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By Lynn and Bob Gillen

Links for Learners | May 2002

"She Opens Doors: Marie Wilkinson”


Finding Curriculum Connections
Understanding Basic Terms
One Woman's Power to Open Doors
What Doors Can Teens Open?
Recognizing Teens' Commitment to Service
Related Topic Resources
Research Resources

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Links for Learning

Finding Curriculum Connections for High School Teachers and Students

This month’s Links for Learners will support high school curriculum in:

•American History –  roots of slavery; segregation
•Social Science - working for economic and social justice; tools for organizing service projects
•Christian life styles - prayer; service to others; recognizing those who serve
•Statistics - understanding/applying survey results from youth polls

Understanding Basic Terms in This Month’s Article

Look for these key words and terms as you read the article.  Definitions or explanations can be researched from the article itself, or from the resource materials cited throughout the Link for Learners. 

Lumen Christi  



Slave whip 

Fair housing



Migrant factory workers

Social justice

Neighborhood redevelopment

One Woman's Power to Open Doors

Ninety-one year old Marie Wilkinson, only one generation removed from Civil War-era slavery, still displays the leather whip used on countless slaves in the South in her father-in-law's time.  The whip reminds her of how her father-in-law never allowed his anger at slavery to turn into hatred and bitterness toward people.

A lifetime advocate of economic and social justice, Wilkinson recently received the Lumen Christi (Light of Christ) award for a lifetime of work on behalf of the poor and the neglected.  The Catholic Extension Society , a group dedicated to missionary work in the United States, recognized Wilkinson for the many projects and programs she has to her credit.  The programs include fair housing, store desegregation, neighborhood redevelopment and health care for migrant factory workers.  Wilkinson goes head-to-head with racism and poverty wherever she finds it.

Other individuals have also opened doors in the cause of social justice:

Sister Bernadette Kenny - Sr. Bernie, as she is affectionately known in her little corner of Appalachia , drives a Winnebago RV (the "St. Mary's Hospital Health Wagon ") throughout two rural counties in western Virginia caring for the sick.  Also a recent recipient of the Lumen Christi award, Sr. Bernie provides mobile health services to those who can't afford or can't travel to a hospital or clinic.

Father Richard Jones has worked for over 40 years among the Lakota people on the Rosebud Reservation of South Dakota.  Another recipient of the Lumen Christi award, Fr. Jones seeks to integrate Catholic teaching with Native American tradition.

Rosa Parks , the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, has spent a lifetime working for social equality and justice.  Best known for sparking the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott leading to the Supreme Court decision reversing segregation in public transportation, Ms. Parks has put together a young people's project called Pathways to Freedom .  The program allows youth to travel the paths of the Underground Railroad and visit sites of critical events of the American civil rights movement.

Racism and poverty also come under fire at the organizational level:

The Poverty and Race Research Action Council, based in Washington, D.C., offers resources in networking, research, and advocacy.  You can sign up for a monthly e-newsletter, and reports are available through the mail. 

See the "Declaration of African Descendants" issued at the World Conference Against Racism in December 2000 for a view of racist attitudes and practices still prevalent in our world.

The Law School at the University of Dayton in Ohio discusses the role of domestic and international law in either promoting or alleviating racism.

What Doors Can Teens Open?

How do you become a Marie Wilkinson or a Sr. Bernie?   By responding to the needs that present themselves to you.  By looking into the faces of people who need your help.  Listen, pray with an open heart, and you will realize who needs you.  Do these suggestions help your thinking?

Look for weekend or summer volunteer opportunities.  The Appalachia Service Project is a good example of a summer program.  Locally, your own parish or diocese no doubt offers volunteer opportunities.  On your own diocesan website check out "Catholic Charities."  The Diocese of Rochester in New York supports through Catholic Charities the Catholic Campaign for Human Development .  This campaign will "… open eyes to just who the poor and outcast in our midst are - the under-employed, untrained youth, isolated elderly, disabled, migrant farm workers, refugees…"  The program works to empower people so they can escape poverty.

Another Links for Learners highlighting examples of teens working for peace may spark your imagination.  The Lutheran Peace Fellowship in Seattle, Washington suggests 24 ways students can work for peace in our world.  Click on “Youth Work” on the site’s home page to find the suggested activities.  The Fellowship prompts teens considering career choices to explore jobs that promote social justice.

Echoing Green , an organization that funds public service entrepreneurs, includes on their website descriptions of civil rights and other service projects developed by young people, most just out of college.  The projects utilize the skills and talents of their creators to fight poverty, racism and ignorance.

In your class or discussion group, imagine yourselves as a teen version of the Catholic Extension Society.  First, invite participants to share their own experiences of racism or prejudice, or talk about someone they know who is neglected or outcast. After identifying these situations, move to a discussion of responses that fit the model of social justice.  Did you or someone else respond with Christian service?  Would you nominate a peer for an award recognizing teen service?  What criteria would you use?  Then take it to your school or parish level to propose establishing an annual award recognizing a group of teens for extraordinary service to social justice. 

Youth Service America offers a project planning tool to help volunteer-minded youth organize an effective service project.  The questions and templates will guide you through the entire project planning process, including developing a plan, funding your work, writing a press release, and engaging in "service-learning reflection".

Can you use your talent for writing, media or art to explore the world of those in need (which may also be your own world)?  In April 2002 Suzan-Lori Parks became the first African American woman playwright to win a Pulitzer Prize for her play "Topdog/Underdog", now running on Broadway.

Recognizing Teens' Commitment to Service

"Probability and Statistics" may not be your favorite high school class, but check out the Youth Service America website for thought-provoking statistics on teen volunteerism.  Youths rank volunteering as one of the top three "cool" activities, with teens volunteering 2.4 billion hours annually!  Over 59% of America's youth presently volunteer an average of 3.5 hours a week, 10% more than the adult population.  According to these numbers, teens could well be the unsung heroes of service, clocking many more hours in service than do adults.  President George W. Bush is tapping that generosity in calling for every young person in America to give 4,000 hours of service over their lifetime to the service of neighbors and country.  President Bush said, "We want to be a nation that serves goals larger than self."

For another survey view on youth attitudes towards service, see the March 2002 report "Short Term Impacts, Long Term Opportunities: The Political and Civic Engagement of Young Adults in America."  Based on a telephone survey conducted among 1,500 young adults after the tragic events of 9/11, this thorough analysis indicates trust in government is at a high point among America's young.  At the same time, however, youth's feelings of efficacy in helping to solve problems have not grown stronger.  In other words, they don't feel their efforts make much difference.  One encouraging note for religious leaders: the survey says that young adults who attend church at least once a week also have community engagement as a core value.

Related Topic Resources

Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall has researched and edited into a CD database thousands of records from civil documents and published censuses covering the slave trade in Marie Wilkinson's native Louisiana through to 1860. Her research work on the background of over 100,000 slaves serves as a valuable historic resource.  This Afro-Louisiana history and genealogy is proving invaluable to historians as well as to Americans seeking links to their past.

For an inspiring story of the end of slavery in Louisiana, see the young adult novel Sarny: A Life Remembered, by Gary Paulsen (Bantam Doubleday Dell Books, New York, 1997).

What is probably the first novel written by an enslaved African American woman, The Bondswoman's Narrative: Hannah Crafts has been newly published in the Spring of 2002.

Research Resources

Try accessing some of these Internet sources for further general reference.  Be aware, however, that some of these sites may charge for downloading articles contained within the site’s archives.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

The New American Bible

Documents of Vatican II 

The Vatican

The New York Times

The Los Angeles Times

The Chicago Tribune

The Washington Post

The Miami Herald

The Associated Press

Time Magazine



ABC News

Pathfinder - Access site to a number of online news publications

People magazine

The History Channel

The Close Up Foundation Washington, D.C.-based organization

Channel One – online resource for the school channel

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