Last Saturday, after a happy hour meeting centered on social justice, four educators and I sat and discussed our schools and the diversity work happening within them. After some extended sharing about my school’s programs, racial demographic, and religious climate, a new acquaintance craned his head toward me in a sort of gesture mixing kindness, solidarity, and pity, and said, “You are in an odd place to be doing diversity work.”
I have been thinking about that comment more and more this past week as I think through the beauty and the complications of having a passion for diversity and social justice in a predominately white, conservative, Christian high school.
Today, I attended this year’s Educators for Social Change conference, and the first keynote speaker Keith Catone said, “I cannot keep calm and carry on, because I am filled with anxiety!” He laughed as he shared this statement. “Who here has felt anxiety recently due to the current political climate? Who has felt anger?” I raised my hand for both.
As Keith spoke about advocacy and agency, especially for the youth in our classrooms, he gave an example of a student-led walkout in Rhode Island, which occurred at 11:08a.m. the day president Trump was inaugurated. He spoke highly of the students’ decision, praising them for their ingenuity, their willingness to walk out during class time and take unexcused absences, their intelligence in asking adult leaders in the area to support them and meet them outside with supplies as they encountered police (presumably there for their protection). He said, as adults, we should not criticize them and ask each other whether they took the right action and what the consequences should be; we should instead be actively embracing the pedagogy of walking out. If we as adults did not “get this election right,” and they as students were not old enough to cast their vote, we should be paying attention to them. We should allow students to teach us about what they’re doing and why. We should let them take the lead and listen in to what they want for their future.
Keith spoke freely about his reservations, fears, and anxieties about a Trump administration. He joked with relative ease, seeming to hold an assumption that each person in the audience was anti-Trump and stood with him. And I understand this assumption in the sense that Trump’s presidency (thus far) and presidential race (in its entirety) has had little to do with inclusion and social justice, which was the purpose for our gathering today. However, I teach classrooms filled with a seeming majority (or a loud minority?) of Trump supporters. I teach in a place where students proudly wear “Make America Great Again” hats and Trump socks, where some scoff at the mere though that someone could be pro-choice or a feminist or support stricter gun laws. Sure, there are students who are pro-choice and who are feminists and who are supporters of stricter gun laws, but they seem to be a quiet minority – or at least don’t relish the idea of locking horns with a boasting Trump supporter in the middle of their school day.
This makes me ashamed and angry sometimes, quite honestly. This makes me reflect.
I have thus far endeavored to be a teacher who does not share my political or social views in the classroom – other than to help them critically think from different angles and play devil’s advocate to their ideas. When students tell me they want to write a research paper advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, I say, “Sure. Why are you passionate about this?” When another student wants to research transgender issues and says that everyone should just “stick to their born gender because all this transgender stuff just makes people uncomfortable,” I nod and say, “Okay. I’ll look forward to seeing what you find in your research, especially the opposing viewpoints.” Students all day contradict each other’s opinions, and in many ways, this is the beauty of America’s fabric. We are a United States who believes diverse views help create a vibrant and functioning democracy. However, I raised my hand today when Keith asked who else had increasing anxiety over the country’s current political climate. I raised my hand when he asked who was angry.
Those who doubt, question, and naysay about social justice work in my school community are probably not as high in numbers as they seem – just loud, persistent, and ever questioning our “agenda.” Yet, their voices make them seem more heavyweight than they are. So to support, for example, a student walkout at the time of a presidential inauguration seems extreme to me in my current teaching atmosphere. And yet, in the audience that surrounded me today, this stance was applauded, seemingly condoned as normal and right. Educators for Social Justice seemed clear in their convictions. But do they share those convictions in their classrooms? And is that right? And why do I stay quiet in mine? Is that right?
The challenge for me in vocally or actively supporting a walkout or any other form of student democratic resistance is this: to defend it asserts that the resistance is right. It assumes that the students are clear in their opinions and well informed and that we stand behind what their voices are saying, that we trust they have thought through it well. And on top of that, to share my political views would embolden some students and parents to think, “Yes! I knew that’s what she thought!” while very likely creating walls between myself and those students and parents who disagree with my views, breaking down relationship and limiting their full engagement and growth in my classroom. And for the record, I am not a proponent of walls, at least when it comes to countries and relationships…
Maybe I was raised not to act as an adolescent without parental and teacher permission, or maybe it is just me, but I know now that there is a moral – even more, a fundamentally Christian – lens with which our school (and I) view resistance and frankly any other earthly action. This lens asks us to analyze our and our students’ actions by filtering them through God’s laws and commands. If one of my students wants to publicly support Trump’s immigration ban, I must ask how that fits within a Christian view. If another student wants to protest the ban, I must critically assess how that fits. I suppose it depends upon how one interprets the Bible’s commands or if they are even thinking about them in the first place… However, with my faith as a guide, I do not believe that I can just support any old opinion that my students form and say, “Bravo! I stand with you! Use your voice and your agency!” I cannot condone just anything that they are swept up in as part of a cultural or political movement. My job is to help shape them, to help them see both sides (or even better, to change the either/or, us-against-them political narrative. Why must that be so?). My job is to sharpen them in such a way that they can make their own decisions in due time, teaching them to do so with their faith and their community in mind.
So, here is what I know:
- Donald Trump is our president. I am praying for him and need to do so even more often.
- I am a feminist.
- I largely don’t worry about our safety as a nation; though I acknowledge that I have no idea what it is like to have my personal security seriously threatened.
- I do not agree with Trump’s immigration ban.
- I do worry about our gun laws.
- I do want to love and embrace the LGBTQ community and let them know that even though their sexual orientation and lifestyle is not condoned by my faith, they have just as much inherent worth, value, and beauty as any other person in God’s creation.
- I do think there is a huge racial wound still festering in America.
Here is what I don’t know:
- So much.
But I’m willing to learn and to listen to both “sides,” and I want my students to do the same.
And I am left pondering two questions tonight – because I don’t actually think that I’m in an odd place to do diversity work. The one who created diversity – of landscape, of wildlife, of skin tones, of genders, of personalities and opinions – is the very God who I worship. And the Lord expects more from me, from my students, than just for us to be who we feel like being or to say and act on what we think and feel within a cultural and political climate. For that reason, I cannot and must not approach social justice and political resistance the same way that every other school does.
So here it is:
For a faith community built on the belief of Holy Scripture, a community for which unity in the body of Christ is paramount, a community in which any stance “in the minority opinion” sparks (or would very likely spark) criticism or an engulfing divide, how do I help my students take a stand? And how do they speak up and resist injustices without doing more harm to their community than good?
Here is what I have so far:
Please help me from there.