An Experience that Changed Me

Danny Stock

Over our February Mid-winter Break, 21 GDS students and five teachers traveled to Alabama to learn about the Civil Rights Movement and the legacy of slavery in America. They visited more than ten different civil rights sites in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, several of which are mentioned below in the reflection testimonials from the students and faculty. Through the collection of voices represented anonymously, one begins to understand the power of experiential learning and of a community of purpose-driven, lifelong learners.

A sample gallery of photographs from the trip can be found below the reflections (photo credits: Julia Hay ’20, Meredith Chase-Mitchell, CA Piling, Talia Rodriguez ’20, Miranda Aebersold-Burke ’21, Gigi Silla ’20, and Kate Strong ’20).

  • This trip was so important. When we all stood together with our arms locked together after the last of our museum tours and looked around at each other, I think everyone felt the power of what we had all just gone through together. I feel so lucky to have been able to go on a trip like this because not only did I learn so much about the roots of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama but I learned so much about myself, the people around me, and how different parts of the trip were especially meaningful to each and every person. It stimulated intense conversations where I heard people challenge others’ beliefs respectfully and constructively. I hope that this trip continues for a long time and that many more of my peers can be a part of something like this. I will take with me the profound lessons that I learned from this trip—whether it be from a foot soldier who participated in the Selma March called “Bloody Sunday” or another student from school whose conversations and comradery made the trip. Thank you to [High School teacher] Andy [Lipps], the faculty chaperones [CA Piling, Kevin Jackson, Lee Goldman, and Meredith Chase-Mitchell], and to GDS for bringing together students with different backgrounds but a common hope to change systems based on hate and bigotry.
  • This trip changed me.  There’s something about being where something happened—Kelly Ingram Park, in front of the Alabama State Capitol—that makes you understand something that books and videos and class discussions can’t possibly do.  I am so thankful for this opportunity and believe that every GDS student should pursue it.
  • I think this trip was amazing and really helped me connect with my history. It was incredible to be able to stand where so many famous and influential civil rights leaders stood, and I think that it helped make this history more tangible to me. It was difficult at times to go through some of the museums because I could see myself and my family members in those horrific situations. However, I think it was an invaluable experience and provided me with the tools and the confidence to bring some of these conversations back to GDS.
  • This trip provided me with invaluable opportunities to learn, reflect, and grapple with the complicated and painful history of racism in America. Visiting the Legacy Museum, National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and church where MLK spoke, and walking the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma were powerful, surreal, and unforgettable moments for me. This trip was also poignant because it was incredibly troubling to see how Alabama, a location of both vast enslavement and an epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement, has failed to address its history. The experiences I had in Alabama couldn’t be learned in any classroom, and I’m incredibly grateful that I was able to come on this trip.
  • The trip for me was surreal. For so many years in school I had seen photos of key places in the Civil Rights Movement over and over. Now I am able to say that I have not only seen the places but stood in/entered them which was an even more amazing part of it. I had never imagined visiting these places because I had never had the opportunity to come to Alabama. I’m very glad I went because it was an eye-opening experience!
  • This trip was definitely one of the most impactful experiences I have ever had the privilege of taking part in. It is one thing to learn about the Civil Rights Movement for so many years in the classroom, to read about it in books, and to go to museums and look at artifacts and try to understand the immensity of race relations in the US. It is another entirely to learn about it in such a central area to both its history and its present state. The Legacy Museum was one of the most impactful places I’ve ever been in—seeing the timeline laid out of black history from slavery to black codes to lynching to segregation to mass incarceration entirely changed the way I think of the country today and is something I wish everyone could see to understand the magnitude of racism today. Something great about the trip was how it allowed us to have meaningful conversations following each site we visited. I value those interactions just as much because they allowed me to try to understand different perspectives on the same things I was seeing. I think I could honestly write about this trip for pages and pages, but all in all I believe that it was an incredibly impactful and powerful few days that I feel extremely lucky to have been a part of, and I hope that the trip continues to grow in the coming years.
  • The experiences, lessons, and history that this trip has given me has truly shaped the way I will continue to walk through life. For so many years I read about these events in a classroom, an experience that honestly was emotionless and had removed the humanity of this history completely, yet from the moment I stepped into the real places and read the REAL history a wave of emotion followed me over the four days of the trip as I walked the real footsteps of my history. This trip not only provided me with an unsanitized version of my history but with a pride in my people rather than simply sadness. I wish that every person could experience this indispensable trip. I am filled with strength, anger, motivation, sadness and most importantly love after this trip. 
  • I think this trip has allowed me to have conversations that I wouldn’t normally have within the walls on GDS. I was with a group where the majority of people actually cared about learning things related to the Civil Rights Movement and the effects of slavery that are still clearly prevalent in today’s America. I find that even though I am currently emotionally and physically drained at this moment, I am glad that I went on this trip. I took AP U.S. History last year, and I knew that it was definitely going to be the history of the white man. But this trip has provided me with a more complete history of America and not just from one perspective. Throughout this experience, I have continued to explore my identity and it’s pushed to become a better social activist when it comes to race-related issues. 
  • This trip is invaluable. I think it is really important to know U.S. history but often history classes don’t teach the experiences of black and brown people. On the trip, we learned so much about how black people have been treated in this nation and how that has left lasting effects in our society. We explored museums and visited historical sites that showed the connection between slavery and our current prison system. We need radical reform of our prison system and this trip instilled in me a drive to work towards that change. I would recommend that every GDS student go on this trip because without it we cannot truly understand the racism and oppressive structures that are still at work within this nation. I am grateful to be given the opportunity to go on this trip.
  • This trip was a phenomenal experience and an amazing opportunity to learn about the history and impact of the Civil Rights Movement. Not only have I now had the chance to learn about this history in class but also experience it for myself. It was a truly surreal experience to be standing in the same places as so many civil rights leaders had all those years ago. I would absolutely recommend this trip to anyone interested in broadening their knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement and is looking for a remarkable experience.
  • This trip provided me great insight into the Civil Rights Movement and the South more broadly. It was particularly valuable to be able to learn about one issue through several different mediums (such as memorials and museums) because each allowed me to reflect in a different way. Two experiences that I found particularly powerful were visiting the Legacy Museum and Alabama State Capitol. The Legacy Museum explicitly articulated how mass incarceration and the death penalty are a direct continuation of slavery in a way that I’ve never heard before, even though I have taken Virginia/U.S. History four times (only once at GDS, though). Additionally, after three days learning about civil rights, it was both interesting and alarming to see how the Alabama state government presents its history to visitors and schoolchildren. But this trip was not only valuable because of the places we visited, but also because discussing and reflecting with peers that I was comfortable with allowed for further insight and understanding. I hope that every GDS student takes advantage of this amazing opportunity to take a deep dive into the Civil Rights Movement.
  • I’m falling into a trap by saying that I “understand” this issue or will ever do so. But I realize now that I understand this much more now than I did before. I’ve seen this before as history, as facts, in a removed tone that makes it possible to say “Sure. That’s terrible.” and move on. But the things we’ve done on this trip has made it impossible to stay removed. Its stories got to me and stayed with me and won’t leave me. And I’m thankful for that. 
  • Personally, this trip gave me the opportunity to learn about the people that came before, fighting for my rights. This trip gave me a chance to fully embrace the culture of different parts of Alabama. Being able to interact with people who participated in the Civil Rights Movement and  experienced the tribulations of segregation, discrimination and hatred was truly a blessing. I had already known much about the tribulations and its leaders, but I now realize that I learned so much more. There were moments during this trip were I felt different emotions from learning about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, tribulations, mass incarceration, and much more. Some of these feelings felt good and others bad but at the end of all of these emotions were essential for my learning process. This journey was a great experience and I am so glad I was able to share these experiences with my peers.
  • This trip was life-changing. This trip allowed me to feel fully connected to the triumphs and atrocities of the Civil Rights Movement. While there were plenty of moments that were painful, I wouldn’t trade this weekend for anything in the world. I was able to grow closer with classmates I’ve never talked to and for the first time in a while felt seen as a black person with real history. I can’t wait to bring the information I learned to GDS. I’m so incredibly thankful for the opportunity. Thank you!
  • This trip gave me a chance to actively explore the history I thought I knew so much about already. It engaged me both intellectually and emotionally and I was able to take a lot away from experiencing it with my friends. I was also able to perceive a stronger connection between past events and current struggles. Coming on this trip has forced me to reevaluate my stance and approach to current social justice and I am grateful for the opportunity. 
  • Every high school student will read about the South in history textbooks. If you’re lucky enough to go to GDS, you will read about enslavement and some of the unsung leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. This trip though, was about more than the pages I read for homework or the notes I get tested on in class. This trip was about honoring and respecting the history and the individuals that brought this country to where it is today. This trip was about lighting a fire beneath all of us to understand that despite all the progress we’ve made, and all the leaders and martyrs that we can never forget, there is so much more to do. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Legacy Museum in Montgomery is a one-room museum. Too few years ago, it was not a museum, but a pen where enslaved people were brought to be kept before they were traded. The museum begins by reminding you of the families torn apart and blood curdling screams you would have heard on the very floor you were standing those years ago. As you move beyond the first corridor, you enter the main room of the museum. This room takes you through history: from enslavement, to the Civil Rights Movement, to today’s human wrong of mass incarceration and the death penalty, carefully connecting each piece of the past to a piece of the future. The room lays out that those states and counties that had the highest rates of lynchings now have the highest rates of executions. Moving from that museum one day to learning the story of Brian Stevenson and his work on death row as we went to see Just Mercy as a group. It is these stories, these connections, and these opportunities to walk across the paths of history, that make this trip so much more than what I could get in even the best U.S. History class GDS could offer. I cannot express my gratitude for everyone who made this trip happen (both students and teachers), and I cannot wait to go back to GDS and implement all the things I’ve learned.
  • This trip was a wonderful experience that allowed me to get a feel for what the South feels like. Something I didn't expect was for it to be as sad as it was, but I think the sadness and pain helped influence my perspective on the Civil Rights Movement. Something I have always questioned is the use of violence in the Civil Rights Movement. And I think after this trip I have concluded that you needed both peace and violence to disrupt the system that built itself on the backs of the black bodies. 
  • I believe this trip changed my outlook on the history of race in America and presented a multitude of contemporary issues that I have been overlooking for years. This experience gave me more context about our history, and made me think about life in a different way; I am very happy that I came.
  • This trip was a very meaningful experience for me because I was able to better understand the unjust experiences African Americans faced especially in the court system. Seeing Just Mercy really tied all the heavy information I learned from the museums all together and made it more apparent the clear differences between how whites and blacks were treated. Visiting the Dexter Avenue Church and parsonage was a very real life experience that resonated strongly after learning so much about the difference MLK made and how he affected so many people in such a powerful way. Hearing [Dexter Avenue Baptist Church tour director] Wanda [Battle] talk about overcoming her struggle of being suicidal and what changed in her life to make her no longer feel that way was inspiring and enlightening as she felt so comfortable talking about her experience. Lastly, the 16th Street Baptist Church really stuck with me after learning so much about the bombing and then being able to visit it in real life.
  • I appreciated the debriefing meetings we had that one time and would have liked to do one everyday. I think some sustained discussion about what we were seeing might have been really helpful in our building trust and community. Overall, I am very very thankful my parents pushed me to do this. I don’t know if I even would have come here on my own, and I feel like I’ve learned more on this trip than I have in some of my history classes at GDS.
  • It’s one thing to read about this all in history books and another to walk in history’s footsteps. As a Black woman in America, connecting to the civil rights struggle takes more than books and movies. During this trip while visiting these sites, I needed moments to imagine myself in those spaces in those times. It left me asking myself, who would I have been then, what role would I have played. This opportunity was incredible and should be experienced by both GDS faculty and students. 
  • This experience was an opportunity I will be forever grateful for. The feeling of standing in places where people risked their lives to be free is indescribable. The question I have for myself now is what will I do with this experience and how can I make change?


  • DEI
  • experiential learning
  • High School
  • history