The Social Justice Committee members (Photo source: Kristina Pennell-Götze)
The Social Justice Committee (SJC) is an advocacy group at Berlin Brandenburg International School (BBIS). The group seeks to advocate for minoritized groups on both a local and international level. James Baldwin once said, “Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.” We, the students of the SJC, realized that if we wanted meaningful change, we would have to push for it ourselves. As a result, we have found ways around various obstacles and, over time, have become confident in our activism. Our goal is to push for systemic change within our community, thus encouraging others to follow our lead. This article will explore the journey the group has taken from important events to our monthly Zines (digital mini magazines).
Origins of the SJC
The Social Justice Committee originally began as a solidarity group during a time of need. Following the murder of George Floyd, racism was a major topic of conversation both globally and within the school community. As students and staff engaged in conversations surrounding this topic, it became even more evident that many racist and ignorant perspectives were lying beneath the surface. A small group of 10th graders courageously called out the behavior of a group of students who had been particularly hateful, leading to a school-wide discussion amongst students about normalized racism and microaggressions within the school community. Ms. Kristina Pennell-Götze, the secondary head of drama and film at BBIS, took the initiative to create a Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) affinity space in which students of color could talk about their experience and treatment at the school. This BIPOC affinity group was wrongfully perceived as discriminatory and exclusive by several white students. To allow the group to maintain members and respond to larger and broader issues, the affinity group eventually evolved into the Social Justice Committee. Members of the SJC generated ideas to make BBIS a more equitable school. Examples of this in the early days of its evolution were the creation of administrative positions focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the student council and raising awareness of social justice issues among members of our very small group.
Evolution of the SJC
Over the last three years, the SJC has evolved into a thriving student-led group, becoming more visible within the school community. When Ukraine was invaded in February 2022, our committee’s visibility grew when we played a significant role in raising awareness of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ refugees’ struggle to move freely from country to country. We held multiple meetings with the administration to discuss ways to support the crisis ranging from taking a more nuanced approach when discussing the humanity of innocent victims to physically supporting refugees at Berlin Main Train Station when they arrived in Germany. Our extensive communication and involvement in aiding the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine garnered the trust and support of administrators at our school and, as a result, our SJC could build on these relationships to actively seek systemic change via other avenues.
During this time, the SJC started to understand and find its own identity in the school. It was clear that tackling disparities and inequities faced by minoritized groups would become our mission. Noticing an inconsistency in the world’s response to various global adversities and violations of human rights, the SJC wanted to be a voice and amplify the voices of marginalized people around the world while also looking deep within our own local context. On a global scale, international schools around the world took clear steps to support Ukraine, but there was silence when Iranian women were fighting for their own human rights, at war in their own country. We quickly realized that conscious and unconscious biases of white supremacy culture were deeply embedded in international schools across the globe and that this wasn’t an isolated situation. This realization marked a shift in our advocacy work and the beginning of our grassroots model. We started to take proactive action in ways we knew we had control, in addition to being strategic in having our voices heard. It was an effective process as we began to collaborate with outside parties and started to have a phenomenal impact in our school to ensure the safeguarding of human rights. We refused to be silenced.
Show Racism the Red Card
The Social Justice Committee helped organize various events in support of the Show Racism the Red Card (SRTRC) campaign. This campaign originated in the United Kingdom and utilized the high-profile nature of football and football players in order to raise awareness about racism. We wanted to take this opportunity to advocate for equality both in our sports clubs and in the broader school community. With the help of the varsity girls' football team, we organized for an early marking of the campaign during a friendly football match. Both the footballers and the audience used red face paint to support the campaign, and a bake sale was held in order to raise money for the big day.
On 21 October 2022, BBIS celebrated Wear Red Day in support of SRTRC. In preparation for this, we went to every homeroom in the secondary school to talk about the events and the cause. Everyone in the school was encouraged to wear red and we informed students who didn’t have red clothing that we would be handing out red ribbons at the entrance of the school to make the event more accessible. Additionally, we sold bubble tea to raise money that will be invested back into future SRTRC events and the purchasing of armbands for BBIS sports teams to continue raising awareness of racism and discrimination in sports.
The event was very successful, and we hope it is something that the school will continue in the coming years. Talking to the different homerooms was very helpful, not only in order to spread the word, but also to make sure people knew what the purpose of Wear Red Day was. A concern that became apparent was that Wear Red Day would be performative and a one-off event. Therefore, it was very important to us to make sure that people knew why they were wearing red, as well as spreading the word. The response was positive beyond expectations. While handing out ribbons at the gate, we noticed how many people had remembered to wear red or were willing to take a ribbon. This observation made that day so crucial to the further development of the SJC. Seeing so much support for a greater cause was invaluable to our spirits and highlighted the impact our actions were having. It was a day of community and a sign of change being possible.
After a couple of turbulent years as an SJC, we struggled to capture the attention of the administration when advocating for workshop and assembly time to address some core discriminatory issues that many international schools face. As a direct result, we decided to embrace grassroots action more than ever and advocated in spaces we felt we had the most power. One of the main projects run by the SJC is a series of monthly Zines published to the school community and beyond. Usually, the Zines respond to global events, community issues, or commemorative holidays, though occasionally they are based on personal interests submitted by students. Past Zine issues have included the titles Microaggressions, LGBTQ+ History Month, Antisemitism, and Black History Month (the full set of Zines can be found here). Upcoming themes include Palestinian human rights, sexual assault, and propaganda.
The process of producing the Zines is one of the main topics of SJC meetings. The creation of a Zine usually starts well before the targeted month even begins. We start every Zine as a group by brainstorming headers and topics for each of the six content pages. Since the beginning of the year, the structure of the pages has been streamlined to include a page on vocabulary, history, German context, and global context. Once the topics have been decided, each student volunteers to make a page, including the front and back covers. Members choose the topics that spark their interest and match their passions. The element of choice is incredibly important to maintaining the Zines as a club activity rather than as an assignment. Once everyone has their topic, each student creates and edits their pages outside of the club meetings. This allows us to manage our own time, and we usually find that researching and designing Zine pages is a nice break from the stress of schoolwork. After all the pages have been completed, they are distributed to people knowledgeable on the relevant topic to collect edits. This is an important part of the process as we truly value collaborating with people who are directly affected by the topic of our Zines. The edits are then made, and the final Zines are distributed to the school community and globally.
Since the publication of our monthly Zines, we have received positive acknowledgment from our own school community and the wider international school community abroad. We often hear back from teachers via email about how important our initiative is. Some emails from staff also show appreciation because our Zines engage with global affairs and advocate for human rights and these topics come up in class. For example, our Justice for Mahsa Amini Zine supported our English language and literature teachers during readings of Persepolis which coincided with the death of Mahsa Amini and the subsequent uprising and fight for human rights in Iran in 2022. The positive recognition of our Zines is not only limited to emails though. Some of us receive gratitude from teachers in the corridors as well as appreciation when seeing our Zines printed out and made visible in classrooms. The overwhelming response has become our motivation to produce more Zines, spread more awareness, and encourage more actions in the school. Knowing that we have made a difference, however big or small, empowers us to keep going, despite any obstacles that come up in our academic lives.
The SJC designed Black History Month posters that were on display and discussed throughout the month. (Photo source: Kristina Pennell-Götze)
One of the other ongoing projects led by the SJC is the Voice email. The Voice email is an email address that allows students to report discrimination to a team of faculty prepared to handle the incident. The creation of the Voice email is an ongoing process with the idea being raised at the end of the 2021-2022 school year. The email was finally announced in December 2022 after months of meetings and discussions on everything from the name of the actual email address to the process following a reported incident. Based on reports from the faculty behind the Voice email, it has been a success. One of the main benefits of having a systematic reporting process is allowing for data collection and accountability. It has also simplified the reporting system to allow students of all ages (in addition to staff and parents) to report discrimination within the school community. Currently, the SJC is working with the team behind the Voice email to advertise the email address and to use the data collected to target sources of discrimination before they become a larger issue. We want to affect long-term change within the school community.
Students working on an art installation for Black History Month. (Photo source: Kristina Pennell-Götze)
Black History Month
February is Black History Month (BHM) in Germany, a month of remembrance and recognition of the contributions of Black and African people in society. As one of the very few Black students in BBIS, Oyinlola Osinoiki took initiative to ensure that it would be a varied celebration and focus on recognition of the contributions made by Africans in all areas of life.
To celebrate the month in 2023, she created a themed calendar to help get the school involved and engaged. Week one's theme was Black and African Culture in Berlin (as well as an introduction to what BHM is). Week two's theme was Black and African Inventors and Innovations. Week three's theme was Black and African Music. Week four's theme was Black and African Movies. And finally, week five's theme was Black Lives Matter. Ms. Pennell-Götze and a group of teachers from BBIS and other international schools assisted in the creation of a “choice board” to be used each week. The virtual board included slideshows, videos, and different challenges that the school community could engage with.
In addition, we created a Zine for Black History Month that was made available for students and staff, our libraries showcased books and texts by Black and African authors, and some of the staff developed intentional ways to celebrate Black and African histories and stories in class. Several displays were created by the SJC throughout the school to create eye-catching ways to engage with the event and ensure that the month centered on joy rather than deficit narratives.
Our meetings usually take place in two main parts: sharing information and planning for action. We generally start meetings with an opportunity to share information and update the whole committee on what is going on in the school and personally. As a committee, we are united in the fight against racism and discrimination. However, each one of us has very unique experiences at school and as a result, we need a space to share and create community. Additionally, while we work together on our Zines and other group projects, we also work in smaller groups on more specific, targeted projects. This might include our ongoing fight against antisemitism in an international school based in a German cultural context or the creation of a Black History Month calendar. At the beginning of our meetings, we have the opportunity to come together and share what we have accomplished or what we might need help with, whether that be project-based or personal. For example, one of our group members, Rachel Fields, is leading the fight against antisemitism so she will often share recent events concerning this topic.
During the planning for action part of our meetings, we deliberate about upcoming projects, such as our monthly Zines or, more recently, our art installations and notice boards for Black History Month. We divide the workload that requires completion, and also review and proofread any ongoing projects. This close collaboration on our projects works to build trust and community amongst the members of the SJC as well as accountability to one another and the greater community whom we serve. Since we are currently a relatively small group, it is important for us to have these planning sessions to make sure that we are all on the same page, especially as we are often working on separate projects in smaller groups or even individually.
Finally, an important part of our SJC meetings that might get overlooked is the sense of community that we have nurtured and fostered over the past three years. We support one another and give each other space to be authentic. Although we are an incredibly action-oriented group, sometimes simply having the space to chat, eat lunch, and share the room together is one of the most powerful parts of being in a community with one another.
Future of the SJC
The Social Justice Committee has been working tirelessly to create a safe and just environment in our school and we will continue to do so. We will continue making our widely shared Zines on pressing topics and issues in our society and raise awareness about them in the hopes of creating an informed and open mindset amongst our peers. Additionally, we wish to further collaborate with committees and organizations within and outside our learning community and work together to bring about social change.
Something we want to actively pursue in the future is to hold workshops inside and outside our school so that we can spread more awareness and reach a wider audience. As students, we recognize the importance of teacher professional development and having staff know and understand how to tackle racism and discrimination in and out of the classroom. There is so much in the world that cannot be left the way it is, and we want to advocate and take action to be part of the change.
We are advocates using our voices to change our society, to educate and inform the wider community about social injustices, and to stop them from recurring. We want to take steps to make our society more accepting and open because everyone should feel like they’re safe and they belong. Three years after its formation, the SJC is now a continuously evolving student group with endless ambition, creativity, and compassion focused on ending issues faced by minoritized groups within the school community and beyond.
If you would like to stay updated on our latest Zines and projects, check out our website and BBIS’ news item.
Chiara Böcker (Grade 12), Sneha Choubey (Grade 9), Anea Boye Eldor (Grade 12), Ivy Fang (Grade 12), Rachel Fields (Grade 12), and Oyinlola Osinoiki (Grade12) are students and members of the Social Justice Committee at Berlin Brandenburg International School.