From Tolerance to Justice
One year ago, we changed our name from Teaching Tolerance to Learning for Justice, recognizing the power of language to transform ideas and to evolve in meaning. Tolerance was no longer a sufficient descriptor of our hopes for the future. Our ideal is justice. And to build a just society, our goal is to advance the values of democracy and movement building, using the lens of justice and education.
Reflecting on the legacy of Teaching Tolerance allows us to appreciate the foundation upon which we are building. In the Fall 1997 issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine, the opening Perspectives column was titled “The Age of Ubuntu.” The column describes the ways South Africans adopted the philosophy of Ubuntu to define the spirit of the time—a time of universal aspiration in building democracy. As educators and justice advocates, how will we define the spirit of this time? How does our name, the power in those words, define who we are together—the story of us?
The Southern Poverty Law Center created Teaching Tolerance in 1991, acknowledging education’s capacity to help build an equitable society. That understanding of the role of education has its roots in the ideals of Septima Clark’s Citizenship Schools, the 1960s’ Freedom Schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that exemplified early on the possibilities to teach honest history and to instill a sense of connection and identity for Black communities.
Education is not merely a way of upward mobility for the individual, it is a way of collective movement. When not burdened by the structures of white supremacy, education can expand equity and instill values of justice that are lifelong. In promoting diversity, fostering positive interactions, and fighting racism and bias, social justice education programs like Teaching Tolerance forged progressive pathways.
The Struggle for Education Is a Struggle for Our Democracy
As we confront the current assaults on democratic values and ethical education—through anti-CRT and anti-LGBTQ legislation, anti-immigrant policies, book bans, and the threat to reproductive rights—we recognize that these anti-democratic policies are based on the fear of an inclusive society. And these regressive policies go hand-in-hand with destructive ideologies of white supremacy that have time and again led to acts of anti-Black violence—most recently the racially motivated massacre in Buffalo, New York—and repression. They aim to maintain a historic status quo of white supremacy, even as more people across the nation embrace the expansion of democracy, the removal of racist structures and a progressive perspective on race, gender and diversity.
Education at all levels is a critical driving force for change that ensures our shared values are uplifted. And that change has powerful potential. As Indigenous scholar and activist Debbie Reese eloquently states in the latest issue of Learning for Justice magazine, “A strong sense of justice can form in a young child’s mind when they read books that tell the truth. When they grow into adulthood, that sense of justice can guide them in how they vote and where they work.”
The potential of inclusive and ethical learning at all levels is the impetus for the current assault on public education. But what is behind this flurry of heightened activity? James Baldwin’s observation in his 1963 “A Talk to Teachers” still resonates: “What is upsetting the country is a sense of its own identity. If … one managed to change the curriculum … so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history. And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all. If you have to lie about my real role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself. You are mad.” Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries echoed Baldwin’s sentiments in speaking to a Learning for Justice Teaching Hard History cohort of teachers, emphasizing the process of unteaching the deliberate inaccuracies students have learned in order to then teach honest history.
Fearful of moving toward a more truthful national identity, and, indeed, our collective potential, white supremacy would tear down the structures of democracy. We see this in violent attacks against Black communities, in intentionally cruel policies against LGBTQ children, in brazen lies and misinformation, and in the tactical refusal to wear masks to protect fellow citizens during the devastating COVID-19 pandemic—in which more people have died than in any of our country’s wars. As unconscionable as these behaviors and policies are, as Baldwin points out, the motivation is the desire to hold on to a false sense of self.
Public education has historically been the battleground for justice. And it is proving in this contentious moment to be a lever for promoting democratic values and claiming an inclusive national identity, one centered on justice.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Our urgent call to action is in our name—Learning for Justice. But how do we give those words form, and where do we go from here? For LFJ, this means expanding our focus to the role of learning and educating for the public at large, including education at all levels. We will explore multiple levers for justice through conversations, resources and action spaces.
Ideally, schools are centers of broader community learning, providing activities and resources to families, caregivers and the public at large. LFJ Senior Writer Coshandra Dillard explores an example of this education-community nexus in “Teaching Local History in Tulsa,” a feature in our Spring 2022 magazine, and aptly states, “It takes an entire community to uplift uncomfortable, buried local history.”
LFJ will foster intersecting justice struggles and highlight strategies of collective resistance, centering honest history and voices of change to provide models for advancing democracy. We aim to cultivate an engaged and informed coalition because the complexity of this current moment calls for leadership of all types: messengers, teachers, griots, armor bearers, noise makers and motivators.
As LFJ Associate Director for Learning in Schools Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn, Ed.D., explains in the Fall 2021 Learning for Justice magazine feature “We Can Create Change Together,” “Unlike race-neutral ideologies, the concept of solidarity not only recognizes difference but also sees power in bringing people who are different in community with one another while working toward a shared goal.” Solidarity, therefore, isn’t merely an ideal of representation and connection—it is acting together for the change we envision, for that future of a just society.
It’s critical to continuously assess where we are in this collective movement, how we are growing, and what we can do better. We are in this work not only to transform but also to be transformed. We must commit to learn for justice to make justice real in our lives.
The Spring 2022 magazine Perspectives column reminds us of our collective responsibility to “counter untruths, uplift suppressed narratives and engage available educational resources to meet resistance with righteous resiliency—in service of all our nation’s children.” As we focus more of our efforts toward the exploration of community learning models, ethical education remains at the heart of our work in learning for justice.