Civic Lab Connects the Classroom to the City

by Jeanne Barr, Upper School History and Social Studies Teacher

Continuing a 15-year tradition, Parker juniors this week cast ballots to join one of five Civic Lab groups in an ongoing initiative that brings together US History and American Literature students in an interdisciplinary curricular program focusing on social justice in the Chicago community.

Analogous to how our science program encourages opportunities to conduct experiments to discover how scientific theories respond to real-life stimuli, in Civic Lab the city of Chicago becomes an extension of the classroom as we explore how themes of marginalization in the literature we read and the history we study play out in the lives of Chicagoans. Civic Lab aims to transform the FWP mission into action by promoting active citizenship and civic engagement, providing space for building relationships and connections, advocating for social justice and enriching our understanding of how systems of marginalization shape institutions and structures of privilege, advantage and disadvantage in our history and in present-day society.
Each Civic Lab group has a unique focus, directed by the group’s faculty sponsor. Past themes have included LGBTQ rights, immigration, feminism, drug policy and criminal justice reform, the environment, public housing, mental health in the public realm, the rights of the disabled and so on. Throughout the year, in a series of fieldwork days and in-school meetings, students visit institutions, meet with community activists, view films, read and conduct research on their central topic. Frequently, groups turn the corner into action projects designed by students, such as gathering signatures, attending or organizing protests or consciousness-raising events, contacting legislators and decision makers, creating art or presenting their findings in community forums.

Juniors selected among the following groups for 2017–18:

This group is for everyone who is willing to step forward and help create a safe and supportive community for all members of the LGBTQ community at Parker and in Chicago, Illinois and the rest of America. We will be talking with social justice activists to better understand the barriers facing the LGBTQ community. Today the great struggle confronting the nation is: Should the LGBTQ community be fully included as citizens, and, if so, how? The struggle is real, the debate is impassioned, and there often seem to be no easy answers. Our group will take an in-depth look at how sexual and gender identity develops, the history of the LGBTQ community in the U.S. and their struggle for civil rights, the role of religion and how culture, class and race influence the ways various communities vote on these issues. For more information, check out, or

Is America’s legacy of welcoming immigrants—complicated as it always was—now dead? Immigrant life in America has become more and more defined by the politics and economics of mass incarceration: every day, tens of thousands of immigrants are locked in detention facilities, and many hundreds are deported, at a cost of billions of taxpayer dollars and untold numbers of broken families each year. A U.S. president who campaigned on anti-immigrant views recently rescinded DACA, and DREAMers hang in the balance. People on all sides of the political spectrum know the U.S. immigration system itself is broken, and legislators are in the midst of trying to decide how to fix it. To learn about all sides of the immigration debate, the Immigration Justice group will meet with lawyers and judges, policy makers and activists and also hear from immigrants about their life experiences. We will serve as court watchers in deportation hearings (, meet with officials and legislators ( and participate in local alternatives to detention.
PACTT (Parents Allied with Children and Teachers for Tomorrow): PACTT is a not-for-profit agency working to serve individuals with autism and their families. Located at 7101 N. Greenview, the PACTT Learning Center is a therapeutic day school serving students ranging in age from 3 to 21. Parker juniors who choose to work at the Learning Center will work one on one with PACTT students in the classroom, help during special events such as the PACTT field day (annually hosted at Parker), join students on trips to the park and the lakefront, accompany students during visits to Parker, offer assistance during meals and be engaged in other activities. In addition, to gain a more global perspective of the struggle for civil rights that people with disabilities experience on a daily basis, juniors will spend time at Access Living (, a cross-disability organization governed and staffed by a majority of people with disabilities. More information on PACTT and its various programs is available at

SSDP (Students for Sensible Drug Policy):
SSDP is an international grassroots network of students concerned that the “war on drugs” is failing the present generation of young people and society as a whole. SSDP mobilizes and empowers students to participate in the political process, pushing for sensible policies to achieve a safer and more just future, while pushing back against counterproductive drug war policies, particularly those that directly harm youth. As scholars, we seek solutions to society’s drug problems through focused research, honest dialogue and informed debate. During the year, SSDP will meet with a wide range of professionals who will shed light on how the drug war affects society. We will visit a needle-exchange outreach agency, witness the impact of anti-drug law enforcement on the criminal justice system in Chicago and take action on issues of the students’ choosing. For more information on drug policy reform, check out and

What are the issues that continue to affect women and keep them from attaining equal rights? We know that misogyny in society, the workplace and in some homes has manifested in many ways. This group is for students who wish to explore instances of oppression experienced in the lives of women right here in the Chicago area. We will be learning about sex slavery, domestic violence, women’s healthcare and the impact these issues have on all of us. There will be discussions on legislation and opportunities to engage with people who are working for the protection of women as well as presentations centered on next steps for women who are transitioning out of destructive circumstances.
Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.