By Emily Lopynski

“The reality in Washington D.C. is if you live in Tenleytown versus if you live in Anacostia, you get two wildly different educational experiences. It’s the biggest social injustice imaginable. What we are allowing to happen in this day and age, we are still allowing the color of a child’s skin and the Zip code they live in to dictate their educational outcome, and therefore their life outcome. … We are robbing them every single day of their futures. And everybody in this country should be infuriated by that.”  — Michelle Rhee in a speech at a D.C. restaurant, May 2008

          Social justice is something that counters the forces of power inequality, privilege, and oppression that have negative effects on individuals and communities. The ideas of power, privilege, and equality are very relevant to my trip to DC.

Power: someone’s relative status in society (often political, can be social). The more power you have the more likely you can use your actions to achieve desired outcomes.   

            With this definition of power in mind, we can say Washington DC is considered one of the most powerful cities in the world. The Supreme Court, the World Bank, Congress, the White House, the IMF building all represent the power of the city. There are lawyers, congressman, businessman, and politicians who all possess a share of the power of DC They belong to the elite and powerful class of American society. There is another group of people in DC: District residents, 30,500 of which are children that live below the poverty threshold as defined by the Census Bureau (Power and Policy). These residents, and many others who are struggling to make ends meet, do not experience the benefits of power from the city they live in. In truth, they experience the negative effects of it. The ideas of power and lack thereof directly affected my host community. But what was encouraging to me was that the teachers I interacted with did not tell the children that they are not in a position to inherit power. In my pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms, I could see how the teachers empowered the children though encouragement. New skills and knowledge were a source of empowerment for the students. The teachers at the KIPP school would also read stories about successful African-American inventors, athletes, and other famous African-Americans. It seems that the school intentionally used African-American role models and leaders in a school of a 100% African-American student body to empower the students. The KIPP model also stressed the importance of being a leader and making the right choices. The KIPP school curriculum incorporated a strategy called Tool of the Mind that encouraged self-development and personal responsibility. Both schools were empowering their students any way they could.

Oppression: unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power. Oppression keeps an individual or group of people form accessing basic necessities, public goods, or achieving their full potential.

          As I move forward, the faces of the children that I spent time with give meaning to the injustice of oppression, power inequality, and privilege disparity. I hope to find the niche where I can make the most impact on the children who face such oppression and inequality on a daily basis.

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people” –Martin Luther King Jr.

          In the Fall I was in the Sharpe Seminar “The Opportunity Gap in U.S. Schools”. My Branch Out experience supported what I learned about the U.S. education system and education inequality. This trip allowed me to see what I learned about KIPP schools in action. I was able to compare DC public schools with a DC charter schools. The Branch Out trip also reminded me how unjust the education system is and that the opportunity gap needs to be dealt with. I am now considering majors related education policy and inequality.

          I plan to stay connected to this social issue for a long time. I have recently joined the Students for Education Reform chapter at William and Mary. I hope to be involved with this issue in some capacity beyond college. This might be through afterschool program volunteering, working at a non-profit, or being involved in education policy. My Branch Out trip has confirmed my understanding of the issues in the education system. What I learned on my trip has encouraged me to find a way to serve the children who suffer from the effects of poverty.


“Poverty and Policy”

Merriam-Websters Online Dictionary