Letter To the Editor

While serving as writer and counsel to Audrey Petty, the founder of Sojourner Scholars, I worked on a number of communications projects, among them this letter to the editor of the New York Times. I spotted the original letter in The Times and pitched the idea of a response to Audrey. My sense was that we could showcase Sojourner Scholars, issues Audrey feels passionate about, and Audrey as community and thought leader.

After she agreed, I interviewed Audrey about some basic ideas that could be explored and the ideas that should be included. After a first draft, Audrey provided some guidance and then I worked on refining. We agreed we had a strong final version that we could send to The Times and off it went!

Our work with Ned helped clarify our key messages and the way we tell our story.
— Audrey Petty, Founding Director, Sojourner Scholars

To the Editor:

Re Professor Richard Perloff's April 4 Letter To the Editor arguing that civics education is critical to ensuring a robust democracy: I agree and have seen that new and creative approaches to the subject can turn on lights for students in ways that we might not have imagined.

One year ago, the organization Illinois Humanities and a group of Chicago colleagues launched Sojourner Scholars, a civics education and college prep program for high school students from the city’s South Side. Through summer seminars, taught by faculty from local colleges and universities, students explored several disciplines, and grew as critical creative citizens. They also earned a summer stipend, had a college-style experience, considered their broader intellectual ambitions, and had the chance to receive credits from Bard College.

Our cohort of rising sophomores studied texts from a broad range of perspectives, including the poetry of AnneBradstreet and Phillis Wheatley, John Locke's "Second Treatise of Civil Government," colonial Virginia slave codes, the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson's "Notes on the State of Virginia,"   Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman," Navajo creation stories, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine, and African American folktales. We concluded with Claudia Rankine's "Citizen: An American Lyric," which uses poetry and essays to address the myriad of experiences of black people and the ways that their lives are at risk and at stake in America. At the close of the summer session, one young scholar eloquently characterized American experiences of citizenship as complex and contradictory. Discussing the current state of our imperfect union, she noted, "Citizenship is here, but equality is not."

We'll continue the program this summer, welcoming back last year's students and a new cohort. So, while it may be true that civics has been seen as passé and not a priority, for a group of students on Chicago's South Side, it's becoming a profound adventure, provoking questions, and serving as a gateway to new futures.


The writer is the founding director of Sojourner Scholars, a program of Illinois Humanities, and teaches for the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project.