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Bronx Girls Learn About Prejudice and Empowerment by Putting Explorers on Trial

BY Colin Daileda, Mashable

The fifth-grade girls at Girls Prep Bronx Charter School walked into the courtroom of Federal Judge Shelley Chapman on Jan. 27, and some of their eyes went wide. Other kids looked up and around, stunned by how big it all seemed.

And being in adult land was big — the girls had to stand on boxes to get their heads above the courtroom's podiums — but they'd come prepared. They were there for a mock trial (with a real judge) in which they would try famous European explorers of old for crimes they may or may not have committed in the age of exploration.

And by all accounts, the kids performed well. They spoke up, asked intelligent questions, and even picked up some court lingo. ("I'll rephrase the question.")

But Colleen Coburn, their teacher, seemed even more happy about what the experience did to inspire her kids. Being behind a courtroom bench suddenly seemed attainable, and they were in awe of Chapman.

"They were so impressed," Coburn said. "Some of them want to be lawyers now, some of them want to be judges."

Chapman, who is middle-aged and white, knows she initially comes off to students as a powerful, privileged judge who has always had power. That's why she insists on telling them she was poor growing up, that her dad struggled to find work, that she was the first person in her family to go to college.

"I want them to grow up to feel they have potential, they can participate," Chapman said. "I don't know anything about a lot of them individually, but sheerly by the demographic, they have a tough road ahead of them. They're in the bronx and they're largely of color...there are so many hurdles."

Chapman also said she never forgets that she's talking to a group of young girls in a country where women are still struggling for equal rights in the workplace and in so many other ways.

"I routinely am in a courtroom or conference room full of men," Chapman said. "It sticks with me that it's just a lot harder to be female in this country."

As the kids filed out of her office, Chapman said one of the girls stopped and put her hand on the judge's desk.

"I'm gonna be like you someday," she said. "I'm gonna sit at this desk."