Teach History Inclusively With These Eight Community-Centric Lessons

National Geographic Explorer Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, steward of 2892 Miles to Go: Geographic Walk for Justice, wrote this post.

In the spring of 2013, I took a busload of 15-year-olds to hear the Dalai Lama speak in our hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. His visit was a culminating moment after a year of citywide engagement with the global Charter for Compassion. My students were among hundreds who attended the Dalai Lama’s talk and thousands of young people in the community who participated in “compassion projects” rooted in the tenets of the charter. We were honored to be part of something we felt was a noble cause, and I was proud of my students for taking the lead to create a better community.

Behind the stadium where we gathered to hear remarks on the wisdom of compassion flows the Ohio River, the river that served as the border between enslavement and freedom for Black people escaping enslavement in the South into the free northern states. On the other side of the stadium stands historical marker #1990 acknowledging the “Garrison Slave Pen.” The marker is inscribed:

By the 1850s, Kentucky was annually exporting between 2500 and 4000 of its slaves down river to the large plantations farther south. To prevent runaways, traders operating near the Ohio River kept slaves shackled together in pens when not being displayed to buyers. … Matthew Garrison was a well known Kentucky slave speculator in the Deep South. A white abolitionist leader, Rev. Calvin Fairbank, wrote in 1851 that four slave markets, including Garrison’s and Arterburn’s, sold men, women, and children ‘like sheep.’

Had I known then what I know now, I would have walked my students out of the building after that talk and around the block to stand in front of that marker. I then would have posed critical questions about the historical, geographic, and cultural implications of what we heard, what we experienced, what we noticed, what we knew to be true, and what questions we had yet to explore. I would have used the concrete evidence of place and space as a catalyst for deeper understandings about abstract concepts such as compassion, belonging, and justice. But I had not yet experienced the guidance from the leaders, experts, and storytellers of 2892 Miles to Go, a social justice education program centered on amplifying local community stories about justice, race, and equity that are often left out of common narratives of human history. So my students and I listened and acted from where we were with the knowledge we had.

But we missed so much that was right in front of us; we did not learn as much as we could have from the very place where we stood, and because of that, we did not take the kind of action that might have led to sustainable change.

This truth has become disturbingly evident in the years since, both in Louisville and across the world, as the understanding of human history and culture becomes an increasing source of division rather than collective wisdom. But if any of us has any power to address this divisiveness, it begins with opening our eyes to the places around us, the lessons therein, and the communities we might foster if we let ourselves listen and respond with true insight.

Over the last year and a half, I have collaborated with 20 community storytellers leading critical conversations like these through 2892 Miles to Go. The first of these collaborators were fellow Louisvillians: Marlesha S. Woods, Lance G. Newman II, and Kenneth Woods. Together, these three storytellers created the first 2892 StoryMap, part of a larger collection of resources, in an effort to explore the nuances and contradictions of a community that strives to be compassionate yet, as the “Finding Our Way” StoryMap explains, “remains one of the most segregated cities in the United States, [where] violent crime has increased,” and which “continues to face an ongoing racial justice and equity reckoning since the killing of Breonna Taylor in early 2020 and the continuous fight for justice since.”

Their exploration led them to speak with community activists, elders, experts, artists, and leaders. They collected diverse insights, searched historical archives, wandered city routes, posed tough questions, embraced nuanced answers, created inspired art, and expanded the impact they had begun making long before the start of this collaboration. What the Louisville storytellers collected and compiled within their StoryMap is unique to them, yet it also stands as an invitation—for anyone who has ever wanted to better understand themselves, their communities, and their place in the world around them—to follow their lead. We all have the capability of creating better communities. To do that well, we have to begin with authentic knowledge and collective wisdom.

In that spirit, we would like to offer ideas and resources for those of you who may want to apply the lessons of the Louisville journey and StoryMap to your own craft, no matter where you may live in the world. The questions that follow were posed by the Louisville team along their journey, and they can help you along yours and your students’ too. You might like to start with the final activity, “Place-Based Narrative Inquiry.” Or, you could try perusing them all and consider which relate most strongly to what you are teaching or the experiences of your students. An image and downloadable PDF link for each activity are included in this blog post.

What does a compassionate community look, feel, and act like?

Lance, Marlesha, and Kenneth wanted to unpack the concept of a “compassionate community” through a variety of lenses. If you were to take this concept of a “compassionate community” to your classroom, how do you think your students might explore what this means in your context?

What does it mean to belong?

Louisville storyteller Kenneth did not grow up in his current community but moved there from another. This perspective gave him a unique lens to consider what belonging truly means for any and all people who exist within a community. In the context of your classroom and community, how might you and your students explore this concept critically? Louisville educator Kimberly Draewell and her students started their 2892 journey with this question. Considering what it means to belong rooted the students to the classwork and provided an easy platform for discussion, Draewell said. Through personal reflections and fishbowl and Socratic seminar strategies, students learned from one another. Pondering the experiences of classmates allowed students to “revise and deepen their personal answers to this question,” Draewell said.

What can’t we Google?

Louisville storyteller Marlesha interviewed a community elder who had experienced history firsthand but whose voice had been repressed because her lived experience did not always align to traditional narratives of history. This anecdote could provide an opportunity for students to consider how the experiences of people within communities that have been historically marginalized may not always be included in history books. What might you and your students learn about unacknowledged truths within your community? This question served as a jumping-off point for educator Kimberly Draewell’s students to choose their approach to research. She noted, “There is powerful value in tools that are open enough to allow student innovation if they are inspired, as well as structured enough to allow for teacher scaffolding when it is required.”

How do we create people-first solutions?

Marlesha also interviewed community leaders who are creating solutions to problems informed by the people they are trying to serve rather than by assumptions or generic data that so often guide (or misguide) leaders to solutions that do not always support those they claim to help. Real-world problems present great opportunities for young people to learn authentically and gain experience. How might you tackle some challenges in your community as learning opportunities through a “people-first” mindset?

How could your daily route offer new insights into your community’s values?

Louisville storyteller Lance lives in a section of his community that is currently undergoing “urban renewal,” and he wanted to illustrate what it feels like to walk the streets as they shift and change in ways that do not always offer better opportunities for those who live along them. How might you and your students explore the insights into your community’s values that your daily routes might lend?

Why do street names matter?

Lance also explored the history, culture, and power of street names. What are some significant street names in your community that you and your students might explore in new ways? What might that experience illuminate about your community context that you may have not known or misunderstood before? Educator Kimberly Draewell used this activity with her students and cited it as an example of an activity that “requires students to find primary resources to gain a deeper understanding of multiple perspectives.”

What does it mean to “drive through history”?

Lance also explored the historical beauty and tragedy of the change his community has undergone over time. How might you and your students track the changes your own community has undergone, and what related learning opportunities might that present? “Because of the depth of critical thinking and research knowledge required, I would suggest giving students scaffolding with these materials,” educator Kimberly Draewell noted of this activity as well as “The Weight of Names” and “What Can’t We Google?” “A list of varied local history topics would be valuable to students who struggle with getting started and innovating their own learning.”

What’s a good starting point?

No matter where you are in the world, when you explore the history and unacknowledged truths around you, you have the opportunity not only to honor the people who came before you but also to better understand how to take meaningful action. Through a process called “narrative inquiry,” you can learn more about the place you live and begin the process of leading sustainable change. For Louisville educators Chemeka Kelly and Fadhia Mohamud, incorporating place-based narrative inquiry into their teaching helped them “ignite the higher critical thinking process.” They said, “It was imperative to use material that would allow our students to use mental imagery and discovery of imagination.”

Kelly and Mohamud highlighted another benefit to these activities: promoting social and emotional learning, which they said had been difficult for students due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “These activities get students conversating, collaborating, and discussing,” the pair said. In incorporating these activities, Kelly recommended keeping students front of mind. “Think about your student audience,” she said. “Do your students need front-loading activities in order to help them organize their thoughts?” Mohamud added that educators can support students by helping them pick topics that interest them, and she and Kelly mentioned bringing in guest speakers as a way to introduce students to additional perspectives.

When I took my students to listen to the Dalai Lama and respond through acts of compassion, I had the best of intentions. Yet, good intentions were not enough; in fact, they may have unknowingly caused further harm. By attempting to address community problems without fully understanding the history, culture, place, and people within that community, we risk furthering the mistakes of the past, operating from delusion, and inadvertently self-centering ourselves. We have the ability now to move beyond good intentions and into opportunities to create real change, simply by choosing to listen to the wisdom of our own community members.

In the months to come, other 2892 storytellers, from St. Paul, Amarillo, Albuquerque, Tulsa, and Hawaiʻi, will share their own journeys and perspectives on the places, people, and history that surround them. Their StoryMaps and learning collections are rooted in collective wisdom and represent the voices and experiences of many. We aim to give educators and young people the opportunity to explore big ideas through the lens of people, places, and perspectives that may have previously been unacknowledged. We also hope these journeys and the lessons they offer will inspire educators and young people everywhere to explore the history and culture of their own communities with fresh eyes and open minds. In the meantime, let us know how these resources may inspire your work as an educator. Feel free to follow the ongoing efforts of the 2892 program at 2892walk.org, explore the 2892 Louisville Collection, and access the full learning guide.

About 2892: There are 2892 miles across the continental United States, and each of those miles represents many stories that could reveal unacknowledged truths about justice, race, and equity in communities everywhere. 2892 Miles to Go: Geographic Walk for Justice (2892) is a social justice education program centered on amplifying local community stories about justice, race, and equity that are often left out of common narratives of human history and culture.

Our hope is to become the antidote to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s eloquent definition of “The Danger of a Single Story” by holding space and elevating the stories of many. We believe that the land we live on never forgot these stories, and we want to remember, together.

2892 identifies and collaborates with local educators, changemakers, and other visionaries who are passionate about community-led storytelling to journey along selected routes in their own communities and then create visually compelling digital educational resources that are rooted in collective wisdom and represent the voices and experiences of many. Through in-person workshops, location-based educational experiences, and on our website, we share our StoryMaps and learning collections with educators and local leaders to help create more informed, empathic, and united communities.

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair is an award-winning educator, author, speaker, and leader. She is a consummate coalition-builder whose passion is bringing people together around a cause in an effort to create a positive impact within communities. She is the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and served as the inaugural educator-in-residence with the state department of education, where she supported and led efforts to amplify educator voice and agency to shape policy and practice. After 14-plus years as a National Board Certified classroom educator, Ashley founded and spearheaded the educational technology platform Curio Learning to elevate creative idea development and authentic collaboration among educators. As founder and CEO, she received the Navitas Prize at the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition and the Uber Pitch-Girlboss grand prize, and she joined an extensive network of edtech leaders at the LearnLaunch Accelerator in Boston. Ashley has contributed to several publications, including the Atlantic and the Washington Post, and is an Oxford and Fulbright scholar. She is the author of From Underestimated to Unstoppable: 8 Archetypes for Driving Change in the Classroom and Beyond, which ASCD published in the fall of 2022. Ashley currently serves as a National Geographic Explorer stewarding 2892 Miles to Go: Geographic Walk for Justice, supported by the National Geographic Society, alongside a collective of community storytellers and social justice leaders across the globe. Ashley believes deeply that experiential education is a catalyst for positive change, and that belief drives all that she does.

Featured image: 2892 community storyteller and artist Lance G. Newman II explains the purpose, history, and relevance of 2892 Miles to Go, a social justice education program supported by the National Geographic Society. Credit: Matthew Stover/National Geographic Society

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