Leading by example: Kids learn to be the change

Kennedy Mason, Madison Cornwell and Eden Radifera meet with their teacher, John Worozbyt, about their “Diversity Makes Us Stronger” campaign at Burley Middle School. Photo: Robert Radifera Kennedy Mason, Madison Cornwell and Eden Radifera meet with their teacher, John Worozbyt, about their “Diversity Makes Us Stronger” campaign at Burley Middle School. Photo: Robert Radifera

Upon their return from the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in January of 2017, local moms Kristin Clarens and Amanda Sovik-Johnston felt empowered, but also challenged. “We were just emerging from the super-foggy days of having newborns and realized that we wanted to re-engage in our community,” says Clarens, an attorney. “It felt like a gauntlet had been thrown: Now what?” They recognized that meaningful civic engagement would have to happen at the family level, and Charlottesville Families in Action was born.

The two women initially founded their organization by reaching out on Facebook to other families with small children, intending to find local activities where parents and their kids could get together to build, donate, celebrate and fundraise for meaningful causes. The enterprise was motivated not despite having kids in tow, but because of them. “We are making a conscious decision to model the sorts of behaviors that we hope our kids carry forward into the world,” says Clarens.

The kids jump in to the planned activities naturally, and with joy. Events are scheduled every other Wednesday, from 4:30 to 6:30pm, and many involve crafts, music, food or all three. From planting starter seeds for the Monticello Avenue gardens with the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville, to learning about solar power in Virginia while roasting marshmallows in their own personal solar ovens in Washington Park, the activities deftly intertwine the fun with the educational. Some events are fundraisers, such as a sold-out brunch at Mas in support of Dreamers and their families, while others are hands-on helping, like building toolboxes for Habitat for Humanity, or collecting a vanload of supplies (including two chainsaws!) for hurricane aid.

Sovik-Johnston, a clinical child psychologist, says a big part of the group’s focus is to make the work part of their kids’ lives so they will grow up as leaders in their communities as well. But just as important is how the sessions can serve as a proactive tool to combat fear.

Kristin Clarens and Amanda Sovik-Johnston founded Charlottesville Families in Action following the Women’s March, hoping to create opportunities for parents and their kids to be more actively engaged with their community. The org’s fall event at The Front Porch raised money for kids in the arts. Photo: Eze Amos

“My 6-year-old son said to me, ‘Wow, a lot of bad things have happened in Charlottesville this year,’” Sovik-Johnston recalls, “and I said the other side of that is that so many people have come together to help and care. Yes, stuff is scary, but if we sit in it, it becomes overwhelming, so let’s do something and then we’ll all feel better.”

Margarita Figueroa has taken her children, ages 7 and 9, to several of the FIA events and appreciates the high level of organization as well as the predictable schedule.

“After the election we felt hopeless, but we couldn’t just sit in our houses and mope,” says Figueroa. “This feels good and is good for the community.” After the events of August 11 and 12, FIA quickly put together a panel discussion for parents about how to talk with their children about what had happened. “That came up right away and helped a lot,” says Figueroa.

To help parents prepare and reassure their kids, FIA also posts Car Talk on its website, a set of talking points about each event that parents can use as conversation starters about the importance of the activity.

“We try to give parents the language to share with their kids about why we are doing this, and how good it feels when we help others,” says Sovik-Johnston. “So hopefully when they grow up, they’ll think of themselves as, ‘I’m the kind of person who helps.’”

While FIA is organized around families with younger children, the group also offers an internship program for local teens to help with the events. Sarah Webb, a senior at Renaissance School, has been part of FIA since its inception and was there at the first event at Firefly back in February, a letter-writing campaign.

“The kids were writing about saving the polar bears, green energy, love is love, all kinds of issues and policies,” says Webb. “As a kid, I know I was never very aware of much, like, inequality around me, and this is such a vital time for kids to know what’s going on in the world and be aware.” As she nears graduation, Webb is actively recruiting other interns, like Mercedes Goering, a Renaissance 10th-grader. “It’s fun just hanging out with the kids,” says Goering. “I really enjoyed cleaning up the Rivanna River, and building toolboxes for Habitat [for Humanity].”

More than ever, local kids inspired by news and events are taking action to make a difference. Shreya Mahadevan, a fourth-grader at Johnson Elementary whose mother, Priya, runs the Desi Dosa stall at the City Market, wanted to do something to help with hurricane relief during the recent spate of destructive storms. “She took it upon herself to set up a collection at our stand for the hurricane victims, and raised almost $300,” says Priya. The family channeled the donations to hands.org, a nonprofit that provides assistance to communities affected by natural disasters.

Burley Middle School eighth-grader Eden Radifera was in Jamaica with her family over the weekend of August 12, and followed the day’s disastrous events on her phone. She recalls the feeling of powerlessness, both while away and upon returning to Charlottesville. “It was really bothering me that all this stuff was going on and I couldn’t change it, so I knew I had to do something to reassure myself that I could take part in making a change.” Radifera brainstormed ideas with a few friends, focusing on her most immediate community—her school.

“At Burley we are such a diverse school, a melting pot of everybody, and we wanted to make sure everybody felt safe, and they knew we’re a unified school working to fight discrimination,” she says. Radifera helped organize a Unity Day on the first of every month, and she and her friends have arranged an order of blue and white (Burley school colors) bracelets to sell to students during their Friday Blast period. Her group came up with slogans and surveyed the student population, ultimately agreeing on the phrase “Diversity Makes Us Stronger” to be printed on the bracelets. The school plans to donate any proceeds to a local community foundation.

“I couldn’t stand the feeling of being so helpless,” says Radifera. “I had to do something.”

Schools in action

While many schools participate in community aid programs like food drives and shoe collections, a growing number are encouraging more hands-on and project-oriented service learning for their students, with inspiring results. Village School students regularly head out of the building to help in the soup kitchen at Christ Episcopal Church, and they visit Clark Elementary and Barrett Early Learning Center to read and write with the younger kids there. Despite the recent unrest that has taken place near the school’s downtown location, Head of School Eliza O’Connell says the students remain undaunted. “I’ve been amazed by the maturity of the girls.”

A math lesson turned into much more at Charlottesville Day School as algebra teacher Tiffany Stauffer helped seventh and eighth graders organize a Friendship Feast in March for refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Congo. With assistance from Kari Miller, founder of Charlottesville International Neighbors, students designed, budgeted and fundraised a potluck dinner event to host 10 refugee families, including lots of kids. Games like Connect Four helped bridge the language barriers, and each family was given a large soup pot filled with kitchen supplies and spices, as well as a family game night bag to take home. “The students really embraced the idea of making the families feel welcome,” said Stauffer. “And it made them so happy to be doing it.”

In an initiative launched this year, Peabody School’s seventh- and eighth-graders are designing year-long projects aimed at researching and addressing a community need or problem. The project phase was jumpstarted with an in-house Leadership Academy, where local community leaders talked to students about how to be change-makers. After learning about humanitarianism, philanthropy and disaster relief from those experts, students designed innovative projects that they’ll complete independently. Goals range from partnering with area nursing homes and the Rainforest Trust, to addressing traffic issues with Albemarle County and teaching life skills to younger kids, all driven by each student’s passion. “We’re encouraging students to think beyond their own experience, and to identify their strengths and limitations,” says Victoria Young, assistant head of school. “Not every project works the first time you try it, but they learn to reflect and make it successful as they go, and that’s just as important.” LM

Home work

It is, without question, difficult to discern where to begin and what to say to young people when speaking about the intangible cruelties within our society. Eager to shelter our children from hardship, parents can avoid difficult conversations, hopeful tides will turn and moments will pass. The impulse to shield their hearts from hurt and bodies from pain is reasonable, of course. And yet, a desire to maintain and invoke innocence and a discomfort with challenging dialogues beget the crises that plague our communities; they cannot be solved with silence or inaction.

We do a disservice to our children when we avoid our crucial obligation: to nurture. The greatest form of activism in our community today could be the swelling of conscious discourse, bold expression and action-oriented love in the form of supported children. No better result could be achieved than an outpouring of kindness, engagement and courage in the face of a daunting tomorrow. The cultivation of such is the work of parents.

Young people are watching the way we navigate the world: Violence is on the channels and the streets; bullies lurk behind lockers and the Resolute desk; disharmony and even hate abound in neighborhoods and message boards. Our chief responsibility must be to model empathy, respect and willingness to grow. Here’s how.

+ Foster and encourage open dialogue. We cannot lift the burden of fears, whether our own or our child’s, until we face the beasts head on. Allow conversations to be ongoing. Accept that there may not always be a solution. Ask questions and share emotions.

+ Authentically explore the “other.” Reading stories, attending community events and engaging in volunteerism can cultivate empathy. When we interact with people outside of our immediate understanding, our capacity for compassion is amplified and communities are strengthened.

+ Be seen promoting justice in pursuit of peace. Stand up and get vocal about inequalities, and name them. Use language that is simple and honest. Identify as a family the power you have to make our community more equitable, accepting and representative.

Let us teach the next generation that love is a verb. Let us orient them around the most oppressed in our communities, centering progress above tradition. Let us direct their fears into outspoken compassion. Adrienne Oliver

Adrienne Oliver is a mother and educator working and writing in Charlottesville. She is a middle school literacy teacher, with a focus on arts-integrated, culturally responsive education.

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