‘Roe v. Wade’—What Can Educators Do?

While we may feel overwhelmed in the aftermath of the overturned landmark decision, we are neither hopeless nor helpless. A social justice education expert offers suggestions.
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That Friday, June 24, 2022, when the news of the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule Roe v. Wade was announced, I was in the midst of facilitating a workshop series on liberatory teaching practices for educators in New York City. There we were, at the end of a difficult school year during which educators had been asked to endure so much, create so much and still show up. We were in a space committed to understanding how our field and the practice of teaching can and ought to be used to create a more liberatory and just world. After a session on healing and joy through teaching, we had to sit down and process what had just happened with this Supreme Court ruling. 

Then the question naturally came to the forefront: “What do we even do?” 

As a society, we are actually in a familiar place. Though the circumstances are different, this place of pain filled with questions around what we can do as educators in the face of continued oppression—violence and harm against humanity, against me, against women, against Black women, against women who are poor, against our right to body autonomy, against all who have the capacity for pregnancy—is not new. When I was able to find words on that Friday, I shared a few things that I’ve shared with educators in other devastating moments, in the aftermath of decisions that are foreseeable, if you are following historical trajectories. 

In 1963, nearly 60 years ago, James Baldwin outlined what is at stake in “A Talk to Teachers” as he explains in no uncertain terms that any effort to ensure equity and justice—particularly around the Black experience in the U.S.—is going to be met with opposition. He writes, “… you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.” While Baldwin’s address centers the Black experience, we can apply the same understanding to the brutal resistance that occurs against movements meant to protect or ensure the liberation of any group that has been relegated to society’s margins.

I pointed toward previous articles I’ve written for educators, particularly “Teaching as Activism, Teaching as Care,” to share that I never felt hopeless as a teacher. As someone who has long been a student of U.S. history—specifically Black history—as a graduate of Spelman College, as a Black woman, I am clear about the ways that racism and patriarchy have affected, and continue to work against, my very being. And still, as an educator I have paid witness to and believe in the power of our field to transform society, to work deliberately against injustice and to move toward collective liberation. 

I reminded workshop participants that the reason for such deep resistance to truth-telling and to reconciling the history of white supremacist culture—which includes patriarchy and capitalism—is because teaching our children to think critically so they can act intentionally about the world is, and has always been, a direct threat to those who benefit from all forms of domination. 

What Educators Can Do

Educators can upend teaching that is designed to uphold the racism, bias and lies perpetuated in our society and move instead to embrace practices rooted in truth-telling. Teach students about the cycles of the history of oppression. Teach into and breakdown what capitalism is and how people of the global majority, poor women, children, persons with disabilities and gender expansive individuals will be most affected by the court’s decision. Teach about the intersections of multiple identities and multiple forms of oppression. While efforts to center anti-racism are absolutely crucial, we must also commit to understanding all who live at the intersections. And teach the history of justice struggles, of those who in past times resisted, opposed and struggled to create a more just world.

And do this across disciplines—not just within the humanities. Educators must teach students honestly about what is happening. Pare down and teach complex language so students are equipped with the tools they need to understand. Teach about what patriarchy looks like and means today and how it drove this Supreme Court decision.

Often students feel distanced from civic engagement—understanding the law, policies, how and why leaders are elected—because these topics are often taught in language and practices that are exclusionary. Teach about what is happening in ways that are deeply culturally responsive and explain what this ruling means in ways that are relevant and tangible for all students, especially students in our society who are living in the poverty that is inflicted upon them and children of the global majority who are most affected by this. Break down what civic engagement means for students and let them know we are neither hopeless nor helpless.

Movements of resistance in this country have long been led from the ground, through and with and by young people. The classroom can be and ought to be the most liberatory space that we have at our disposal to engage in deep change. Seek not only to be anti-racist in your teaching; aim to disrupt patriarchy. We have to understand how patriarchy works in this world, in our nation’s classrooms and in our surrounding communities. In the wake of this Supreme Court ruling, liberation must be our primary goal.

Take Action

Student-led Learning and Interdisciplinary Approaches
Engage youth in student-centered and student-led learning where they can ask questions, answer questions and make connections between history, civics, ELA, science and math by exploring what Roe v. Wade entails, whose rights it protects and who is most at risk for harm. Teach students how to analyze the impact of this recent decision through science and math, and how we can apply the critical thinking skills from ELA to work toward action. 

The Supreme Court and Elected Officials
Teach lessons around the Supreme Court, how justices are nominated and how Senators and other government officials are elected. Create opportunities for students to engage with their elected officials and push them to do what is right, what is just, what is rooted in liberation. 

Uplift Activism
Frame your work and teaching in and around activism. Allow students to know that more can be done. Have students engage in research and compile lists of organizations that are doing work now to support those who will be most impacted by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Support and partner with community organizations to bring in experts who work at the center of activism and education to support you and your students, especially if this is a growing area of expertise for you. 

Rest and Activism  
Systems of oppression and acts of injustice are meant to keep activists, critical educators and people who are paying attention from doing our work. This has long been a tool of oppression. Eat well. Rest. And when you are ready, get back up and continue to fight in community with others.  

About the Author

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