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Leigh Ann Erickson's mission as an educator is to bring about racial reconciliation.
Now in her fifth year at Mount Vernon Community Schools, Erickson has designed and built a curriculum for teaching cross-cultural understanding and acceptance to high school students.
'My goal is to make strides toward racial reconciliation through experiences and education,” she said. 'When we don't know people who are different than us, we become afraid of those people.
'Fear is the feeling that creates bias. When you meet and get to know people, you eradicate fear and understand your biases.”
A high school teacher for more than 14 years, Erickson previously taught in such places as New York City and North Lawndale, one of the most segregated and impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago. There, she said she saw her own biases come out.
'I learned from my students,” she said. 'I grew to love young people who are oppressed by systems of oppression.”
Erickson joined the faculty at Mount Vernon High School in 2014 as an English teacher and started seeking opportunities for her predominantly white, upper-middle-class students to gain perspective on issues of race, racism and bias. For example, she developed a black literature course for students to examine topics such as African history through literature.
She also sponsored trips for students to spend the day at her former North Lawndale school and meet the students there.
In 2016, Erickson launched a two-week immersive social justice course. The course curriculum is based on four principles that she believes facilitate social justice:
l Getting close to people
l Giving and receiving hope
l Getting uncomfortable
l Changing the narrative.
As part of the course, students take part in community service projects such as preparing and serving a meal at Mission of Hope.
The social justice course has been so well-received by students that it led to a schoolwide event held this past Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Called the CARE Conference - connect, absorb, respond, empower - the event included speakers, performances and breakout sessions to explore issues of racism and bias.
'Students were able to connect with people with different experiences,” she said.
Now with the new school year, Erickson has the role of director of student support.
'I support students who have needs that aren't being met,” she said of the position, which is new to the school.
She will continue teaching the social justice course. In place of the CARE Conference, which will become a biannual event, she will lead a group of students on a social justice tour of the South in January, visiting places of historical significance to the slavery era and Civil Rights movement.
'We will have conversations about the reality of history and how the impacts of history continue to be felt today,” she said.
Through the experiences she is creating for her students, Erickson wants to end the circle of fear and bias that leads to social injustice.
'I'm trying to make more compassionate students,” she said.
l Once a month, Business 380 will spotlight one of HER magazine's Women of Achievement, published by The Gazette. The awards were sponsored by Farmers State Banks.