When you’re standing on the outside and looking in, the segregation and racism of Selma Alabama can seem to overtake the town. After taking a tour of the town, I know my fellow participants and myself were overwhelmed and disheartened by how little things had changed since the civil rights movement in Selma. When you’re looking in from the outside, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the structural issues of the town and forget that there are people who live in that town. Sure, the structural problems of the town affect the lives of the people living there but they don’t define them. Throughout the day yesterday we saw that.
We started off the day by going to Selma’s Head Start program and helping out in various three and four year old classrooms for the morning. In my classroom, this meant that Yaou and I spent a good portion of the morning singing various songs about the days of the week, colors, numbers, letters, etc., that I had about four children ask me if I was a boy or a girl because of my short hair, and that I got to play with Lincoln logs and baby dolls. I think this was the groups’ first view into real life in Selma, at least what real life is like for three and four year olds. And of course, three and four year olds haven’t been tainted by racism and segregation. They don’t understand that there are places that are not still completely segregated and therefore, are just like any other three and four year olds that you’ll ever meet.
In the afternoon, Julie took us to the Voting Rights Museum where we learned about Selma’s Civil Rights History, specifically, the protests and marches that had to happen before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed. Although a lot of the information in the museum had been information that we had come across in other museums, there is just more gravity seeing pictures of people that had taken part in the movement and knowing that they lived in the same small town in which you were standing. Moreover, because a lot of the people who took part in the movement in Selma were younger, a lot of them were still living. These two aspects of Selma’s history really just made the Civil Rights movement there really tangible for me.
And finally at night, we attended a rehearsal for the Random Acts of Theatre Company (or RAT Co.). RAT Co is kind of a two part project. On the one hand, it’s theatre company created for the children in the town of Selma. On the other, it’s a movement (as any of the kids will tell you) that’s trying to increase the love in Selma, create relationships across race lines, and change the way that kids view themselves and their situations. In the past, the group has traveled to various different places in the U.S. to perform and spread the word about RAT Co. and the children’s stories of what it is like to live in Selma. While we were with them, the group was preparing for a performance at a fundraiser in Colorado.
While we were at rehearsal, we spent some time dancing with the kids, learning sign language for a song with them, and then broke up into groups so that each of the kids could work on the aspect of performance that they were most interested in. Some of the kids were choreographing, some were writing monologues or song lyrics, some were working on arts and crafts, and others were practicing their drum lines.
The whole experience of being at rehearsal was truly amazing for all of us. Not only were all the kids incredibly welcoming to us, they were so willing to share their stories and talk about what it is about RAT Co. that they love so much. And I think their reasons are a true testament to how much good RAT Co. is doing for all those kids. The resounding sentiment behind what all the kids were saying was that RAT Co. allowed the kids involved to define their own sense of self, outside of what their peers, teachers, and parents are telling them they should be. The greatest part is that the kids actually know that this is what RAT Co. is doing for them and want to spread the movement so that more kids are able to have the same opportunities.
And to look at the kids involved, you would never know that they come from tough backgrounds, experiencing things that most people will never experience in their lives (let alone by the time they were fifteen). The kids are truly inspiring. The excitement that emanates from them while they are onstage is amazing. I was also amazed by the amount of respect and support that they kids show for each other. It is obvious that the point is not to have stars or to lift anyone up as ‘most talented.’ Instead, the kids help each other along. Everyone has a place at RAT Co. and no one’s place is more important than the others. The kids not only understand this sentiment, but also live it fully during rehearsals.
RAT Co. is obviously an amazing organization that is doing a lot of good in Selma. It’s easy to get caught up in the problems that exist there and the work that still needs to be done to make changes. It’s easy to get depressed and overwhelmed by how hard it would be to change things. However, when you’re with the kids of RAT Co. it’s impossible to get caught up in those problems because you can see how much is being done to change the social structures that exist. The kids there are not depressed about their situations because they’re actually working as activists to make changes. They are inspired and excited about what RAT Co. has done for them and want to spread it so that more of Selma’s children can be changed too. Of course, these changes aren’t going to be made over night. As Malika explained to us when we talked to her the other night, laws do not change people’s hearts and minds. People’s hearts and minds take longer to change. And if any organization is able to change people’s hearts and minds, it is definitely RAT Co.