photo of Shelley Fairbairn
Shelley Fairbairn

Prof brings youth homelessness and social justice to Drake students

Future teachers in Professor Shelley Fairbairn’s Educational Psychology course were treated to first-hand perspectives of the struggles homeless children face daily in the classroom. A group of Des Moines area homeless youth visited the graduate class as part of a panel discussion of social justice in education.

“This summer I sat in on Professor Eric Johnson’s Perspectives in Race, Ethnicity and Gender courses,” Fairbairn said. “Eric really stresses the importance of students immersing themselves in different cultures, of putting themselves into a situation that is uncomfortable, in order to really understand the realities of others.” Fairbairn realized that this emphasis on issues of social justice and sensitivity to issues of diversity should be applied to other classes, to have a deeper impact on her students.

Fairbairn contacted Sherry Kepner, a staff member of the Iowa Homeless Youth Center in Des Moines, to visit her graduate-level Educational Psychology class. Kepner brought along four homeless teenagers from the metro area – Rebecca, Andrea, Jennifer, and Russell – to share their stories.

photo of homeless camp
Professor Fairbairn toured a homeless camp under the 7th Street bridge, south of downtown Des Moines.

“These kids’ stories were so powerful they generated some really important discussion among the class members.” Fairbairn said. “For example, future teachers need to know how to advocate for students who may not do well in the ‘traditional’ classroom, considering issues such as the problem of children doing their homework when they also have to worry about where they will be sleeping that night. We even examined the basic legal right of a homeless child to have access to public education.”

To show their appreciation for their visitors, the Drake students collected items to donate to the shelter, including towels, personal hygiene products and cash.

Drake student Clemencia Spizzirri was so moved by Russell’s story she was inspired to write a poem about him. Spizzirri, who is originally from Ecuador, wrote the poem in Spanish and then translated it to English, which Fairbairn later shared with Russell.

To Russell’s Eyes

By Clemencia Spizzirri

To your blue eyes, the blue of the sky

Of rain that melts in the ocean

That contemplates sunsets of red silences

Carrying the crosses of past times.

To your eyes of pain disseminated

Like a secret spring from which your smile emanates

Like a starry night of infinite lights

Of patient waiting, in yearn written.

To your eyes and tender appearance

To that smile I hope and dreams

I leave my verses written in the wind

So that they caress your hair

And wonder in your silence.