Sojourner Scholars Transforms in the Time of COVID-19 and the Black Liberation Movement

The Sojourner Scholars Program is an annual immersive, 3-week, college-level humanities program for high school students to promote intellectual growth, community, and civic engagement. Through a series of seminars covering disciplines such as philosophy, film studies, history, and literature, the Sojourner Scholars program nurtures students’ intellectual pursuits and support their emergence as critically-minded and creative citizens.

Many aspects of our everyday life in Illinois have transformed in the wake of COVID-19, though none perhaps more radically than the state of public education. The shift to online learning has affected programs all throughout Illinois, including Sojourner Scholars,an immersive annual summer program whose theme of “education” this year has become dramatically more urgent in the aftermath of not only the pandemic, but the Black liberation movement born from the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other black lives.

Last week, I sat down with the program’s director Audrey Petty to talk about how Sojourner Scholars has been reimagined in light of COVID-19 and how the current moment has become a catalyst for imagining new possibilities for teaching and learning.

QUESTION — Toussaint Egan (TE): Tell me a little bit about yourself. What is your relationship to Sojourner Scholars? How did you first become involved with the program?

Audrey Petty (AP): For me, it began in the Fall of 2011, when I was invited to participate in the launch of the Clemente High School course by Earl Shorris, the founder of the Clemente Course in the Humanities. The course started at Harlan Community Academy on the far South Side, in Roseland, and I was recruited to teach literature.That first year was one of trial and error as we tried to implement something in the spirit of the Odyssey Project, while adapting the program to fit the format of a school day with coursework that would be accessible and relevant. That first year, there were four of us college faculty teaching at the high school. And there was also Vivian Hapaniewski: a veteran teacher at Harlan, our in-school coordinator, our connector and mentor, our co-instructor.

The program continued at Harlan for four years. There was always a challenge: being prioritized as an elective course and to becoming deeply involved in the life of the school. There was a really wonderful principal at Harlan, Reginald Evans, who welcomed us with open arms, but he retired during our time there, and as funding dwindled, we decided to remake the high school program as a summer institute that would still engage young people from Harlan, but with a wider reach to work with high school students from the greater South Side. We immediately saw the advantages in terms of reach, but also the chance to have the Scholars’ more undivided time and the opportunity to bond differently outside of the classroom. That was the beginning, and we are now moving into our fifth summer.

QUESTION (TE): How did the Sojourner Scholars Program get started? What is the relationship between the Sojourner Scholars and the Odyssey Program?

AP: There are several core commitments that make this program kindred with Illinois Humanities’ Odyssey Project. One is a belief and commitment to education as a transformational experience. Another is that it is a humanities-based program. With Odyssey, the disciplines are more clearly-defined, so you have literature, you have history, you have philosophy, you have art history. With Sojourner Scholars, students are exposed to those disciplines, but we also have a little more give and play in the summertime. Art history one summer might rotate out for film studies or performance studies in other summers. This summer, we’ve really opened up to consider Education Studies, so we have scholars of Education who are leading the advanced students in a project.

What I believe Sojourner Scholars has most in common with the Odyssey project is this sense of deep intellectual community that forms over the course of a season or several seasons from the Scholars learning with and from one another. Because the program runs in the summer, there’s more flexibility with regard to how things are organized and we have more range of motion across a broad range of disciplines, and those qualities of the program have only strengthened from year to year.

QUESTION (TE): What is the significance of naming the program Sojourner Scholars — and in doing so invoking the Abolitionist and Women’s Rights Activist Sojourner Truth?

AP: There’s definitely a story there. When we were at Harlan, we were the Clemente Program at Harlan High School. But once we left Harlan, we first called ourselves Odyssey Scholars. This was before we discovered that there was already an Odyssey Scholars program at the University of Chicago. We couldn’t afford to be confused for that program, so that prompted a season of brainstorming to figure out what we should be called. It was actually my husband Maurice who suggested the term “Sojourner” and it really resonated. That word’s meaning connects to the meaning of “Odyssey.”

For me, the idea of travel — of intellectual travels that are so much about what we do from year to year — resonated deeply with me, but there was also this added resonance with Sojourner Truth. I think some of the qualities that make her so heroic and compelling were all the ways she was a freedom fighter, for abolition and the vote for women; she pursued and advocated for the rights of incarcerated people. So I think that passion and that ethical commitment to freedom and liberation felt like a fitting connection that I believed we could earn–that we could keep making good on–from year to year.

QUESTION (TE): How has the Sojourner Scholars program evolved to meet the demands of our current moment with regard to the COVID-19 Pandemic and to the black social justice movement?

AP: When I think about the current challenge of both living in and responding to COVID-19 and this extended moment of amazing collective action, activism and discourse concerning Black liberation, Sojourner Scholars seems more relevant and responsive than ever before. It’s a vital space for students to express themselves and share their knowledge, insights, and lived experiences with one another and with their instructors. A space to share their passions, their ideas and visions for a more just future. As we transitioned to a summer program, we began to do that work more deeply, and from summer to summer that’s only intensified.

I think the extraordinary moment that we find ourselves in when it comes to living through COVID, the profound and manifold challenges of this moment have only made us stronger, as not only teachers and students but as a collective. We’ve been exploring what it means to live in this moment, what it means to learn and to teach and to pass things on within an intellectual community right now. That is always at the front of our minds. We were always planning on exploring education as our shared topic this year, even before COVID. The exploration of our theme in session has only been deepened and more complicated by our current moment, and feels more urgently important than ever before.

Everything is knowledge, everything is learning. We’re talking about the things we can do, the things we must do, the things that are possible in this moment and beyond. There are challenges, to be sure, with the transition to online seminars, but there is a real sense of urgency and hunger and desire for students to have and to create this space.

QUESTION (TE): How has the shift to online workshops and discussions affected the substance of the program curriculum or the nature of the students’ participation, if at all?

AP: So when it comes to the question of how being in an online classroom has affected what we do and how we are together as a Sojourner Scholars program, I have very complicated feelings and my answer will probably change day to day. But one thing that I believe is true is that the circumstances are challenging. So many students have talked about the difficulties of online learning, the sense of alienation, being removed from the school culture they counted on, the sense of distance between themselves and loved ones, sadness, loss. But also a desire to channel those feelings into something cathartic in spite of these circumstances. So there’s a deep commitment from our Scholars, but there also are so many complications.

We have tried, as best we can, to make sure everyone has stable internet service or that students who need devices to connect have those devices. But then there are the larger life struggles involving families impacted by COVID-19 and things that aren’t necessarily COVID-related. Some students who are doing essential work, some are balancing schoolwork with providing for their families. One thing that is critical about where we are right now is that we want to talk about these things. We want to surface these discussions. I think, in every seminar, we’re making an invitation and hopefully really making space for all of our scholars to think about the things that they value around education, the things that they desire and demand of it, and also the ways we might move into the future and make next steps.

QUESTION (TE): Is there any particular thing that you point to to illustrate the impact of the program?  What are you most proud of having accomplished through the program?

AP: When I talk about Sojourner Scholars to someone who doesn’t know a thing about it or knows very little about it, one feature I come back to is that we have a theme every summer. It’s a humanities-based course, and we also explore the arts as both a topic of study and as practice. Last year’s theme was the South Side, so we were looking at the South Side of Chicago from different contemporary and historical angles throughout the course of the seminars. What I hope that means is that we activate a sense of place where students feel the relevance of what we’re doing together, while also feeling inspired to bring what they know and care about to the conversation. That we end this summer having gone on an intellectual journey together where we’ve shared our knowledge and discoveries together as a community. We want the students to understand and approach the discussions in class as complex, accessible, and personally relevant topics to them.

When I look at the span of the program, I’m proud that we’ve had graduates that have come back to serve as TAs, that we have partnerships with institutions that have allowed students to pursue things within and beyond the bounds of the program. I see the program now as one that fosters and supports scholars becoming, strengthening, and seeing themselves as cultural interpreters, creators, collaborators, community workers and intellectuals.

QUESTION (TE): What are you most excited to see from this year’s iteration of the Sojourner Scholars Program? What are you most looking forward to seeing from this year’s students?

AP: I am most looking forward to learning from them. I think this summer, under these circumstances, I’m excited about what they’ll produce in these projects. I know that they’re going to offer something that needs to be shared widely. And I know that it’s on me, and all of us collectively, to think about ways that these projects will radiate to reach wider audiences. Because the things they’re taking seriously and exploring are critically important and that everyone can and should learn from what they offer in these contemplations of education, whether that be public education, of learning and teaching in home spaces, of knowledge production itself.  We all need to listen to them, to learn from them, and I know that collectively we’ll be challenged and strengthened by this.