Saturday, October 13, 2007

Jena 6, Meet Spellman 5

KEN SUGIURA of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has done a story on five Spellman University Seniors putting in work on the Jena 6.

Women lead campuswide letter-writing effort to show their support.

Nyeema McCaskill put pen to paper, trying to make a difference. The Spelman College junior was making her voice count.

McCaskill wasn't signing a petition. It was a letter to be sent to one of the Jena 6, the black Louisiana teenagers whose arrests after allegedly beating up a white student spurred civil rights activists to protest.

Shaina Turner, Shayla Turner, Keshia Powell, Janet Williams and Kisha Woods. For their Advocacy in Urban Education class, they have collected letters that will be sent to the families of the six teens.

"I was really happy when I heard about it," said McCaskill, as she took a break from her letter. "I had some feelings I wanted to express."

Friday, the students set up shop at the Manley Student Center for a weekly event called Market Friday, a a bazaar for student groups. Wielding clipboards and candy, they flagged down classmates and encouraged them to sit down and write. In about two weeks, they estimate they've collected about 200 letters, which they'll put in scrapbooks. Students and faculty across the Atlanta University Center have contributed.

"I'm really, incredibly proud of them," said professor Franita Ware, who teaches the education class. "They've truly demonstrated leadership."

Ware's instructions were for the students to take on a social action project. These five students decided to do something related to the Jena 6.

The six teens from Jena, La., gained worldwide attention last month after thousands came to the town to protest. They initially were charged with attempted murder after beating up a white classmate last December, but the charges later were reduced. It was the last in a series of racially charged events that began when black students attempted to sit under a tree at Jena High School, where white students had typically sat.

The following day, three nooses hung from the tree. Critics of the case said the white students who hung the nooses were not punished as they should have been — they received a few days' suspension — while the Jena 6 were punished excessively. "We're not advocating a violent act," Powell said. "We're advocating equal punishment."

But rather than a march, they decided on letters.

"We wanted to be a little more personal," Powell said. "We didn't want to do the same thing everyone else was doing."

They made boxes and signs for every classroom building and dorm on campus. They asked friends, classmates and professors for contributions. Some professors, enthused with the idea, even offered students extra credit if they wrote. The response has overwhelmed the five women. Some contributors wrote multiple letters. One was four pages long.

"I was very pleased to see them become actively involved in something that was salient from their perspective," said Morehouse College professor Abraham Davis, who teaches one of Powell's classes. "This was student-initiated, and that's what impressed me."

Ware assigned the project to develop the leadership skills the students will need as teachers. All five students are education majors and plan to teach. Powell eventually wants to work for the U.S. Department of Education. Woods aims to be a superintendent of a public school system.

As their four years at one of the nation's most prestigious colleges comes to a close, the students have received a taste of the sort of leadership they can command.

"We didn't think it was going to be this big," Woods said. "We're thinking we're probably going to have to do a sequel of this."


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