powerful, moving, and inspiring for all involved.
8th grade student reflections included:
What did you learn about the impact of HIV/AIDS on the community?
“I learned how important it is to be positive in every situation and how lucky I, personally am. It’s so amazing how people like Larry and Lubin live their lives so positively after everything they’ve been through.”
“I learned a lot about how many people are able to continue their journey of life even after finding out they had contracted HIV or AIDS. I also learned that is is very easy to create awareness around HIV and AIDS in New York that creates a big impact.”
How did you feel before, during, and after this experience?
“I felt very accomplished and grateful.”
“I felt a little nervous before and during, but afterwards I was really glad that I did it.”
What did you do that was beneficial to the community? How do you know?
“Being a part of something bigger than myself.”
“I helped with the collection, which helped our community learn about AIDS/HIV. I helped to educate. I also helped with the oral history project, which helped people listen to personal experiences. But it also helped me!”
As one of the 8th grade teachers commented, “The collection was awesome in a variety of ways–perhaps most specifically because of the reciprocal effect: both students and guests were, at times, moved by it.”
Click the links below to listen to the full oral history interviews that were conducted by our 8th graders with Larry, Lubin, Manny and Malina.
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