“When you think of harm in our community, your life, what comes to your mind first?” Staci Harrison, a white second grade teacher, asked. As her students—the majority of whom are Black children and have experienced harm because of racism and economic deprivation—shared their responses, the conversation became more specific.
“Jail,” a student stated resolutely. “That’s the scariest one,” another child agreed. “I hate jail,” a third commented. And a low hum of “uh-huh” and “yes” grew among the children.
“OK, do others have a connection to that?” Staci asked, looking around at nodding students.
“My dad went to jail, so I feel unsafe. Jail feels unsafe because there are bad cops and good cops,” one student shared.
“What does that mean?” Staci asked.
“Bad cops are, like, when they help robbers and … they used to take sides with white people,” the child continued. “Police violence against Black peoples,” another student added.
“Good cops do their job; they don’t stand up for white people. They don’t take money from banks, and when robbers try to rob, they arrest them. Good cops take sides with Black people and white people,” a student explained.
“Ever since my dad was in jail, even though he got out early, that still made me feel unsafe. Ever since he was out … that let me spend time with him,” a child shared.
“You can’t even get privacy when you’re using the bathroom in jail. You don’t even get to heat up your food!” retorted a student.
In Staci’s classroom, like others across the nation made up of Black and Brown children, the concerns are clear: Many students do not view police as keeping them safe. The institution of policing often causes harm as part of a system contributing to the dehumanization of families and communities. Staci, recognizing the importance of emotional safety, acknowledged that “feeling safe” is contextual.
Partnering With Community Organizers
Honoring students’ social and emotional needs, Staci invited the children in her classroom toward what educators Patrick Camangian and Stephanie Cariaga argue is a key element of humanization: Solidarity. A critical process that educators must embrace to reimagine emotional safety, solidarity—defined by scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang as an “uneasy, reserved and unsettled matter that neither reconciles present grievances nor forecloses future conflict”—can be built by supporting students’ understandings of how structural power and oppression limit communities from living full, whole lives.
Staci recognized the need to partner with community organizers who had wisdom, expertise and lived experience to guide students based on lineages of social movements for community safety and restoration. She connected with three local organizers—Imani, from a Black women-led mutual aid fund, and Nova and Jada, from a Black liberation organization.
In the initial meetings, Staci offered examples of structural violence Black children in the class shared, particularly about the prison system. Imani offered to visit the class to emphasize mutual aid—communities caring for one another and meeting needs without relying on unjust systems that rarely deliver adequate resources—as solidarity, while Jada and Nova planned to facilitate learning about restorative justice as solidarity in conflict.
Models of Solidarity as Community Safety: Mutual Aid and Restorative Justice
Imani’s lesson invited students to engage in a seed dispersal activity. Children combined wildflower seeds and wet construction paper mulch into balls, which were left to dry and then taken into their communities to beautify their spaces and give back to the pollinators taking care of our Earth. Students also repurposed donated T-shirts into tote bags for guests to use visiting the mutual aid fund’s community fridge or pantry. Imani differentiated between charity and mutual aid: Mutual aid is solidarity. We can ask for what we need and give what we have. Students offered what they had access to—wildflower seeds and tote bags—knowing that when they needed community care, the mutual aid fund also supported them. Thus, students built new social relations grounded in community capacity.
Jada and Nova introduced restorative justice as a means of repairing harm instead of contributing to it. They role-played scenarios, modeling interpersonal conflicts, some that were deeply racialized and others that were not. They asked students to recognize the differences—which the children quickly did—then held dialogue and follow-up role-plays to illustrate how students might respond in solidarity, offering nuance to forgiveness and apology in action. For example, Nova described how she might move forward from harm she caused that demonstrated a change in behavior. She described what her role-play character learned from causing harm to her friend, Jada, and what she’d do to avoid causing future harm.
Finally, Jada and Nova modeled a breathing strategy of coming back to your body, being present with yourself. They invited students to express gratitude to their legs for carrying them, thank their backs for supporting them and imagine the ancestral lineage of people in their lives who are connected to their being, all while breathing in community. The act of being in your body can invite liberation as children slow down and collectively breathe.
With Imani, Jada and Nova sharing their expertise, students learned models of community safety—mutual aid and restorative justice—that contended with and countered the systems of punishment and disposability. By offering what they have and asking for what they need, the children and Staci continued to explore what it might mean to practice mutual aid as safety.
Ongoing Practice and Engagement in the School Community
One day, a student shared that they were being bullied in their after-school program. Staci gathered the class around him. She asked the child what he needed, and he shared: “to feel safe.” Staci then invited students to give of what they had to offer: some students listened, others laid a comforting hand on him, while others offered to walk with him after school, stay near and stand with him as he (or they together) told an after-school volunteer about the bullying. Staci also affirmed she would follow up with the after-school program coordinators. In this moment, while the rest of the class gave what they had to offer, a child who stated a need to feel safe was met with safety in the form of solidarity.
The class further engaged with restorative justice, crafting and practicing freedom through community care agreements to work through conflict. One morning, two students refused to come inside after recess. Staci, who’d kept a watchful eye on them while they were outside, noticed they seemed upset when they returned to the classroom and asked them to express their emotions. The two children said they were sad they hadn’t been picked to be a specific character in a game. Other students nodded, seeming to understand and empathize with the emotions, and brainstormed ways for every student in their class who desired to play the role to have the opportunity.
Students led the dialogue. Staci scribed their ideas on the whiteboard and later asked: “Would it have been helpful if I had punished Malcolm and Sarai for not returning right back into the classroom, and told them they lost the next recess? Would that have helped us figure out how to play together in ways that get everyone’s needs met?” Students responded enthusiastically that punishment would have only caused more harm. By dialoguing in community, the class practiced a world they longed to live in, centering restorative justice to transform the conflict into an opportunity to build solidarity.
Building Solidarity: Educators and Community Organizers in Reciprocal Relationships
Importantly, Staci recognized the time and energy Imani, Jada and Nova extended, and sought resources to compensate the community organizers. Staci also demonstrated reciprocity by attending the mutual aid fund’s community events. She gave of her time and energy to plan follow-up events with a subgroup of organizers focused on educational justice.
Solidarity as safety was an approach Staci used in collaboration with Imani, Jada and Nova to honor the experiences of students familiar with and vulnerable to structural harm. By listening to children’s lived experiences, Staci recognized a fear of policing and punishment. Rather than dismissing students’ fears or silencing and “regulating” emotions through a decontextualized calming technique, Staci sought community wisdom in efforts to transform the source of the harm.
Community organizers like Imani, Jada and Nova often have rich historical and local knowledge as part of social movements meeting community needs and challenging systems. Like Staci, educators can build reciprocal relationships with organizers, practice mutual aid by learning about the vision and mission of local community organizations, show up to community events, and—as appropriate—shoulder an equitable load of the labor required to sustain community organizing.
In relationship with organizers for justice, educators can co-create radically different experiences for students to feel and be whole in their classrooms. By partnering with justice-centered community organizers to build students’ solidarity, educators can co-plan lessons and units, center community knowledge and ways of being and offer students opportunities to learn from and build collective capacity with community sustenance experts. These partnerships can attend to the social and emotional learning students deserve: Solidarity.