A Social Justice Curriculum

Our curriculum is based on the premise of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire that all classroom participants are teachers and learners. Through interaction with each other, everyone—students and teachers alike—must be willing to relearn, rethink, and expand what they think they already know.

Popular education is process oriented, and course work is grounded in problem solving, reflection followed by action, and a core belief that through education, students transform their understanding of themselves in the world and come to believe in their power to have impact. The curriculum at Dorothy Stang develops and grows each year based on the collaboration of the students and teachers.

Our curriculum focuses on two themes: eco-justice, and art and culture. As one aspect of the struggle for social justice, eco-justice directly impacts our students, who live in areas that are the city’s most polluted and where there is less access to nourishing food sources, community gardens, or the corridors of power that ignore the needs of immigrants and low wage earners. We focus on art and culture in order to affirm, and learn from, the cultural knowledge and expertise that our students bring to the program.

An example of how the curriculum is built on the themes eco-justice and art and culture can be seen in the process of the creation of the mural “Nuestras vidas, nuestra cultura,” as described below, course by course.


History fostered students’ reflection on their own personal and cultural history, their immigration journey, and their experience of exile. Students took histories from their grandparents in order to begin learning about their family history as well as their cultural history. Students created a personal timeline, as well as a timeline of Latin America and the United States, to document historical events and their impact. Participants also drew on ideas from Big History, which looks at history in terms of all time scales.


Science addressed environmental issues, particularly climate change and environmentally caused illnesses resulting from such sources as pollution and living in food deserts. Greenpeace came and presented the narrative of the Pilsen/Little Village community’s organizing victory that resulted in stopping coal plants from choking their neighborhoods. Topics explored included the impact of the banana on the relationship between the United States and Central America; the Gulf oil spill; “Los 33” Chilean miners trapped in a mine known to be unstable; and issues relating to nuclear power such as the Fukushima meltdown, power-plant design, and the environmental impact of uranium enrichment.

Social Studies

Social Studies interrogated systems of power and inequality and presented new alternatives to the dominant paradigm. Students researched the documents of the International Council of the World Social Forum in Dakar about the global crisis we are facing. Through plays and simulations, students developed their own paradigms for a future of equality and justice.

English Language Communication

The text for this course was based on dialogue about environmental and health issues faced in the neighborhoods where students live. These student-generated narratives became the course book. Additionally, students developed cartoons and wrote about their countries of origin, and these too—the cartoons and their writings—served as English language texts.


Literature engaged students in writing communal narratives about their countries of origin and the cultural gifts of those nations, including their literature and art. Novels and short stories took up themes of the triumph of the marginalized. Students wrote poems about migration (lyric and historical narrative) and produced a chapbook of their poems.


Group is a core course in which students generate the content and process of the course through dialogue. In Group, students identified issues having to do with their personal and political concerns, their relationships with each other, and the courses themselves. Through this process of trust building, the students built community, integrated knowledges, and developed critical listening skills and leadership.


LifeSkills/Computers inspired students to document their life experience competencies and to write their life stories. These were the basis for the art sketches that became the mural, and they provided the pre-writing for a planned theater piece following the methodology of Augusto Boal, the Brazilian writer and theatre director who began the Theater of the Oppressed.


Math helped students to analyze quantitative data using tables, graphs, verbal descriptions, and statistics. The data was chosen based on questions arising from students’ concerns or from topics discussed in other classes. Issues addressed included environmental concerns and local and global economic justice. Other topics chosen based on student input included the study of geometric patterns generated by their work on the mural.

With the guidance of visual artist Mirtes Zwierzynski, students who had never created art before developed collectively a five-panel canvas mural (16 x 4.5 feet) that reflects their life experiences and aspirations. Watch how this endeavor unleashed an artistic and collaborative potential that people had been unaware they had.