A Model for Engaging Students in Nonviolent Action: Diversity, Oppression, Nonviolence, and Engagement

By: David J. Smith, May 1, 2017

The City of Rockville (MD) Human Rights Commission’s annual Diversity Leadership Workshop was held on Saturday, April 29.   In the past, the program had focused on diversity leadership.  However, this year at the request of students, the focus was on looking at the role of engagement and activism and retitled  “Leadership for Action.” After the November election, a confrontation had taken place between protesting groups of students at one of the high schools in the city,  and students felt they needed to learn better ways of engaging in action.  We had nearly 30 students  attending from area schools including Rockville High School, Wootton High School, Earle B. Wood Middle School, Richard Montgomery High School, and Sandy Spring Friends School.

All of us!

Working with students and the commission, I crafted a program that would enable students to understand conditions in our communities that require attention, how those in our communities are often oppressed, approaches to non-violent action, and finally strategies and requirements to conducting nonviolent action to bring about change.

Much of my thinking was based on a piece I wrote in HuffPost back in January after the women’s march.  Because of the current political reality that we face, activism among youth is more important than ever.  However, many young people are unfamiliar with how to engage in action.  I learned that during my visit to Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014.

Looking at working with the opposition (with Ken Sandin, left)

Our program first considered diversity. Because Rockville is one of the most diverse communities in the U.S., we can take it for granted (I recently gave a presentation at Montgomery College on how not to take it for granted).  In addition, our notions of diversity are often constructed by legal classifications that, though important, can be limiting.   In our opening exercise, we had students self-identify based on broad ideas of diversity or identity, which might be a more appropriate term. I asked students to stand and applaud each other based on characteristics such as: if they were born outside of the U.S. (about 1/3 of our group),  were the oldest child in their family,  wore glasses, held more than one passport, and other characteristics.  In addition, I assigned a number of personas to students the reflected deeper and often not so obvious forms of diversity, and ones that an individual might not be willing to share such as: a student that is homeless, or one who has Asperger’s syndrome, or is transgender, or is not comfortable speaking English.   Students then wrote  aspects of their diversity on post-its and put them on our diversity person.  This image then represented all of us in the room.

This was followed by a session on oppression.   Mary Baltimore shared with students ways of considering oppression. She raised the following questions:

  • What is your definition of oppression?
  • How can I understand someone else’s oppression?
  • How do I understand an opposing view of oppression?
  • What is systematic oppression?
  • How do I express my oppression without fear?
  • How do I deal with oppression and the school environment?

She shared many of her own experiences in dealing with oppression and discrimination. Many students shared their own experiences, which allowed them to reflect more deeply on the personal consequences of oppression.

Mary Baltimore talking about oppression

This was followed by Alonzo Smith, a retired professor at Montgomery College, presenting on nonviolent action.  He took an historic approach considering early ideas of nonviolence, and then focusing on the U.S. experience.

Alonzo Smith examining nonviolence

After lunch, students working in teams, engaged in six 15-minute workshops focusing on aspects of engagement and action.  They had previously formed six teams working on different concerns including global environmental change, reproductive rights for women, American imperialism and war, immigrant and refugee rights, divisions within society, and gun control.

The  15 minutes sessions were:

  1. The use of social media and other forms of media (Ebony Davis)
  2. Organizing a protest (Virginia Bezerra de Menezes)
  3. Maintaining interest among members (Janet Kelly)
  4. De-escalation (Ben Shnider)
  5. Civic engagement (beyond protest) (David Smith))
  6. Dealing with opposition (Ken Sandin)

In each session, the session leader (often a member of the commission), took an elicitive approach and had students share their thoughts on approaches and strategies.  I’ve always believed that students generally can figure it out, with a bit of encouragement and guidance.

Looking at social media

In my session on civic engagement I focused on the two primary justifications made for change: those based on logic and facts – the “head”- and those based on passion and feeling – the “heart.”   We explored how each of their issues had been affected by head/heart motivations. For instance, gun control used “heart,” such as images of deceased children and stories of loss, as well as facts and figures on gun violence – “head.”

In the final session, we brought students together to consider that they had learned.   We found that  the students learned much from the workshop and felt better able and prepared to engage in action to promote an issue that they were committed to.  In this way, we hope we are better preparing youth to take on the major challenges we face today and in the future.


Published by David J. Smith

I am a career coach, consultant, and head of a not for profit - the Forage Center - that offers humanitarian education training. I also teach at George Mason University and Drexel University. A one time lawyer, I spent many years teaching in a community college where I was a Fulbright U.S. Scholar teaching in Estonia. I'm the author of Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016). I've been married to my best friend for over 31 years and we have two well adjusted adult children who teach me something new everyday. I live in Rockville, Maryland.

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