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Dr. Jennifer Bratyanski promotes Civic + Social Responsibility

My maternal grandfather, a Serbian immigrant, arrived in Chicago a few years before the start of World War I. Growing anti-immigrant sentiment meant giving up his career as a professional musician. He instead became a baker.

He worked evenings, meaning that the only time he had with his family was at the dinner table each night before he departed for work. Saturday mornings were reserved for baking in the home; not for money, but for those who could not usually afford the sweet treats he made at the commercial bakery where he worked.

My mother, the youngest of seven girls, was enlisted to carry baked goods to folks across the city; which largely included elderly immigrants that helped support my grandfather upon his arrival. She was to return with any news or updates on their well-being and news from the “old country” for her father. The most important delivery went to the convent attached to the Catholic School where my mother attended. Upon delivery, she was then expected to offer her assistance to the nuns living in the Convent. A five minute delivery could turn into four hours of cleaning and yard work. My mother hated Saturdays as a kid!

Apart from supporting his community with baked goods, my grandfather instilled in all of his daughters the importance of civic duty. Not being informed of the issues facing their community was unacceptable. Not voting was the equivalent of stabbing him in the heart since he witnessed so much political upheaval growing up in the Balkans.

The area of Oak Park, where my mother grew up, was part of the historically voracious breed of Chicago politics. Voting precinct captains knew everyone in every neighborhood by name; one showed up at my mother’s house the day she turned 21 to register her to vote. Years later the 26th Amendment (1970) was passed which lowered the national voting age to 18. Civic and community engagement were part of one’s daily routine among my family.

My parents relocated to Charlotte in 1975. SouthPark Mall had just been built. I was four years old. Despite leaving a large extended family, Charlotte quickly became their new home. We ate dinner every night together and then watched local news together. The Charlotte Observer had its own small side table in our house. Our family moved to Charlotte in the wake of the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971) case requiring the integration of the Charlotte Mecklenburg School System.

Being of elementary school age, and unaware of the history of racial tensions that created a segregated school system in the first place, attending public school post-Swann meant befriending kids from all parts of the city. But, even at a young age, I was keenly aware of the differences that some of my classmates faced.

I recall one friend terrified that the school would find out she was using the address of a family member who lived in the school district. There were also the not-so-subtle indignities such as a different line for the students receiving free or reduced lunch. This was explained as a more efficient method for getting kids through the lunch line. I am of the belief that because of the rather extraordinary timing of growing up in Charlotte and going to public school in the post-Swann era I was exposed more to the multifaceted issues facing this New South city.

Some might be surprised to learn that Charlotte in the late seventies was far more multicultural than perhaps thought. My third grade class looked like the United Nations. Much of this had to do with the loosening of historic immigration restrictions and shifts in geopolitics of the Cold War that resulted in an increase in immigration communities emerging in Charlotte.

There was nothing particularly unusual to me about going to school with kids from all over the city. Some with immigrant parents, some were descendants of slaves, some were able to identify family back to the American Revolutionary era, some lived in multigenerational houses, like mine. The diversity within our classrooms I would later find out was unique for us post-Swann kids. This was the Charlotte I grew up in. This is the Charlotte I have called my home for over forty years. This is the community I believe I have a responsibility to.

Being socialized in community and civic responsibility by my family, it was not surprising to find myself becoming interested in civil rights history. I received my Ph.D. from UNC Greensboro. I am a civil rights scholar. I have spent nearly twenty-five years researching political activism and protest traditions inspired by extremely influential figures such as Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hammer, Dolores Huerta, and Barbara Gittings, and most recently Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. My research is interdisciplinary by design which means I draw inspiration from most disciplines: history, politics, film, music, art, science, etc.

It seems natural to me that I found my way (albeit circuitous) to a school that inspires a sense of social responsibility. In 2013, after a decade of teaching and advising exclusively at the university level, I arrived at Providence Day School to teach AP US History and AP US Government and Politics. Not long after arriving at PD an opportunity appeared on a bulletin board: a listing for divisional Social Responsibility Coordinators. These roles were designed to better identify what “social responsibility” meant to a school like Providence Day. By 2019, the titles were updated to Community Engagement Coordinators as a means to better define social responsibility in action.

Cultivating in our students a sense of connection to their community and taking action to improve the lives of others is at the core of what we hope our students do. Each division is unique, but all offer intentional, authentic, and age-appropriate approaches to community engagement.

The Upper School is unique in that students have more opportunities and autonomy to participate directly in service to their community. Unlike many schools, Providence Day does not require service hours as a graduation requirement. Before the pandemic, nearly 60 percent of our Upper School students were engaged in one or more of the student-led service clubs offered at PD. All Upper School students participate in service through grade-level programming. A number of service opportunities have been coordinated with teachers from Global Studies, World Language, and Environmental Science.

Students have the opportunity to sign up for service-oriented trips to Costa Rica and South Africa. Additional domestic travel service trips will soon be announced. Apart from school-sponsored programming, Upper School students are engaged in service through their faith traditions, sports teams, and within community organizations not affiliated with Providence Day. Therefore requiring service hours beyond what students are doing organically and authentically is counterintuitive.

As the AP US Government and Politics (AP GOV) teacher, I am given an entire year to work with my students. Most schools allocate only one semester to this course.  A full year of AP Gov gives my students time to put into practice what they are learning in the classroom.

Before COVID, I required students to attend (in person) city council, county commission, and school board meetings, of which they discuss the local issues facing our city throughout the school year. AP Gov Students have coordinated Voter Registration drives throughout the city as part of the NC GO VOTE initiative created by students in 2013. Voter registration drives have been coordinated at dog parks, concerts, art festivals, state sporting tournaments at the MAC, public libraries, and one was coordinated at the JDL Fast Track in Winston Salem in 2016 by a current Olympian.

Apart from voter registration, students have volunteered to poll supporters at political rallies. In fall 2018, a group of students spoke with supporters of President Trump waiting in line for hours outside of Bojangles Coliseum (in the pouring rain). The students, under umbrellas, polled the supporters on issues leading up to an upcoming midterm election. Also, AP Gov students conduct exit polls each November outside of voting precincts across Mecklenburg County. I am grateful these students have an entire year with AP Gov.

Watching a former student represent the United States as an Olympic athlete is remarkable. Knowing that same student, awarded a Master's Degree in Public Policy, will use whatever platform given to advocate for others, fills me with tremendous pride. One day this summer, I heard that two former students had started their Naval Aviation training in Pensacola and another was beginning his masters in marine science.

These are just a few of the countless examples of how our alums are actively engaged in improving the safety, security, and well-being of others. I often wonder what my grandfather would have thought about our students. He would probably remind them to vote!

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