Coach Adapts Sankofa for High School Students

SKOKIE, IL (May 16, 2016) — Inspired by his own transformative experiences on a Sankofa trip to civil rights sites in the South, Niles North High School boys track and field coach Paul Swanson adapted the idea to take the team on its own journey to local sites and to Springfield, Illinois, the state capital and home of Abraham Lincoln.

(Photo by Jim Teague)
The Niles North High School track and field team valued their diversity even more after the trip. (Photo by Jim Teague)

Swanson, who is chair of DeerGrove Covenant Church in Palatine, said his Sankofa trip not only opened his eyes to see beyond his textbook knowledge of the civil rights movement but changed him ways he had not expected.​ “When I left for Sankofa I think I believed that racial reconciliation or righteousness was something that I could check off a list upon return,” he said. “I am still working on checking it off!​”​

Sankofa is a West African word meaning “looking backward to move forward.” The denomination’s trip is a four-day bus journey during which participants are paired with someone of another race as they travel through historic sites of importance to the civil rights movement.

Those include the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four girls were killed and 22 people were injured when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the church; the Edmund Pettus Bridge and National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama; and the Spencer Perkins Center in Jackson, Mississippi.

This shorter more local experience has had the same effect of bringing this issue to the forefront and providing a beginning of discussion.

Swanson’s Sankofa partner was Carlton Evans, a school district board member. “My relationship with Carlton Evans also went from friend to true brother as I learned more than I ever dreamed about his life story.”

It was an experience Swanson thought was important for his own students to share.

“I loved the concept and thought that it would be easy to do some form for my teams at Niles North,” Swanson said. “I work in one of the most diverse school districts in the nation. The last time we surveyed the information, I believe there were more than 90 different languages spoken in the homes of our students.”

He initially hoped to take the football team through the South while also doing team building and passing competitions. “I thought it would be powerful, just as it was in my Sankofa, to walk the bridge at Selma.”

That never happened, but Swanson adapted the idea. “This shorter more local experience  has had the same effect of bringing this issue to the forefront and providing a beginning of discussion.”

Paul Swanson and several members of the track and field team. (Photo: Brad Hokin)
Paul Swanson and several members of the track and field team. (Photo: Brad Hokin)

The first trip was last year, and he took another group in April. Many of the students knew nothing of the violence and injustice in their own neighborhoods. At one main intersection a white supremacist shot Ricky Byrdsong in 1999 on a three-day shooting spree. Only a few students were aware of the tragedy.

Evans, who had played basketball with Byrdsong, talked about his friend’s life at a memorial dedicated to Byrdsong.

In Skokie, where the school is located, they also visited the Holocaust Museum and learned more about the 1977 proposed neo-Nazi march through the community, which is home to many survivors of the World War II death camps. Other parts of the trip included watching the movie Gran Torino, and visiting Abraham Lincoln’s tomb and war memorial in Springfield.

In a story about the trip, the Chicago Tribune quoted senior Leandro Oaing, who was born in the Philippines. “We’re given an opportunity to be with different nationalities and different people from different cultures (at Niles North). We should embrace that, rather than make it a barrier between us.”

​Swanson suggested that coaches who might want to do something similar participate in the Covenant’s Sankofa trip first. “They are so good and so polished in how they do this event, you will not have to reinvent the ​wheel completely.”

He added, “Get your parents and coaching staff behind you. As a veteran of coaching for 26 years, my advice is not to underestimate the power of your whistle. Kids listen, parents listen, and then promote your idea for you.”

The Covenant’s next Sankofa trip is July 14-17. Anyone interested in participating can download a registration form.


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