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How to Educate for Activism

Kelsey's picture

            During the second semester of my freshman year of college, I took a course in Bryn Mawr’s sociology department entitled “Punishment and Social Order”.  Before taking this course, I knew almost nothing about prisons, either in America or elsewhere, and I’d never really questioned the role that prisons play in our society.  Throughout the course, as I learned about how mass incarceration in the US functions as a racialized form of social control analogous to Jim Crow, and how the system results from and perpetuates capitalist inequalities, I became increasingly convinced that, to achieve social justice, prisons need to be abolished.  Because of this class, I am now seriously considering working on prison abolition after graduation.

            For me, this experience is my personal window into a question I have struggled with for this entire semester: Can education be used to create social change?  And if so, how?

            I can see how it would be easy to immediately answer yes to this question and not think about it much further.  Hearing the story I told above, someone could argue that, because of my educational experience in “Punishment and Social Order”, I learned about a social problem—mass incarceration—and became determined to work to change it.  Education, therefore, seems to lead quite clearly to (at least a desire for) activism, to efforts for social change.  But, although I am not rejecting the idea that education can lead to activism, I want to complicate it somewhat, and problematize this oversimplified analysis that I hear far too often.  While I will argue that education can lead to social change, I think that there are significant issues in getting there that need to be addressed.     

            Although the question of how education can lead to activism is relevant to all kinds of education, elementary and high school and college, in and out of the classroom, and to all issues facing different societies, I am going to focus my paper on a specific educational setting and topic, to better provide an example of how education can lead to change.  The setting: college classrooms, and the topic: the concentration of environmental hazards in low-income communities.  Giovanna Di Chiro gives an example of this in her article “Teaching Urban Ecology: Environmental Studies and the Pedagogy of Intersectionality”, in which she writes, “the majority of Holyoke’s poor and low-income Latino residents live in neighborhoods situated in the industrial section of the city and are disproportionately at risk for increased rates of environmental illnesses such as cancer, asthma, and heart disease due to exposure to industrial toxins.” (100)  Educating college students about the environmental dangers low income communities often face requires investigating how the industries in those communities harm the environment and human health, as well as why low income and otherwise marginalized people are most likely to move into areas with factories or to have factories built in their communities.  In this proposal for how to educate for activism, since I am focusing on how environmental issues affect low-income communities, I will be emphasizing how students can learn to connect to people whose experiences are different from theirs.  While it’s important to also develop students’ connection to the environment independently of how it affects humans, and a lot of our readings these semester have spoken to this, for the purposes of this argument I am going to focus on developing students’ connection with environmental justice from a human-centric standpoint. 

            The first challenge faced by college professors who want to educate for activism is, how can a college class instill a desire for social change in students?  How do you make students care about the environmental dangers faced by many low-income communities, and how do you change their minds if they’re convinced that this is not an issue?  First, it’s impossible to care about an issue if you don’t know it exists—therefore, one valuable role of education is providing students with knowledge about what’s going on in the world.  This can be accomplished through readings, data, movies, lectures.  However, giving students information about an issue may not be enough to get them to care about it.  I interviewed my mother Deborah Little, a sociology professor, about her experiences teaching college students, and, regarding this topic, she said, “I have come to believe that one of the core cultural problems in America is a decreasing amount of empathy.  And so all of the work... you can do if you have privilege to change structure, I think you first have to develop the capacity for empathy.  An intellectual understanding is not enough to move people to use their power and think collectively.  So a lot of what I try to do is to teach empathy...”

            There is of course the question of whether empathy exists—I think we’ve come to the powerful conclusion this semester that fully understanding another person’s experience is never possible, but at the same time I think that we can continually increase our understanding of others’ experiences to develop more powerful connections with them.  If we accept this idea, that we can continually strive for empathy even if we never fully get there, then the question becomes, how can we teach empathy?  The key seems to be that giving students facts isn’t enough to make them care about a problem—instead, students need to grow to care about the well being of those affected by the issue, often by increasing their ability to imagine another’s experience.  There seem to be a variety of ways to do this, but all involve showing students how people are affected by environmental damage.  In the article “Changing the Nature of Environmental Studies: Teaching Environmental Justice to “Mainstream” Students”, Steve Chase discusses how, to illustrate “corporate globalization as a generator of social and environmental injustice on an international scale” (360), he asked students to imagine how GAP shirts are produced and then showed them a video about young Honduran girls working at a GAP factory.  By the end of the class, many students were in tears and wanted to know what they could do to change the injustices these girls were facing.  Di Chiro took her students at Mount Holyoke College to the industrial areas of Holyoke, only 4.5 miles away from campus, where they studied the environmental issues affecting the region with some of the low-income Latino residents living there, and together developed approaches to creating change.  While Chase’s students couldn’t directly meet the people whose lives they were learning about and Di Chiro’s students could, both educators fostered empathy—and therefore a desire to create social change—in their students by mixing factual information with personal stories and connection.  

            While fostering empathy is one way to instill a desire for social change in college students, I have been led to believe from personal experience that there may be another—forcing them to reevaluate their assumption that the world is a just place.  Prior to taking “Punishment and Social Order”, I believed that, although racism was still a serious issue in the United States, systems of racial hierarchy like slavery and Jim Crow had ceased to exist.  To me, it seemed as, even though we still had a long way to go, we were making progress.  However, in “Punishment and Social Order”, I learned how America’s system of mass incarceration, as argued by Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow as well as many other scholars, functions as a racialized system of social control analogous to Jim Crow, relegating a disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos to a permanent second class citizenship.  As I learned about this, I felt increasingly devastated, because my illusion that America was on a path toward racial justice was shattered.  I could no longer believe the narratives of progress I’d been comforting myself with for my entire life and, with this disillusionment, came anger and a desire to work to end mass incarceration.  I don’t think that, for me, this had much to do with empathy—for better or worse, my feelings were much more inwardly focused, revolving around my own disillusionment rather than an increased understanding of how people who are incarcerated might feel.  But my disillusionment had the same result as Chase’s and DiChiro’s students’ empathy—it made me care enough about a social issue to want to change it. 

            After students are driven to care enough about an issue to want to do something about it—whether through learning that the issue exists, fostering empathy, or having previous notions of the world shattered—the next step is not only wanting to do the work, but knowing how to do it.  First, this requires having students learn what kinds of actions are effective in creating change.  There’s an important distinction that needs to be made between service work, which is focused on providing immediate help to individuals or, in the case of the environment, specific damaged areas, and social justice work, which is focused on changing the structures that create the harm to individuals and environments in the first place.  Service work, while sometimes necessary for remedying immediate harms, doesn’t do anything to fix the structures that create those harms, and may even support the existence of those structures.  Speaking about her work in legal services prior to becoming a college professor, my mother said, “ services, like many social service institutions in this country, is set up to put your finger in the dam, to give poor people the impression that there’s justice for them in the legal system when they’re really isn’t.  And I came to think that that’s a way of silencing their voices.  So these institutions that are set up to try to keep the bottom from falling out from the lives of the most marginalized people also keep us docile, keep them from going into the streets because it provides an illusion of fairness and compassion.”  So in the case of college students learning about the environmental dangers faced by many low income communities, it’s crucial for educators to emphasize not just the service work that could be done in those communities, like cleaning up polluted sites, but also challenging the business and government policies that allow such pollution to happen. 

            However, there’s an even more basic issue when thinking about engaging in activism than knowing how to do the work effectively, and that’s whether you should even be doing the work.  In his Last Collection Speech at Swarthmore in 2002, Tim Burke argues that college students, upon graduating, shouldn’t immediately engage in activism work.  Instead, he says, “If you want to change the world, just wait. The opportunity will find you at the right time, and when it does, your commitment to change will be organic, a part of your life rather than something outside of it. It will arise from within the conditions of your journey through the world rather than from hubris or fierce neediness.”  I don’t agree with this though—I think that arguing that you should wait to do social justice work is really just an excuse for why you’re not doing it now, and that we need everyone’s involvement in creating change.  But Tim Burke does bring up a good point: that too much work for change is motivated by “hubris or fierce neediness”, by a desire to make oneself feel like a liberator.  Teju Cole expands upon this idea in his article “The White-Savior Industrial Complex”, in which he writes, “One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism... a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied.”  He later points out that, often, one’s desire to “help” marginalized peoples stems in part from the assumption that marginalized peoples need saving, and can’t help themselves.  It’s important, therefore, when educating college students with the hopes that they will engage in activism, to make sure that they realize that people affected by environmental degradation have the agency to change their own lives and are already doing valuable work.  I think that DiChiro provides a valuable model of how to do this.  She has her students learn about the environmental issues facing the low-income Latino residents of Holyoke from community activists, and then engage in research about those issues in consultation with several of the activists.  This model of education and activism prioritizes the voices and agency of those affected, while giving students the opportunity to learn about the issues and make valuable contributions to the activism work already being done by community members.  

            The final step in the path from education to activism, once students care about an issue and know how to engage in change work responsibly and effectively, is to get to actually doing the work.  Sometimes educators can make students do valuable change work by assigning it as part of class—DiChiro made her students work with the Holyoke community, and Chase took his students to see the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s work.  However, although it’s definitely important to engage students in activism work while they’re still in the classroom, the question remains of how to ensure that students will still be social change agents even after they leave.  One important part of ensuring that students will want to engage in social or environmental justice work is showing them that such work is not hopeless, and produces tangible benefits for communities and ecosystems.  Speaking about her own teaching, my mother said, “...part of... education is also to give people models for historical moments when people in community, working in groups, have been able to change part of that structure, to make it more humane, to make it more just, to make the planet survive, because often when you teach people about how challenging things are, they can respond to that with hopelessness.”  While it’s possible to show students those models for change in the classroom, I think that the way Chase and DiChiro taught their students is far more effective, because they gave their students the opportunity to meet activists and see the valuable work being done in communities near their own.  Ultimately, while showing students that work for justice is not hopeless, and giving them concrete models of how that work is being done, will not always guarantee that they will engage in change work after leaving college, it is the best way to make sure that the passion for justice that students develop in the classroom translates into activism.

            The steps that I have laid out here for how to educate students to engage in change work—learning to care about an issue, then learning how to engage ethically and effectively in justice work around that issue, and then learning how to translate caring and knowledge into action—are not specific to environmental education, or to college classrooms.  Environmental and social justice issues are fundamentally intertwined—indeed, even referring to them as separate categories creates somewhat of a false binary—and I truly believe that students need to engage with both to become effective change agents.  Ultimately, it is my hope that, if education can help students not just learn facts, as is so often the case today, but learn to care about issues of justice and realize that no situation is hopeless, then activism will naturally arise out of students’ learning about the world.


Works Cited

Burke, Tim. “Last Collection Speech, Swarthmore, 2002.” Easily Distracted. Swarthmore College, 2002. Web. 2 May 2014.

Chase, Steve.  “Changing the Nature of Environmental Studies: Teaching Environmental Justice to “Mainstream” Students.” The Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics, & Pedagogy. Ed. Joni Adamson, Mei Mei Evans, and Rachel Stein. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2002. 350-367.

Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 21 March 2012. Web. 2 May 2014.

Di Chiro, Giovanna. “Teaching Urban Ecology: Environmental Studies and the Pedagogy of Intersectionality.” Feminist Teacher 16.2 (2006): 98-109.

In case anyone is interested, here is the full transcript of the interview I did with my mom.  

What do you think the role of education is in creating social change?


I hope that formal education teaches young people to question everything they hear and to seek out as much info as possible to be able to understand what is really happening politically, socially, economically, and in the environment.  It doesn’t lead directly to social change- it’s a necessary condition but not a sufficient one.  If you don’t understand the reality of the world, then you don’t even know what you need to be acting on.  We are so infused with ideological messages, particularly from govs and from corporate power, that mean to turn us into... well, Foucault calls it the docile body, or Ritzer talks about the consumer, that particularly the corporate powers in the world prefer that people see themselves through a consumer lens.  I mean a lot of people have written about this, Naomi Klein talks about branding, the idea that our identity becomes fused with a corporate logo or set of logos, and we come to understand our successors through the lens of consumption.  And meanwhile of course consumption, the possibility for consumption is not equally distributed, and capitalism destroys the planet and a lot of people in its wake.  So my hope is that formal education begins to chip away at the edifice, the ideological edifice of capitalist reality and that if my students start to question even a piece of that structure, that it will then lead them to ask questions about other pieces.  So the first step is to begin to see the world as it really is.  And part of that education is also to give people models for historical moments when people in community, working in groups, have been able to change part of that structure, to make it more humane, to make it more just, to make the planet survive, because often when you teach people about how challenging things are, they can respond to that with hopelessness.  So you have to also show them two things, one is that human beings created all of this and even though it feels monolithic and all powerful, and while we’re working at dismantling it we can chip away at little pockets to try to make the lives of all people, to give people more agency and the ability to have a decent life.  And the other thing I try to do, I always try to tell people how much fun it is, it’s tremendous fun to work with other people in community, it’s so empowering and joyful to work together toward a vision of something that’s better, that’s beautiful.  When people look at action for social change, unless they’re looking at very individualist models, by individualist I mean either let me help this one person like they’ll work at a soup kitchen for example, which is good work but it’s service work not social change work, and when they do that, I don’t think it gives you the same sense of possibility.  It nurtures your need for human connection, but it’s kind of like putting your finger in the dyke when the dam is overflowing.  So when you work with others, first to stop the dam from overflowing and second to restructure the dam in a more human, more earth sustaining way, that’s when you’re really working on vision.  

As someone who works with college students, who are privileged by virtue of having access to a college education (even though I know many are middle/ working class), one could argue that you are focusing your efforts on helping the already-privileged recognize their privilege, and that it’s more important to work directly on issues facing marginalized communities.  What is your opinion on this?  Why do you think it’s important to educate people who are already privileged in terms of their access to education?


That’s a hard and painful question, right?  And all of us who have, through no fault of our own, just like people who grow up in less privileged situations through no fault of their own, all of us who have privilege, if we want to do this work we have to come to terms with our own role.  My answer, it may not be a good one, is two things, one if you can shift the understanding of those with privilege so they begin to see things they assumed were matters of their own personal abilities, if they begin to see that many of their successes are actually built into a social structure that does not allow everyone to equally live their full human potential, that I hope will make people with privilege more sensitive to, more supportive of, more responsive to calls by marginalized groups for justice.  Turn them from opponents into supporters, or at least neutralize their opposition.  Secondly, when you have privilege there are things you can do to make the institutions in which you participate more just and more humane.  I’ll give you a classic example.  Universities still in the face of the Supreme Court’s assault on affirmative action, universities are struggling with how to provide education to a truly diverse group of students.  And there’s two things that I think about in my role as a university professor, one is the importance of bringing in a diverse faculty and administration, and I have some power to make that happen when I participate in the hiring process.  And our department is now 40% faculty of color and that’s huge, it’s huge for our students, particularly our students of color, same with having LGBT faculty or Muslim faculty for example, people who are very marginalized in society still.  It’s huge for students to come in and see their faces in the classroom, to be mentored and taught by those faculty.  When you have privilege, you can work to change the institution in which you work.  Secondly, you can train your students and you can hold yourself to be an ally, you have access to the powers that be, you have the ability to open doors to let other voices be heard, not to speak for other voices, but to let other voices be heard and lend people the power you have to call for change.  For example in our university we’ve just realized that the graduation rate of our African American and Latino students is 50% that of the while students.  That’s a travesty.  I’m on the diversity committee, and the big project we’ve done this year is develop a program to try to turn that around.  By working on that, I can work to change the life changes of my students, who even though they’re more privileged than students of color from poor communities, they’re still part of that community and their success matters.  I don’t know if that’s the best to the right answer.  Obviously I’ve made choices in my life, I could have chosen to teach at a community college where I could encounter more marginalized students.  I didn’t make that choice, I wonder about it sometimes.  When I worked in legal services for a while, that was a deliberate choice to work with marginalized communities.  I never, you know I didn’t work for a corporate law firm or anything, but in some ways I think my capacity to affect social change was less when I worked for legal services than it is now as an educator, and that’s because legal services, like many social service institutions in this country, is set up to put your finger in the dam, to give poor people the impression that there’s justice for them in the legal system when they’re really isn’t.  And I came to think that that’s a way of silencing their voices.  So these institutions that are set up to try to keep the bottom from falling out from the lives of the most marginalized people also keep us docile, keep them from going into the streets because it provides an illusion of fairness and compassion.  I’m not saying that the people who work there don’t care, I’m saying that the availability of those services gives folks the impression that the state is concerned with justice and equity when at the end of the day the state/ gov is concerned with social order and with maintaining capitalism. There were a few opportunities I had when I did that job to actually affect change on a large enough level that affected people’s lives, I was able to work on a class action lawsuit that was able to raise the welfare amount for single adults in the state.  That work matters.  But most of my daily work was helping individuals with daily problems, housing, violence, income support, healthcare, and for those individuals it mattered of course, but when you see the same people coming back a year later with the same problem you realize that the structure is fatally flawed, and this is a band aid that keeps people from blowing up about the structure. 


In a lot of ways, education occurs on the individual level—individual teachers work to help individual students think more critically about different issues.  As a sociologist, someone who believes in the necessity of structural change, how do you reconcile the individual nature of education work with the importance of structural transformation?  Do you think that the work you are doing as an educator will lead to social change?  Or do you not see education work as individual as I am assuming?


Yeah, I don’t think I see it as entirely individual.  I mean there’s no question that you’re dealing with students as individuals and that in for example mentoring or the close relationships you develop with certain students, that there is that individuality, but the best teaching which is pretty hard to achieve I think, the best teaching creates a space in which the students learn from each other.  And when you do that, you start to build empathy.  And understanding in a safe way, of differences in life experiences and what is shared in terms particularly of struggle and of pain.  I mean you know that I’m all about structural change, but I have come to believe that one of the core cultural problems in America is a decreasing amount of empathy.  And so all of the work I was talking about, about what you can do if you have privilege to change structure, I think you first have to develop the capacity for empathy.  An intellectual understanding is not enough to move people to use their power and think collectively.  So a lot of what I try to do is to teach empathy, and... it’s hard.  It’s really hard.  I mean you have students who have it already and they are wonderful models for other students, b/c they say things that had never occurred to other students and that’s a wonderful thing.  But I deal with, and here’s where I see the separation among my students, so I have 1st generation students/ working class students/ students of color, and I’ll generalize and say they have pretty high levels of empathy already.  That’s not really a surprise, because we know that when you’re a member of a marginalized group, you have to develop a deep understanding of the oppressing group often for your pure survival.  And that understanding is part of empathy.  My, I have another group of students from Long Island mostly, very privileged, mostly white, and their approach to the world is that you have to be nice and to move them to empathy is a big challenge.  And yet some of these students are going to move into very powerful positions, and so I view it as a success every little step I can move them toward empathy.  It’s hard because people don’t see their own privilege and they get defensive and afraid.  I’ll give you an example from a class I’m teaching right now.  This is actually my senior seminar, and the students are having to write a sociological autobiography, and as part of giving them some models of that they read a piece by Mary Romero who studies Latina domestic workers.  And her mother was a domestic worker, and there’s a model of a sociological autobiography because she talks about going around with her mom as her mom cleaned houses and knowing the other women in her community who were also housecleaners raised her interest in understanding why this particular group found themselves doing domestic work.  That’s the pedagogy part.  In the course of discussing the article, 2 young women in the class shared that they had both grown up with domestic workers and they were, they took great pains to share how much they loved these workers and the workers loved them as children, and how the workers were “just one of the family”.  And one girl said that a worker in her family had left her kids in Mexico, and so her mother, the girl’s mother would always gather up the outgrown clothes and tenderly loved toys and give them to the domestic worker so she could send them to her own kids.  And the other young woman talked about, we even took her on vacation, and I said she went on vacation with you?  What did she do?  And the young woman said, why she hung out at the pool with us, i.e. the kids.  So I tried to suggest that they imagine being in the shoes of the domestic worker.  And I said, it’s absolutely true that you loved this woman and that she loved you.  And it’s also possible that, I might have said likely, that she might have preferred having a vacation with her husband or actually living with and raising her own children.  That was hard for them to swallow.  And it was hard to do in class, because the people who’ve never even considered that there’s something wrong with a society that takes women away from their own families so that they can be additional, other mothers for other families.  But that is a problem.  So if I got them to think about that, and if not them the other students in the class, that’s a crack in the edifice that says that these things that seem so natural are actually tremendously unjust. 


Well so I, my challenge back to you all would be to say, if we recognize that pure empathy or ideal empathy is unattainable, what’s the alternative?  Do we give up then an effort to have empathy?  That’s what I’d ask you and your class to think about.
That being said, of course full empathy is impossible.  But... there are parts of every human being’s experience that other people could imagine for themselves.  If you cannot imagine then that, then you are a person without a soul, and I don’t think my students don’t have souls.  I think they have not been exposed to the range of human stories that are out there.  But I think that a student can imagine what it might be like to be forced to live far far away from your own family because you wanted to work and make life better for them.  That’s step one.  And step two then is to begin to think about the pain you would feel at not being able to be with your family, regardless of whether you have a great job or a loving community where you are, where you’ve moved to work.  I think they can understand that.  And that little piece, that bit of empathy, and hopefully that little piece leads them to question the assumptions they make about how great the job they are providing for this person is.  And then you hopefully, if you’re a person who begins to think deeply about the world, that opens you up to questions about why are so many people in this situation.  And once you ask that question, the entire world of thinking about social forces and social structure is open to you.  It doesn’t happen in 1 class obviously, and you know it doesn’t happen in 4 years of college.  I would say that one benefit of being a mature adult is that my own compassion and understanding of how long it can take to become a justice seeking person has been developed.  I try, as impatient as I get, I try to remember that what matters is that people are on the journey towards that, and may get there at different moments.  And again, you know I can see how that would sound like an excuse, I get that completely.  But it is the answer I have for myself at this moment in my life.  

Do people have souls?

Yes.  I don’t mean in a religious sense, but I believe that there is some core humanity in each of us, and that’s what I would call a soul.  And when I say humanity, I mean the capacity for love, the capacity for compassion, the desire for equity, and the capacity to be a fully giving person.  It gets stunted and beaten out of many of us.