Todd Clauer: Upper School Social Justice Project

Second Prize

THINK congratulates second prize winner Todd Clauer of the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, in the United States. This private Jewish day school implemented its social justice project in Grades 9 through 12.

The school engages each year in a new social justice initiative and this project was chosen by the students in the senior class in partnership with students at University Academy, a charter school with a 90% African American student body based in a high-poverty neighbourhood.

This remarkable project sought to have the students understand and address some of the repercussions of the pervasive history of racial inequality in Kansas City and the United States. It focused on three areas over a three-year period: inequity in access to health care, voter engagement, and early childhood education.

The Jewish Value of Pursuing Justice

The core value that Todd Clauer aims to teach his students is to embrace the pursuit of justice through living every day as an advocate for the dignity of all peoples and all faiths. Informing the project was the school’s “Profile of a Graduate,” which articulates the values the school aims to instill in its graduates. Two of these are “Characteristics of a Mensch in Everyday Living” and “Actions that Embody Respect for the Dignity of all People and all Faiths”.

The sources used in the project included Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech and Jewish sources that included the Talmud, the Passover Hagaddah, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), and midrash (rabbinic interpretations).

The students analyzed Dr. King Jr.’s speech and related its themes, images, and metaphors to Jewish sources that embody the values of his Civil Rights project. Given their high regard for the analysis, the students created a faux Talmud page of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with the speech serving as the Gemara, with biblical, Talmudic, and midrashic sources surrounding the page as “Rashi” and “Tosaphot”. In a small, interactive group lesson, the class discussed the Jewish value of pursuing justice.

Poverty and Health Care

The students, in collaboration with the students at University Academy, began their community action by developing a relationship with Communities Creating Opportunity (CCO) whose representatives introduced the students to the uphill efforts against injustices in public policy.

With the focus on access to health care in year one of the project, the students were exposed to the realities of the situation in their community. To this end, Reverend Deth Im of CCO conducted a “poverty simulation” in which students had to pay bills, get loans, and provide for their families, giving the students a sense of the hardships faced by those who live in poverty.

They were also shown statistics on income and mortality rates, specifically data on local health care disparity and life expectancy by zip code. For many students, it was the first time they had considered the grave implications of economic privations such as homelessness, incarceration, and true hunger.

The students’ understanding was further expanded through an eye-opening guided tour of Kansas City with a special emphasis on its religious and racially segregated past in housing, jobs, and education.

Armed with an understanding of the potential to address the problem of access to health care, CCO helped to mobilize the students who fanned out in the neighbourhoods with some of the lowest rates of health insurance in the state, knocking on doors and supplying residents with critical information about the upcoming sign-up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The students also canvassed households to raise awareness about the possible Medicaid expansion in Missouri.

Future Votes KC

In year two of the project, Hyman Brand students focused on the issue of voter engagement. On the eve of the United States congressional mid-term elections, and with the help of the expertise of CCO, the students mobilized to mount a Get-Out-The-Vote initiative prior to and on Election Day. Students called registered voters and reminded them about the importance of voting, and, in some cases, directly assisted disabled voters to get to the polls.

Enthused by the excitement in that effort, the students initiated and ran a city council candidate forum. Students created a logo for the initiative, which they called Future Votes KC, established a social media presence, invited the candidates by phone, email, and Twitter, crafted compelling questions for the forum, and ran the entire event as both moderators and questioners. The students asked the candidates about their perspectives on local politics, tweeted at them, took selfies with them, and emerged savvy future voters and informed participants in democracy and civil society. The event was open to the public and attendance exceeded many other candidate forums that took place during that election cycle.

The Early Childhood Education Challenge

The third and final year of this incredible social justice initiative continued the partnership with University Academy with the goal of achieving lifelong action-oriented citizenship. The students focused their efforts on a possible ballot measure to fund free, universal early childhood education in Kansas City. Students conducted multiple site visits to early childhood education centres in order to learn about the topic first-hand.  They researched the impact of other similar ballot measures in the U.S. and had the opportunity to engage with the president of the Kansas City Early Learning Commission Board.

Finally, students brought this matter before the city council. They prepared a PowerPoint presentation, practised their speeches to the council members, put on their most professional outfits, and went down to city hall to testify on behalf of the issue. Students were commended by the council members for their knowledge and passion, and the presentation spread the word about the importance of early childhood education and the challenge it faces, a situation unfamiliar to many at the time.

The Trip of a Lifetime:  Civil Rights in the South

Year three of the project culminated with an initiative aimed at informing the thinking of 47 high school students through the lens of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. This was done by taking the students directly to the battleground of the movement with a 10-day bus trip across the American South.

Underlying the plan was a dream that these students would come to understand, on a personal and profound level, the history of racism and discrimination in the United States, how it impacted the country, and how it continues to shape the nation.

The students were taken on a journey not only across the South, but back in time to the cultural moment in American history when they shared roots – Black and Jewish roots – that extended into one of the most profound expressions of Tikkun Olam of the 20th Century: the Civil Rights struggle.  The tour included interactions with the Jewish communities of the South, some of which played an active role in supporting the Civil Rights Movement through direct action.

In addition to visiting historical sites of the Civil Rights movement, the students connected to modern-day advocacy through three stops along the way. First, they attended a workshop at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, where they learned about efforts to provide legal representation for death row inmates and for juveniles sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, in a system that is biased towards poor defendants who are disproportionately people of color. Next, students worked in Birmingham, Alabama, in a community that is deeply impacted by poverty by planting a community garden, painting the home of an elderly resident, and cleaning a free, after-school program site. Finally, the students attended a workshop at the University of Mississippi’s Winter Institute on Race and Reconciliation that explored how biases on race and class continue to create gaps in opportunity, and how students can face and utilize their own privilege as they seek to improve their community and world.

A Vision Fulfilled

This extraordinary Civil Rights tour brought deep learning and meaning to an ongoing social justice partnership with University Academy. And the entire three-year journey taken by Todd Clauer and his students fulfilled the vision of the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy as a place where students become adults who will seek to make a positive difference in their communities and the world, thereby securing its commitment to the Jewish value of justice for all people.

Ruth Burnstein is a lawyer whose 30-year career was in the business of law publishing.  She worked at Thomson Reuters, Butterworths, the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, and was vice-president of Canada Law Book until her retirement in 2010.  Ruth now works as a law publishing consultant and volunteer literacy tutor.


The Lola Stein Institute (LSI) is a centre of inventive educational thinking and addresses the challenge to re-frame schooling for the exigencies of our times.