Little Rock Nine Member Offers CSM Class

Minnijean Brown and Jeff Steinberg are teaching a class at all three San Mateo County community colleges. The class is a spin-off of their successful journeys “Sojourn to the Past” for high schoolers.

The Sojourn to the Past isn’t just a field trip. It’s a journey back in time to learn about one of the most momentous and transitional periods in America’s history.

The academic immersion for high schoolers became so widely received in six states that Sojourn founder Jeff Steinberg, an AP history teacher at Capuchino High School in San Bruno, brought the journey in the form of a class to Cañada College, the College of San Mateo and Skyline College in January. Minnijean Brown of the Little Rock Nine also co-teaches the 16-week course.

The Little Rock Nine was a group of nine African-American students who defied the Arkansas National Guard, whom Governor Orval Faubus ordered to prevent the students from entering their school.

“The course uses the lens of the movement to teach lessons today about human rights and dignity,” said Nancy Kraus, Sojourn’s spokesperson. “It sheds light on attitudes toward homophobia, bullying and violence.”

Steinberg, brother of California Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, had been working with immediate past Cañada president Tom Mohr to start a class. Mohr, who sits on the Sojourn board, had been highly interested in expanding the curriculum on civil rights.

The class is open to community college students as well as high schoolers and adults.


It All Started with a Journey

Another group of approximately 90 students departed Thursday for the 10-day journey, where they will immerse themselves in the American south where segregation—close to extinction today—was rampant in the 1950s. They will speak with US Congressman John Lewis, a leader in the American civil rights movement and who was one of the first to participate in the Freedom Rides.  

One of the 12 destinations will bring the students to Central High School in Little Rock, the famous scene of the Little Rock Nine. The journey also includes a stop at the Edmund Pettus bridge, where armed officers attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators attempting to march to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.

“You can’t read about this in a history book and get the same experience,” said Elise Levin-Guracar, who went on Sojourn to the Past in 2010. “There is no other opportunity to meet all these people.”

Over the past 10 years, Sojourn to the Past has transported 6,300 students in over 600 journeys. Sojourn also goes on a mobile tour and has reached approximately 20,000 students through school assemblies and community meetings. 

Congresswoman Jackie Speier said, “Sojourn to the Past is a life changing experience for young people who thirst to understand living history.”

Students like Levin-Guracar are able to speak with these historical figureheads, who are still living today and can share their stories.

Levin-Guracar said Minnijean Brown was “incredibly down to earth” and inspirational for her self-perspective as an ordinary person.

“She taught us that ‘ordinary’ people can see a problem and be a solution of change,” the high schooler said.


Changing High Schoolers’ Perspectives

Sojourn to the Past is the longest running social justice outreach program of its kind, according to Kraus. It received the 2011 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama as an outstanding after school program for at-risk youth. The Award is the nation’s highest honor for youth after-school programs devoted to engaging them in the arts and humanities.

“We saw students do an about face,” Kraus said of participants. “They were more likely to go to college, vote, and were more interested in volunteering.”

Levin-Guracar said she became more mindful of the problems in her community.

Though she single-handedly couldn’t solve the academic disparity between students at Sequoia High School, she began a peer-mentoring program with friends.

“The big problem was too overwhelming, so I took a smaller step to fix it.” 

The program pairs students who are not doing as well in high school with other students who are excelling academically.

The Sojourn to the Past instills a sense of power and ability in students, helping them realize that the Little Rock Nine were high schoolers themselves when they made historical change.

Additionally, grouping students from the Bay Area with students from Ohio, New York and Missouri opens their eyes and minds to others with different life experiences. Though they may be the same age, these students share lodging with others from diverse socioeconomic, academic and ethnic backgrounds.

“The journey takes you right there where all this history happened,” Levin-Guracar said. “You just can’t learn as deeply.”

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