For the past several years, high school students from around the Birmingham area have had the opportunity to lead regular museum tours and in many cases be trained at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
It all starts with the youth docent program at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
“This program is vital for young people. It teaches them leadership skills, it just opens another point of view as far as history is concerned,” said Michelle Craig BCRI’s coordinator of youth programs. The Legacy Youth Leadership Program is about more than black history, Craig said. “This is American history.”
Now in its sixth year, the program is seeking its next class of applicants – the deadline is Friday. To date nearly 100 high school students — not just from Birmingham, but also from Oneonta, Calera, Pelham, Hoover, Homewood, Shades Valley and the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School program — have gone through the training at BCRI and led tour groups during the summer. Last year’s class of young docents gave guided tours to more than 4,000 visitors to the institute.
Most of those students, depending on several factors, have been able to travel to the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. for additional training that in some cases has led to careers in the museum field.
The goals of the program are simple, but represent an opportunity for student participants to expand their base of knowledge in fields that pertain to real world jobs, as noted on the application: “The objectives of LYLP are to: (1) promote student confidence, self-esteem, character, and community involvement through active participation, and (2) involve students as leaders in project planning and implementation.” Students are also expected to attend public programs at BCRI and participate in visits to colleges.
Most youth docent classes at BCRI have as many as 25 students at a time. Here’s how it works: Students accepted into the program participate in 12 weekly educational sessions designed to acquaint them with the BCRI, its programs, collections and archives, as well as American history from Columbus forward. The history is taught by Parker High history teacher Barry McNeely. “Mr. McNeely does a wonderful job making history come to life,” Craig said.
After the 12-week period, during which students are also taught leadership development, students are given opportunities to lead tours through the museum for the summer. “They become like our ambassadors,” Craig said. The young docents don’t just lead tours for groups their own age. During the summer, any group that requests a tour — except where they request a specific tour guide – are shown through the BCRI by the LYL program students. The students normally lead tours from 8:30 a.m. until about 1 p.m.
At the end of the summer, many students are given the chance to go to Washington for a week of further training at the Holocaust museum, part of that institution’s ongoing work of preparing young people for potential careers in the museum field. The number of students from Birmingham who get to go depends on funding from the Holocaust museum, and how well they perform their docent duties at BCRI.
The LYLP, the brainchild of BCRI Vice President of Institutional Programs Priscilla Hancock Cooper, actually was modeled after the training program at the Holocaust museum. And like the national program, LYLP has long term benefits for both the institution and the participants. Kids who go through LYLP are expected to continue volunteering at BCRI, including as mentors for new members of the program.
The name of the young docent initiative draws on connections with Birmingham’s history of children getting involved in the Civil Rights Movement, as noted in the application. “In 1963, children were cast in a central role in the American civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama. Forty-five years later, in 2008, young voters proved to be a decisive voice in the election of Barack Obama as the first African American President of the United States. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) recognizes the critical role of young activists in movements for human rights throughout history. The Legacy Youth Leadership Program (LYLP) is designed to engage area high school students in discovering their own leadership abilities by exploring historical concepts and leaders and participating in a variety of learning experiences. “
Students who go through the program come out stronger than they went in, Craig said. The program has “huge impact” on participants, she said. “We’ve had kids who when they first come to the program were extremely shy and introverted. … By the time they finish that first 12 weeks or that summer, they are completely different children.”
She specifically cited twin boys who came to the program practically whispering when they talked. After their leadership training, they were speaking out, standing up straight and joining civic organizations in college.
“Their mom asked me, ‘What did you do? You did something,’” Craig recalled.
And as coordinator of the program, Craig is prepared to do still more for motivated students. Many have asked and received letters of recommendation from her, carrying with them the respected reputation of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
The application deadline for the Legacy Youth Leadership Program is 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21. The application is accessible through the home page of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.