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Community Development in the Classroom

Selina AlonzoSelina Alonzo is being honored as a Champion of Change for her service to education. 

I figured out early in my teaching career that my students would allow me to educate their minds if I first taught their hearts. Love changes people, it moves them and it inspires them. I am honored to be a White House Champion of Change because I believe that change, true and deep, happens after individuals have an experience with love, and so I am dedicated to showing the students on the Westside of Phoenix how worthy they are of love. I will champion this cause for the rest of my life.

As a Christian, I am called to live out the principles outlined in the Bible. Micah 6:8 tells us to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God. When I read this its essence resonated intensely within me. It was enough to become my life’s basis, but I had no clue how this would play out in a high school English classroom. I began to doubt the career path I had chosen, so I pursued other options. I was still in college, and still had a profound desire to teach, but the call in Micah 6:8 ignited a desire to seek change for the community that had raised me. The injustice and cruelty that was present in my neighborhood catapulted me into working to see justice reign and kindness prevail. I wanted change for my community. This new trajectory, this passion to see lasting and systemic transformation led me to work for Neighborhood Ministries, Inc. in 2003.

During my time on staff with Neighborhood, I was asked to read a book called With Justice for All by Dr. John Perkins. I encountered a new way to love my community when I read this book. I saw a new framework by which to approach my work and my life. Dr. Perkins ascertains that there are three R’s to community development. The first is relocation. Relocation means that you become one with the community you are serving. This was easy for me because I was already there. I didn’t have to move one block to live in a community of need. Living within a community brings solidarity and creates family. The second “R” stands for reconciliation. Working for reconciliation means that you fight to break oppressive cycles, close achievement gaps, it means that you live Micah 6:8 - seeking justice and teaching kindness. Reconciliation brings the community together allowing each member to work out the existing problems as a combined force of like-hearted people. The last R is for redistribution. The goal of redistribution is empowerment.  The community can learn how to come together and use their shared resources of skills, education, and experiences and redistribute them within their group to strengthen it.  I made a commitment then that I would always live, work and serve in a community of need.

I graduated from college a year later. I took a teaching position at Maryvale High School. In the beginning I saw my employment at this urban school as an opportunity to continue my call. It was difficult at first; I wasn’t quite sure how Micah 6:8, grammar and Shakespeare would work together. I saw that my students weren’t responding the way my college textbooks told me they would.  My students weren’t achieving the way I thought was consequence to long hours, heavy grading and careful lesson planning.  People around me faulted the elementary schools, administration, parents, language barriers, poverty, politics and lack of resources.  The blame list seemed endless, but I couldn’t reconcile myself to believe a Smart Board or newer textbooks would solve my classroom issues.  Things were broken and that was evident, but my faith reminded me there was a God that came to fix the broken.  God fixes the broken with love. I found I needed to implement a plan rooted in love. God had given all believers a model of how to love in Micah 6:8, and He had given Dr. Perkins a love strategy for implementing change in communities, and He had given me a classroom. 

In my classroom I had to figure out how to love my students into learning, so I used the same model outlined by Dr. Perkins.  Each period of the day students and I are “relocated” to Room 103 and become a family.  We work hard to “reconcile” our differences and challenges early in the year, so that we can focus and solve the issues that get in the way of our learning.  We take what we have learned together and we “redistribute” it within the classroom showing our learning and solidifying it. We see the empowerment education brings. My students do all the work. I am so proud of them. They are more than the pride of the Westside; they are the real champions of change. 

Selina Alonzo is an English teacher at Maryvale High School in Phoenix, Arizona