Teaching Social Justice By Experiencing Social Injustice

By: David J. Smith, October 6, 2014

A long line of educators including John Dewey and Maria Montessori have advanced the importance of experience as  being essential to learning.   I have found that making students uncomfortable and slightly disoriented can lead students to reconsider strongly held notions and opens the door for the possibility of new awareness.

I was recently invited to Anne Arundel Community College near Annapolis, MD to be the kickoff speaker in the college’s “Year of Social Justice.”   My first thought was to give a lecture on social justice, including its history and importance to  Americans, especially blacks, Latinos and others who have often been marginalized.  In thinking more, I realized that most of the students I would be speaking to had not experienced racism and other forms of discrimination.  It seemed that merely talking about social justice would do little more then leave them with a possibly boring history lesson.

My wife  and I with our children had recently attended a performance of Toast  by a group based in DC called the Dog & Pony Show.  The company presents theater as experiential  in nature with the audience expected to be part of the event.  In Toast, which focused on a group of scientists considering uses for a toaster, the cast and the audience engaged in a participatory process of brainstorming for ideas. The experience provided  an opportunity to work with others in the audience and the cast. I felt at the end that we had accomplished an important objective and bonded as a group.

How could I use a similar approach with the students coming to my presentation?  I realized that to understand social justice, one has to experience social injustice.   It’s hard to explain injustice: one needs to feel it.

As students entered the auditorium  for my event they were presented with either a “white” or “multi-colored” index card.  This was done randomly.  Once in the auditorium signs were posted that read:  “white card holders sit in front” and “multi-card holders stand in the back.”   I cited a fictitious ordinance as requiring this division.   Students were clearly uncomfortable.  I had faculty observers tell me that many were angry and frustrated, especially those that had to stand in the back.

"Chief Stonewall" explains the new ordinance
“Chief Stonewall” explains the new ordinance

I then entered: not as me, but as “Chief Bob Stonewall” of the campus safety office. In role, I explained that a new ordinance had been passed requiring this division for a range of reasons including cleanliness, orderliness, religious and local tradition, and finally, because “white” and “multi-colored” card holders liked and expected this division.  After explaining the penalties for violations, I asked “Any questions?”   I got  silence at first (maybe students were just too shocked!).   Then a few in the back raised their hands  — at first I didn’t acknowledge them.  “I’ll get to you people in the back, after I talk to these citizens in the front first,” I said.   Eventually, a  few students in front started to raise questions as to why an ordinance was necessary. There seemed to be enough seating for all they said.  And besides, the reasons I offered seemed nonsensical to them.

"White cards" in sit in front; "Multi-colored" cards stand in back!
“White cards”  sit  in front; “Multi-colored” cards stand in back!

Then coming out of role, I asked the students in the front whether they felt privileged: they did.   We talked about privilege as an aspect of social injustice. I shared the following quote by Martin Luther King. Jr:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”

and this quote by Helen Keller

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”

and then asked what we should do.   The “white” cards felt that the standing “multi-colored” cards should join them.   I  then asked each student sitting to walk up to a standing student and invite them personally to sit with them.  In an auditorium this caused some chaos, but forced the privileged students to take some action to reach out to the oppressed ones.

Together we then explored notions of social justice.  I asked students how it felt to be standing when others were sitting.  Students felt excluded, wronged, and mad. Some also talked about how this might cause them to think they were inferior.  The students sitting in front recognized that merely the chance of them getting a “white” card was not justification for them to be in a position of privilege over others.

Students working on their social justice action plan
Students working on their social justice action plan

I also talked with them about the history of segregation in their own area.   Until 1966 public schools in Anne Arundel County (like much of the country) were segregated.  Most of these millennials had no understanding of this history.  One faculty member recalled  how difficult it was when integration took place in the county.

Reporting out their plans. I had them wear the chief's hat!
Reporting out their plans. I had them wear the chief’s hat!

Finally, I had students work on a “Social Justice Action Plan.”  In groups, I had them identify social justice issues of concern to them, and  how they might work on these issues individually and collectively.   After reporting out, I had members of each group sign the flip chart paper they used, and provide their emails.  And I charged them with continuing to work in their new groups — “white” cards and “multi-colored” cards together-  to improve conditions in their community and the world.

I was interviewed by college media after the program about my thoughts on social justice.  Also, the Campus Current, the college’s student newspaper, published an article on the event on 10/27/14.

Anne Arundel Community College's Campus Current, 10/27/14
Anne Arundel Community College’s Campus Current, 10/27/14

In this interview, conducted by AACC media after the program, I talk about the meaning of social justice.

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