Two groups give talks on each subject

JANESVILLE

Billy Bob Grahn said he had long felt alone when it came to advocating for Native American issues.

That feeling died when he made a presentation last year to the Janesville School Board. As he spoke, members of the fledgling Allies of Native Nations committee stood behind him in a show of support.

He wasn’t expecting that support, but it confirmed that other people were willing to help empower Native Americans.

Grahn and other committee members formed one of two groups that spoke Thursday at a Diversity Action Team of Rock County meeting, entitled “The Joy of Our Multicultural Communities.” It was the group’s last monthly program of the season, which runs parallel to the academic year.

Now part of the Diversity Action Team, the committee educates others on Native American culture. Native American history has long been misrepresented in classrooms and public perception, Grahn said.

When Grahn spoke last year to the school board, he was pushing the district to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Janesville sent the resolution to the state association of school boards.

Grahn said that group passed the resolution, but it still needs additional approval to become a statewide change.

Those changes can add up and expose non-Natives to other serious issues facing the Native community, such as poverty on reservations and intergenerational trauma, he said.

Gaining such awareness can be the first step toward making an impact for a marginalized group.

Jen Schrab knows that firsthand. She is a third-grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in Janesville and led the other presentation Thursday night.

For the past six years, Schrab has worked with a South African organization called SizaBantwana. What originally started as a way to connect her school to a nonprofit across the globe has blossomed into a mutually beneficial partnership.

Schrab and other Jefferson teachers have established a system where students can “buy” charitable items using tokens teachers award for good behavior or other kind acts, she said.

Kids can use the tokens on themselves to buy candy or chalk, but many choose to use them at the “charity cart” instead.

Kids pool their tokens together and redeem them for charity items ranging from socks to sewing machines. The donations go to SizaBantwana, Schrab said.

SizaBantwana is a small nonprofit that currently operates without a brick-and-mortar location. It provides services to rural children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.

The areas the group serves lack basic infrastructure. Communicating with SizaBantwana leaders is difficult because they use dial-up internet, Schrab said.

Jefferson students are currently raising money so SizaBantwana can install a well for clean water. A well would cost about $6,000—a significant amount of money in rural South Africa, Schrab said.

As she and two Jefferson students spoke, Diversity Action Team members passed a bowl and collected a little more than $200 in impromptu donations. Schrab and other teachers, who formed a registered nonprofit called Friends of SizaBantwana, are accepting donations through their website.

A majority of Jefferson students come from low-income families, but American poverty is different than South African poverty, Schrab said. So while some of her students’ families struggle financially, they have always been willing to help others on the other side of the globe. The kids take pride in that.

“One of the things kids need to be invested in school is to feel empowered. To feel they have some sort of control,” Schrab said. “What better way to give a kid hope than to give hope to someone else?”

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