The core of HFB is an established class in the daily schedule at Roosevelt High School. Hands for a Bridge is not solely about travel; it is about dialogue, how to express and, more importantly, how to listen. Students meet daily as scholars, artists, teachers and activists. The course focuses on aspects of social justice, using the arts and literature as lenses through which critical questions may be examined. Some of these essential questions are:
- What issues shape conflict and division?
- How are identities formed?
- What separates us?
Each semester groups of students work on projects to enhance community understanding regarding such questions including an English Language Learners partnership and a high school exchange in attempt to unite Seattle’s Public High Schools and establish a diverse community of youth leaders outside Roosevelt as well.
HFB is meaningful to me as a teacher and as a person for so many reasons: It encourages honest dialogue across division, connects people across the globe, and promotes activism and social change. But what moves me, what makes me particularly passionate about the work it does, is what it does on the personal level. Through sheer time spent together, through challenging conversation and discussion of literature and creation of art, it shows young people that it is not just okay to be oneself, but that it is necessary to be oneself in order to truly “see” and “hear” another human being. I think HFB is about love—by learning to love ourselves, we learn to love others, too (and vice versa). And that is what will heal schools, cities, nations, and our world.
Being involved in Hands for a Bridge is important to me because I value community. I joined HFB in 2008 as a new Social Studies teacher at Roosevelt. My experience building relationships with other teachers, at Roosevelt and our partner schools in Northern Ireland and South Africa, and with students has been incredibly valuable to me as a teacher and a learner. I love working with students as we set goals and intentions for ourselves and our community, providing a space for students to challenge themselves and support one another. Traveling to Northern Ireland and South Africa with students is challenging but the rewards are enormous as you watch students transform and put into practice the skills they have been working on throughout the year. Even more rewarding are the ripples that you see as students move forward in their lives demonstrating how HFB has impacted their choices of study, career and activism.
I am a teacher-member of HFB because I recognize that I am on my own, personal journey as a learner. I have found that the quest for understanding of any conflict, whether race in America and South Africa or identity and power in Northern Ireland, can only be viewed as a journey, not a destination. It is on that journey, that quest for understanding, that we grow and change. If I am willing to take on that quest and be enlightened in the process, then as a teacher I can only hope that I can take students with me on that journey. And that journey, for me and for students, is transformative. The journey bears the transformative power of person-to-person connections through art, music, dialogue, games and shared experiences. It carries the magic of the “aha” moment when we learn to be an empathetic ally. When we open ourselves to hearing the narratives of the complexities of human history we start to see that there is no “us” and no “them,” but only “WE.”
I am involved with HFB to cultivate dialogue. Honest, respectful, curious, and insightful dialogue leads infallibly to understanding, empathy, compassion, and peace. We badly need more complete dialogue in this world, and we all need to be better at it – including myself. Hands for a Bridge grows our capacity for dialogue: by forming our ability to express ourselves in a myriad of way, by developing our ability to listen, and by obliging us to have more questions than statements. Developing these skills is a lifelong pursuit. At some point we may feel that we have mastered these skills. At that same moment the news cycle interrupts our self-satisfaction and reminds us that there is much we still don’t understand, and still much we don’t know how to discuss. In continuing my own journey I am helping the students find their way. As the students find their way, they help me to continue my journey. Through this reciprocal process we are courageous together, vulnerable together, wise together, devastated together, and joyous together. Through our group experience we speak to one another; we listen to one another, and we heal one another. We learn to dialogue. That is why I am part of HFB – because in learning to dialogue the world ceases to be filled with creeds, ideologies, motives, and judgments. It begins again to be filled with people.
I often say a teacher is a revolutionary. It is the teacher’s responsibility to push boundaries, to create new approaches, to inspire students to view the world as a place worth cherishing and sustaining. Teachers are at their best when they do this together. My journey with Hands or a Bridge began in 2001. Together with fellow Roosevelt teachers Danny Rock and Francene Watson, we dared to collaborate on an idea that collapsed the classroom walls and opened the world as a learning arena. We did this as public school teachers – the teachers with the least amount of resource. We collaborated, we created, and what we generated yet endures.
Since our first journey in 2002, sixteen Roosevelt High School teachers have entered the HFB conversation, leading journeys to South Africa and Northern Ireland, guiding student conversation and artistic collaborations, forming working relationships with educators across the globe, engaging in fundraising to ensure equity in the formation of travel groups, designing itineraries for both traveling and visiting students and teachers, delivering and sharing deeply of themselves and their lives with their students. These are teachers who stirred the dust and lit the fires. They are my heroes.
Ms. Plesha is new to Hands for a Bridge and is thrilled with the opportunity to see this amazing program in action. She recently traveled to Northern Ireland and will be seeing the other side of the program in South Africa this coming year. Outside of HFB, Ms. Plesha is the activities coordinator and teaches Leadership and 9th grade language arts at Roosevelt High School.