A critical part of education includes responding to the problems around us. We can do that in many ways in our schools and our classrooms. One way is by helping students create highly effective student activist groups. Here, students practice “praxis” (see what I did there?): reflection and action directed at structures to be transformed (Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed).
Here are some ways you can help your students create a student organization that is dedicated to thinking, learning, growing and creating transformative change in their schools and communities:
Make Learning an Essential Part of Your Meetings. As activists, we must have a strong understanding of the world around us and how we operate in that world. Personal learning is a big part of that, and you should model that in your student group. This kind of learning can include everything from “How to have a hard conversation” to “The history of racial oppression and resistance in schools.” Let students take turns leading this learning time to foster their personal passions. This learning time can often lead to bigger projects and better activism.
Get Rid of the “We’re Going to Go Help” Mindset. This is particularly important for predominantly white student groups. Too often, activism is mistaken for community service. Your group is not headed into the community to “help.” Part of your activism work could include meeting a particular community need, but do not let “helping” be the main goal. If you do, you will allow your students to position themselves above the people they are working with, and stereotypes and biases will be reinforced. Instead, remind students that they have much to learn, and that each individual, regardless of their circumstances, holds dignity. One way to honor that dignity is to simply get to know that person. Serving a meal somewhere? Students should sit down, eat with, and engage in conversation with those they are sharing a meal with. Cleaning up a space? Students should research why the space came to be unkept—this will likely include recognition of disproportionately distributed resources. Petition local government to take better care of the property.
Ensure There is Diversity in Your Leadership Team. Model the importance of diversity in community leadership by diversifying your leadership team (even if this means you choose the leaders instead of a student vote). Be honest about your intention and discuss the importance of ensuring that all voices have a seat at the table to cultivate the direction of the student organization.
Find Out What is Already Happening in Your Community and Be a Partner. One way to dignify people and organizations that are doing tremendous work in your community is to learn about them and partner with them rather than trying to start something new. It's likely that someone is already working on the need you are hoping to meet. Make sure you investigate your local organizations and talk to leaders already working in the community to see how you can best partner rather than initiate. That said, if you are working on something brand new, your group can absolutely initiate AND partner with community leaders.
Intentionally Elevate Voices That Are Not Being Heard. Consider the voices in your school or community that often go unheard. Get creative and find ways to elevate those voices. This can be done through hosting events with guest speakers, organizing field trips, acknowledging holidays and anniversaries of important events, etc.
Have a Social Media Leader. 21st-century activism skills must include impactful social media use. Help students who are interested in this area develop those skills through posting discussion questions, thoughtful commentary on learning and updates on projects. Canva and The Activists Guide to Archiving Video are tools to help.
Expect Failure and Push Back. Part of reflecting on the work we do includes reflecting on our failures and experiencing pushback and criticism—particularly from our peers. Prepare students for that. Remind them of the importance of failure and the growth that comes from it. Talk about effective responses to critics who might be antagonistic. If your organization or a particular student has done harm in some way, ensure that you effectively apologize and work to repair the harm. Model what that looks like.
Draw From Student Gifts Instead of Your Own. Allow the organization to be led by the gifts your students have. The more you allow them to steer the ship, the more they will develop their activist skills. This might include experiencing some failures that you could have mitigated. That is O.K. Give up your position of power, and see the group as a partnership between you and the students.
Ask Students to Problem Solve and Lead in Big Ways. Young people are just as capable of catalyzing change as anyone else. Let them tackle big questions and big problems. Encourage them that they can do this work, and engage in learning with them. If they are interested in taking on a project in an area with which you are not familiar, learn alongside them to model the necessity of lifelong learning.
No matter the path your students take after high school, being part of a strong activist group will empower them to be changemakers in their spaces. Additionally, you, as an educator, will likely be transformed by the revolutionary power of knowing others, building strong community relationships, learning history, and honestly considering and addressing the disparities in your community.
Leigh Ann Erickson is a high school teacher at Mount Vernon Community Schools, Iowa. She has designed and built a curriculum for teaching cross-cultural understanding and acceptance to high school students. After teaching in NYC and Chicago public schools, Erickson learned firsthand the unjust challenges and barriers students of color face in school. In Mt. Vernon, she works to teach her ...