Partly as a result of our long-standing commitment to women’s education and community empowerment, we were selected in June 2016 to host a visit from the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Mrs Obama joined us at Mulberry to launch her Let Girls Learn campaign.
Speaking to an audience of our students, staff, governors and partner schools, she stressed the global importance of guaranteeing full primary and secondary education for every single girl and young woman, emphasising that international governments need to make girls’ education a top priority.
Mrs Obama’s address perfectly encapsulated the core principles of Mulberry school. Listening to her speak, our girls recognised the ethos of the school community in which they live and learn, and sensed the global significance of that ethos, and its importance in establishing a world where every girl fulfils the potential with which she is born. Mrs Obama made it clear to Mulberry girls and their peers that they are a central part of the global conversation about girls’ education, encouraging all of them to use the opportunities they have been given and the various platforms they are offered to speak out on behalf of disenfranchised girls around the world.
Shortly after the First Lady’s visit, we were thrilled to receive an invitation from the White House to join Mrs Obama for a morning of discussion about how her Let Girls Learn campaign will be developed. We were invited to bring 20 girls and 5 members of staff to meet with the First Lady and her team.
Mulberry places great value on the importance of global education, and of an education which encompasses all aspects of social justice. We decided to make the most of this incredible opportunity and plan a week-long visit to some of the southern United States, during the course of which students would learn about the history and development of the American Civil Rights movement, from the Civil War to the present day. A programme of travel was put together, including visits to Washington DC, Memphis, and Birmingham, Alabama. It was decided that students would visit landmarks in the history of Civil Rights, including the home of Frederick Douglass, the church where Martin Luther King gave his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ address, and the Civil Rights Museum.
We wanted the trip to provide students with the tools they need to become agents of positive social change on a global scale. They would learn about the rich and diverse history of Civil Rights; they would celebrate the progress that has been made, and explore the battles that are still being fought; they would connect their own identities, passions, principles and beliefs with the global struggle for justice and equal rights, finding their own places within a community of activists, thinkers, writers, teachers and students. Through education, experience, discussion and debate, our girls would gain a sense of how they might change their world for the better.
At Mulberry, we have an established tradition of students acting as ambassadors to their peer group, and educating one another. We decided that the group of girls who attended this trip would use a variety of platforms to share the knowledge they gained with their peers and their local community - from the Berry Bugle, to our diversity education and discussion group ‘United Cultures of Mulberry’, to our feminist education group ‘Feminist Fridays’, our Girl Guides and our Human Rights Ambassadors network. In this way, Mulberry girls will work for positive change in their school community, their local community, and the global community of girls at school to which they are so proud to belong.
The trip was set to be an incredible opportunity, and we knew that most students in the school would be interested in taking part. In the interests of fairness, we decided to design a unique application process. Students who wished to apply for a place on the trip had to attend a series of education workshops on Civil Rights; complete a written application; give a speech to a panel of teachers; and have an interview with our Head Teacher and our Governors. The process was designed to give the students a thorough grounding in the history and development of the American Civil Rights movement, and to give them opportunities to think deeply about their own engagement with civil rights.
The application process was extremely challenging, but all student applicants rose to that challenge brilliantly. The quality of written and oral work produced was exceptional, and students showed real depth of thought. All those who took part should feel very proud of their achievements, and should recognise the value of what they learned during the application process.
The group departed for the US on Monday 16th November. Read on for the students’ perspective on the trip; and some extracts from the girls’ travel journals.
Partway through the morning on Tuesday the 24th of November, anybody looking out their classroom windows or making their way down to the main school reception would have been graced with the presence of 20 of their fellow mulberry students, 10 from year 10 and 10 from year 12, arriving at the school. Tired, grumpy, aching-at-the-bones, just where had these girls been? Listen up carefully because they’ve got quite the story to tell…
Last year, when Michelle Obama visited our school, she extended an invitation for us to do the same: that is, to visit her at the White House. Naturally, this lead to a very important question: who to take?
And thus was born The Civil Rights Club—a club which, as rightly suggested by its name, was an afterschool club for those keen to learn about the Civil Rights Movement 1955-1968 in America. Those who managed to stay at school until six o’clock for two weeks of workshops were gifted an Application Form, to be filled out if you wished to be considered for the White House trip. This consisted of four essay questions as well as some shorter questions to fill out. After this was a two-minute speech in front of a panel of five senior staff, and then a second interview with a panel of senior staff, including Doctor Ogden herself. After all these rounds, the final 20 were decided.
And so, we will fast-forward through all the preparation sessions: learning how to use a camera and film a documentary, about Abolition, girls education, #62million girls around the world denied an education, visiting the US Embassy and meeting ambassador Barzun… all the way up until Monday 16th of November, where 20 girls were making way too much racket for 6 in the morning. It was still dark, technically still Sunday.
Climbing into the coach, some were tearful, some were anxious; I was already going through my suitcase in my head, certain I’d left something behind… but one thing was constant: we were all so excited for the next day. To meet Michelle Obama. Again. And let’s not forget having the chance to travel to three different states. Not to mention all the filming we’d be doing, for the documentary we wanted to make about our trip. And disappointed we were not—the Whitehouse was an absolutely unbelievable experience—and don’t just take my word for it…
“When meeting Michelle, it felt surreal as I simply couldn’t imagine myself ever actually sitting with The First Lady and talking to her. It was an extremely pleasant experience to sit with her and to listen to her thoughts on certain topics, especially girls’ education. The passion with which she spoke made it clear to me that she truly cared for girls’ education and was determined to fix the problems that girls face, rendering them unable to fulfill their education. It has also helped me to realise that if we are not educating girls we, as Michelle said, are not educating half of our population – which is shocking! Half the population uneducated means half the amount of innovative ideas and half the overall development as a community or country. There needs to be something done about girls’ education and Michelle Obama’s ‘Let Girls Learn’ campaign gives us hope. Some one is trying to make a difference.
Michelle came across very down-to-earth as she was very much herself whist she was speaking to us, which made me feel instantly comfortable with her. She is a very likeable person and definitely has a lot to say about many issues. Even though we spent a total of fifteen minutes with her, she managed to inspire and motivate twenty young females into changing the world for the better.” – Anika Chowdhury
In Washington we also visited a lot of other places other than the Whitehouse, such as Capitol Hill (The US version of Parliament, more or less) and the US State Department. We met some truly inspirational women, and men, who all gave us their view on freedom.
We then flew (again) to Memphis, Tennessee.
“I think that Memphis was actually the best state that we visited out of the three. We visited the Lorraine Motel, the hotel where Martin Luther King died. It has been converted into a museum now. It was incredibly surreal to be in the actual place he died in so soon after learning about his life, and the hardship he went through. It just made everything seem so real. In the evening we had dinner at the Rock ‘N’ Roll Café with an Elvis Presley impersonator singing, which was absolutely hilarious! I believe our experiences in Memphis made our whole Civil rights trip all the more memorable and brought all of us together.” – Sumaiyah Rahim
The next day we took a 4-hour coach journey to Birmingham, Alabama. This was my favourite of the three states: we went to 16th Street Baptist Church, where three 14 year old girls and one 11 year old girl were killed by a bomb planted by the KKK on September 15th 1963. There was a memorial opposite the church, depicting four girls releasing six doves. The six doves portrayed the innocence of the six children who were killed, as two young boys were also killed that same day.
This site was the one I was most apprehensive about out of the entire itinerary, and yet it was my favourite part. I believe those girls and boys deserve to be remembered, brutally murdered for nothing other than the colour of their skin. The memorial is a reminder of the devastating consequences of racial hatred, but the determination of the city to remember those innocent children marks how far we have come globally: we are no longer prepared to accept a world in which people can be hurt, even killed, because of the colour of their skin. We want to build a better, safer, more accepting world.
Our visit to the United States showed us that there are people out there, like Michelle Obama, who are working to change and improve the world. It also showed us that we, too, are part of that effort. It is our work to change the world for the better. It is a team effort. We are all part of that team.