LearnServe Teacher’s Blog: Final Thoughts from South Africa (7/14)

What’s next? Where do we go from here?

I am pleased to report that we are all back safe and sound in the USA!  Our 16/17-day journey in South Africa has come to a close and we now must answer the question, “So, what now?”

I am sure my EME crew is off reconnecting with favorite foods, family, and friends.  But, I am also sure that many of them are/will be wrestling with the question of what to do next.  It’s a difficult question to answer.  After such an amazing international adventure with so many new and exciting experiences, it’s hard to keep it all in perspective. As we said our farewells to our South African hosts at the airport in JoBurg on Tuesday,  I started to feel sad.  Not sad that we were returning home to our loved-ones, but sad that we had to leave our new friends and experiences behind.  But, I tried my best to hold my feelings in check before my students started to clown me since they already think I’m too emotional!

In any event, I quickly remembered as I said farewell to each of our 14 guys in front of Eastern, that I already know part of the answer.  What we must do now is keep the fire burning! LearnServe EME South Africa was not about a one time trip to Africa.  It was not a summer vacation destination.  It was just one more step in our journey as a collaborative to empower our young men with the tools and experiences they need to be successful in their college, career and life pursuits.  Being reminded of that goal keeps me smiling and keeps me going.  I see how this experience has opened eyes and doors for our young men.  I also see how we now have the power to connect with more young men and women, at Eastern, to share what we experienced and how they too can get in on the action!

So, I would like to leave you with some of my favorite moments from the trip.  The purpose of these highlights is not for us to just re-live the moments, but to cherish them and spread the word to others.  This trip lives on in how we choose to remember it and how we choose to share with those we care about.  It is through these connections that we can begin to think about ways of creating more opportunities for experiential travel for our students of color at Eastern and throughout the District.  Thank you to all who have reached out with words of encouragement and appreciation for these reflections.  They are my way of unpacking all of my personal thoughts about our experiences and I’m glad that so many of you have enjoyed reading them!

Hats off again to the Empowering Males of Color Initiative and LearnServe International for making the last few months possible.  We are only beginning to see the fruits of the seeds that have been planted, but I am confident that the best is yet to come.

My Top 17 Moments (14 Students and 3 Chaperones=17 Great Days and Moments to Celebrate)!

  1. ​​Family Send-Off at Eastern on June 25th Departure Day.  Why in the world is this one of my great moments? Because the pure joy and excitement that I saw on each student’s face was…priceless!  I mean, these guys all looked like my 5 year old son getting ready for his first big birthday party.  It just felt good seeing parents and guardians, siblings, family members, and school officials, hugging and high-fiving each other–some even wiping away tears–all anxiously hoping that the trip would be safe, fun, and a success…it was 🙂  That day showed me that we all “got it.”  We all recognized that this was a big deal and we weren’t taking it for granted. We have to find a way to bottle up all that love and excitement and carry that with us each day to class and/or to work, and within all of our daily responsibilities.
  2. ​Naturena Day with City Year.  ​Our day-long work with City Year at Naturena primary school left a big impression on all involved.  We engaged in great dialogue with students in grades K-7, as well as with school officials.  While I was moved by the ongoing debate about the role of language in education, many of our students were struck by how motivated, gifted, and joyful the students appeared to be despite any personal challenges they may have had.   My hope:  that passion and joy for education will travel back with our EME guys to Eastern and the District, starting a new level of interest in the pursuit of knowledge.
  3. The Homestead Revitalization Project at Grassroots CYCC. Our Homestead work as highlighted in my Day 11-12 reflections, was a great example of community building and youth leadership in action.  As I mentioned before, there was something beautiful about seeing young minds wrestle with what would be worthwhile and sustainable to create in a community.  In the end, we created a space that everyone was proud to be associated with.  It was powerful and inspiring.  My wish:  each EME student will use the Homestead experience to really think critically in the coming weeks about what they can create and implement right here in DC that will be worthwhile and sustainable for the people who need it the most.
  4. ​Kliptown Youth Program (KYP) Gumboot Dance Tribute.  I JUST LOVED THIS!  I mentioned this moment in my Day 3 reflection, but haven’t been able to share the full video until now.  Check out the full 20 minute performance of our great friends in Kliptown through the following special google link (https://photos.app.goo.gl/Ro38E5IVVOdbSLMu2).  You can fast forward to minute 13 to see where some of our brave EME students joined in to show a few dance moves of their own!  I saw a number of our EME students come out of their shell and truly connect with the people of Kliptown, even from some of our guys that are usually too “hard” to smile, to see them dancing and laughing and playing, was quite special.  I hope you enjoy the full video link.  It is now also available through our master google photo link.
  5. ​One-on-One Check-Ins/Chat Sessions with EME Students.  This trip gave me an opportunity to get to understand each of my students a bit more.  Some of them, I have never taught, and so I only knew them through our regular mentoring sessions and activities.  This round-the-clock, 2-week plus trip allowed us to connect on another level.  The dreams and aspirations of our young men need to be understood, celebrated and cherished.  AND, our young men also need to be confronted and challenged, honestly and lovingly, in areas where they need to grow.  Courtney, Ginea, and I were intentional in checking in with each EME student, sometimes one-on-one and other times in small groups, all to reflect on the socio-emotional well being of the student and to challenge each student on how they were performing during the trip.  I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to connect with each young man and look forward to working with them as they grow, graduate, and excel in life.
  6. ​Birthday Celebrations for Zac and Devon.  Zac and Devon are alike and different in many ways.  The diverse nature of our students was shown throughout the trip, but one thing that remained constant was their sense of brotherhood.  I was honored to be able to share birthdays with both of them during our trip.  On both days, it was refreshing to see how all the guys genuinely wanted to make sure that their fellow brother had a great birthday.  We have to find a way to ensure that this brotherhood continues throughout the school year and that it becomes infectious throughout the larger student body! https://goo.gl/photos/nfz1tux97DdZU17k7 ​and https://photos.app.goo.gl/u9HnXRRnYazBE22l1
  7. ​Dinner with Kim and Corwin.  All smiles during my “ear-hustling” moments at the Friday night dinner where I heard students excitedly reaching for their business cards (completely unprompted by anyone) and sharing it with our dinner hosts.  When Kim yelled across the room, “Look Corwin, they each have business cards!”,  I silently beamed and shouted within.  I’m confident that our students will remain in touch with many of the people they encountered in South Africa and I look forward to hearing amazing updates from each of them.
  8. ​Table Mountain Day.  Table Mountain was a tough journey for most of us, but it was also a triumphant one. Many of my guys were upset going down the mountain because it was longer and more difficult, but we all made it through. Soon thereafter, most were celebrating their achievements and the difficulties were no longer overshadowing the big feat.  I hope the challenge of Table Mountain serves as a useful metaphor for each of our students in school, career, and life in general.
  9. ​Safari.  I already told each of you what made my Safari experience complete was my giraffe encounter!  But, what also stood out about my guys during the 2-day Safari was how resilient our guys are.  They battled through the unusually cold temperatures and even  a power outage to find a way to enjoy themselves.  That resiliency is a skill that we too often overlook, but that needs to be brought out during moments of trauma, crisis, and just daily disappointments.  I hope that I as a mentor and the rest of our students’ support network find new and creative ways to help our students become independent, resilient and consistent.
  10. ​Meeting Huddles.  I can admit to the guys now…our meeting times were intense!  We met almost every morning, afternoon, or night to discuss serious topics about race, gender, class, and division, with some meetings going on for almost 2 hours.  We analyzed texts, wrote journal reflections, invited debate, and shared personal moments.  That’s a lot to ask of young men on any day, but particularly tough during the summer while away on an abroad trip.  I wouldn’t change it for the world, though!  I saw true growth from our students during our huddle times and each meeting forced us to reflect on our experiences in country as well at home in a way that could never be accomplished from merely sitting in classroom with a textbook.  I thank each EME student for engaging during our huddle times and challenge each student to find their own space to reflect and explore the way we did in South Africa.
  11. ​EME Chats with Women and About Women.  It’s worth noting something that I have not explicitly spoken on before.  We had 14 young men, traveling with one man and two women.  Boy, was that interesting :).  Without going into details or breaking confidences, this provided for quite an enriching experience.  It helped to remind me the importance of dialogue when raising our young people and how too often many discussions go left unsaid. Shout out to Ginea and Courtney for being present and engaged with each of our young men, AND for pushing our students to think critically about the language we use when communicating with each other, and how better to communicate within and among the sexes.  More dialogue among the sexes is needed as we seek to produce Men and Women of Excellence.
  12. ​Favorite Food.  So, it’s no surprise by now that I like (read: LOVE) to eat!  I enjoyed trying new meals with my EME guys and seeing their faces when they liked (or not) what they received.  In the end, most of what we loved, wasn’t too different than what we could get in the United States, but when we loved something, we went above and beyond to get multiple rounds of it :).  Trying new things was a teachable moment for many of our guys and I’m glad that they rose to the occasion instead of starving for two weeks!  Here are a few of the food items that left the biggest impression with us:  “Pop,” in all its forms; Amagwynya (fried dough/bread); Braai (South African bbq); BGR’s American burger in JoBurg; RocoMama Milkshakes (the guys were truly addicted to these); and Malva Pudding (a popular South African dessert that made me gain 5 pounds).
  13. Favorite Destinations.  ​There are too many to list here, but I do want to highlight a category of destinations that I surprisingly really enjoyed.  I loved our time at the museums (Hector Pieterson, Nelson Mandela, Dompass, District 6, and Robben Island), even though I don’t usually enjoy museums!  These museums were so well done in telling us a story and in each case we had excellent tour guides that really gave us first hand accounts of experiences that were difficult to re-live.  My prayer is that we find a way to teach history so that it becomes living history that our students feel connected and empowered by.
  14. Homestays.  I can’t imagine doing a student study-abroad experience without a homestay.  So glad that our homestay period was a success and appreciated the feedback we received from students on how to make the experience even more enjoyable for future travelers in the coming years.  Seeing how our guys really connected with their “mamas” and other homestay family was a joy to see.  That period of time was invaluable because it showed a side of South Africa that we could not receive in any other way.
  15. ​LearnServe Student Blogs.  If you have not already, please check out our student blog reflections that have been posted on LearnServe International’s website:  http://learn-serve.org/blog/south-africa .  All 14 of our guys were assigned their very own personal reflection day and we were genuinely pleased with the results. We have been encouraging our young men to pause and reflect on their experiences while abroad, but more importantly, in life in general.  I won’t lie, many students hate the writing process, but I’m confident that they will be stronger writers and more critical thinkers, because of it!
  16. ​Oh, the Pictures.  As a reminder, this link has pictures AND videos from ALL of our days in South Africa: https://goo.gl/photos/2S9GS5pHLF7cMmUKA.  Some cover the big moments, others just capture our silly sides and random photo shoot sessions!  lol  Whenever in need of a smile or some motivation, take a look at these photos and you will be fired up/ready to go!
  17. Upcoming LearnServe Abroad Meetings and Student Presentations.  The work has only just begun!  Our students still have post-trip meetings they will have to complete before their official “LearnServe Study Abroad Graduation” in October.  During the next few months, I challenge each of you to check in with our EME team to see how they are doing.  How will each EME leader present their experience to their peers, school leaders, and district officials?  What sustainable social change initiatives will each EME leader create within DC? I can’t wait to see what each of our young men do in the coming months and I look forward to sharing the details with you all in the weeks and months ahead.

Again, I thank you for listening ear over the last few weeks and hope that together we have sparked something new and sustainable that infects the lives of many more.  Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions or are in need.

All the Best,

Ivan C. Douglas Jr.
Law Programs Teacher
Program Director
Empowering Males of Color Initiative
Eastern High School


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