Student Protests and the Complexities of Collective Action

When we encourage our students to consider how power and privilege affect them, we must also anticipate that they’re going to want to do something about injustices they see.

Teaching Tolerance recently traveled to Seattle, Washington, to work with local K-12 educators and support their efforts to include the modern civil rights movement in their social studies instruction. The summit, organized by Seattle University’s Poverty Education Center, grew from our Teaching the Movement initiative—a multi-year project prompted by the 2010 NAEP report card showing that U.S. students knew little about the modern civil rights movement. The one-day event included diving into our TTM reports and unpacking lesson-planning tools with participants.

As often happens in teaching, we got more than we planned for.

What we didn’t plan for was witnessing, firsthand, this student sit-in calling for the resignation of the Matteo Ricci College dean and a full review of the “Eurocentric curriculum.” Some people think student activism like this is “extreme” and “uncalled for,” when, in fact, student-led protests have facilitated progress and change throughout the modern civil rights movement. The recent increase of student-led protests across the country on university campuses (Missouri, Ithaca, Yale) and high school campuses (Oakland and Los Angeles, California; Des Moines, Iowa; Parker, Colorado) has had our staff watching and thinking about the complexities of and resistance to collective action.

bell hooks says, “There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.”

Transforming structures.

Educators spend a lot of time in classrooms and communities on prejudice reduction and improving intergroup relationships, helping students learn how to express comfort with people who are both similar to and different from them. But what space have we created to challenge systemic inequality? Have we facilitated conversations about ways to eliminate injustices that privilege some and disadvantage others? Have we prepared our students and ourselves for the conflict that comes when we directly challenge inequality?

We recognize injustice when we see it.

From a young age, our students recognize unfairness, but do they have the language to describe it? Do they understand that unfairness hurts everyone? Social justice goals and objectives drive us to help students analyze the harmful impact of bias and injustice on the world. When teaching about injustice, we should encourage our students to consider how power and privilege—on personal and institutional levels—affect them directly. When we do this, we must also anticipate that they’re going to want to do something about injustices they see.

Are we prepared to accept what happens when students tell us they are hurting?

Disruption is often necessary when challenging systems of inequality. Collective action can be chaotic, but it’s often grounded in strategy that requires critical thinking. Students should know how to question, debate, consider other perspectives and dialogue about social issues through writing, artistic expression, public service, public speaking, organizing and collaboration.

The Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards can help us include language about justice and action in our instruction. Below, you will find the anchor standards for the Justice and Action domains in the framework. These anchor standards recognize—and help educators put into action—the idea that students need knowledge and skills to stand for justice, even in the face of resistance.

We know, for example, that high school and college students—including the students at Matteo Ricci College in Seattle—are expressing concerns about curricular materials that do not reflect our diverse classrooms and communities. Including essential questions like these may help:

  1. How do educational experiences influence identity development?
  2. How are my educational experiences similar to and different from those of people from backgrounds different from mine?
  3. What kinds of biases and privileges are challenged or perpetuated through the academic content we use?
  4. What can we do to address racial prejudice and to advocate for racial justice through education?

How we respond when students share their perspectives can make all the difference in our progress as a country. Let’s encourage, support and listen to our kids.

Wicht is the senior manager for teaching and learning at Teaching Tolerance.