Recent tensions in US politics have resulted in a renewed focus on how the economic decline of the nation’s central industrial heartlands might have left a section of the population feeling forgotten and left behind.
Jackson, Michigan, lies at the heart of this region, known as the Rust Belt, and One Young World Ambassador Angela Edward, who lives and was raised in the city, is working to improve its children’s life opportunities and their sense of connection with the wider world.
The city, named after the 7th President, Andrew Jackson, has undergone serious decline since its boom years of the early 20th Century when its thriving automobile industry led to to it being compared to nearby Detroit, the Motor City. But that destiny was not fulfilled and, like Detroit, it has fallen into economic hardship. Jackson’s population has halved to barely 30,000 and its public schools system, in which Angela works, reflects the city’s social difficulties.
“Over the years a lot of the factories have closed, a lot of people have lost their jobs and our population has gone down,” she says. “I was raised and went to school here and I have just recently moved back within the last two years and it is a lot different even from when I was a child when a lot more families were middle income.”
As a social worker, based at East Jackson Community Schools, Angela’s main responsibilities are “helping students in crisis”. It’s a ‘Title 1’ school, reflecting the fact that 64.1% of the student body is economically disadvantaged. Some 17.7% of students have disabilities. Angela works with children from kindergarten through to Sixth Grade (age 11-12).
“A lot of what I do is around crisis intervention and calling parents and trying to connect them to resources around the community,” she says. “If anyone is having mental health problems with in the building, helping them with that.”
Angela has also worked on a ‘Big Brothers, Big Sisters’ lunch buddy programme, encourage older college students to come to the school and mentor the children. “We recruit different people around the community to come into the school and dedicate at least one day a week to coming into the school and working with the students during their lunch hour,” she says. “With a lot of our kids, their parents are on disability or don’t work, so we have tried to figure out what kind of mentors they need to be a positive person to look up to.”
But as well as this crisis intervention work she is trying to give the children a wider sense of the world. The school, which is around 80 per cent white, had not recognised Black History Month before Angela, who Micronesian-American, set up a committee this year and invited guests of African-American and African heritage to come and give readings and do activities with the children.
She has also initiated a Cultural Pot Luck project among staff, encouraging them to make and share dishes that reflect their cultural backgrounds and reflecting an international diversity that ranges from Korea to Sweden. For International Day, each class will be encouraged to decorate its classroom door as a celebration of an individual national culture.
Angela, 31, attended One Young World’s Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2013 and describes it as “one of the most enriching experiences I have had in my life”. She returned to America and began raising money, through the selling of homemade journals, to help fund primary school education for children in Micronesia, from where her father is from.
She is now hoping the children of East Jackson Community Schools to broaden their horizons too.
“I hope the children go off to college some day and it would be great for them to already have some experience with culture - even though they do come from a pretty homogenous background.”