Risk-taking and Social Activism (Part 2)
In Part 1 of this two-part series, Hilltop educator Lauren Mayo shared some of her own experiences learning about injustice and activism as a young child, and named how her own parents took important risks in exposing her to those learning moments. She then challenged readers to reflect on the ways that they are challenging themselves to take risks with their own children – at home or in classrooms – in order to teach them the truth about inequity and justice in our society, and foster activism at a young age. You can find part 1 by clicking here.
In Part 2, Hilltop educator Becky Krueger shares some examples of what this kind of risk-taking can look like in a preschool classroom setting.
“Oh, I know why we’re reading that book. Because a Black African-American man was killed by a police officer.”
This was the very first comment shared aloud by a child during our classroom’s morning meeting, late in the week of June 1st, one week after George Floyd’s murder ignited a wave of heartbreak and rage across our nation. While the news of this racist police brutality (and so many other stories like it) felt inescapable, I had no idea how much the 4-5 year old children in my classroom knew about it, or about the protests that were currently underway. Earlier in the school year, my teaching team and I had been actively discussing race and justice with these children, using stories from the Civil Rights movement, modern stories of racism & prejudice, and books about LGBTQ inequality as real-life examples of unfairness, and the importance of standing up for change. Many of the children were engaged and passionate in these conversations and activities, and I felt we had laid some important groundwork for fostering the children’s development of their anti-bias skills. However, after coronavirus forced our learning community to move online for nearly two months, these events took place during what was only our first week back together in our classroom. I had a lot of uncertainty flooding my mind: Is it too soon to start talking about this? Do I need to start from “square one” again before talking about police brutality? Do we need to revisit the broader stories of racism and injustice before I can address the painful truth of what happened to George Floyd? Will this news be too scary/upsetting for the children? How will the families feel about me talking about this in the classroom?
Uncertainty leads to inaction, and as a white educator working with mostly white children and families, I know that inaction is sometimes the easier place for me to stay and get stuck: when I don’t take a stand in the larger movement for racial justice or take risks in having these uncomfortable conversations with children, I avoid making mistakes; I avoid not getting it “perfect;” I avoid conflict. And thus, I avoid my responsibilities as an educator.
I have found that the best remedy for uncertainty and inaction is to just start somewhere. And I have learned that starting with the “small” risk almost always gives me the courage to tackle the bigger, more important risks in anti-bias teaching. The child whose quote started this article was responding to that small risk: I had brought a picture book to our morning meeting that day about celebrating racial differences, thinking that it could pave the way for the larger, harder conversation about George Floyd’s death, and about racism in policing. But I hadn’t even cracked the cover of the book before this child opened the door for all of us. Thanks to the uncomfortable conversations that this child’s parents were pushing themselves to have together as a family (and I hope due in part to the conversations we’d had as a class throughout the year), this child returned to our classroom not only ready to continue our discussion about justice, but to be a leader in the discussion, and help us move towards action.
As our conversations unfolded throughout the course of that day, I would learn that several other families were taking similar risks with their children in talking about George Floyd’s death and the larger protests that followed. One child’s response of “We’re talking about that in my family” showed her familiarity with the topic, while another’s comment revealed the intensity of her indignation and her understanding of the larger movement: “I’m SO mad and I’m SO sad that Black people aren’t safe, because Black lives matter.” I echoed the children’s feelings of anger and sadness and then asked them what they thought we could do to help change things. One child said that “we should all do a protest march tomorrow,” and the others showed enthusiasm for this idea. Two children asked me to help them make Black Lives Matter posters by drawing bubble letters they could color in, while two others made posters with hearts, to show their love for their family. We later added rendered drawings of George Floyd’s photograph, to which one child explained, “Now my sign says I love my family and I love George, too.” Another child (that same one who opened the door to our initial conversations about George Floyd), had some deep thoughts about the history of racism in America. I helped him clarify some of his thinking until he came up with this verbose yet poignant message for his sign: “Black people have worked harder than white people. White people need to work hard, too. Black people need a break. We need to take turns. I love you Black people and white people both. Thank you.”
The next day, I read the children part of the book Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights, by Rob Sanders, to get some more ideas and language around what protesting means (“standing up for your rights, speaking out against unfairness”) and what it can look like. This sparked deep conversations over the course of the morning about what fairness means and the importance of white people joining the work. Several of the children had so much to say on these topics.
As we continued to work on our protest signs, we also continued talking. This process of working and talking at the same time seemed to help the children stay engaged in this conversation, as they got to be hands-on, active participants rather than passively subjected to a “lecture” from me on racism. Throughout this process I took on the role of facilitator: encouraging the children to keep talking, validating their anger and sadness at George’s death, talking about who he was (a father, a kind friend to others), clarifying some facts, and offering definitions as the children came upon important revelations. At one point, one child sat up and suddenly reflected, “I hope we don’t get shot at (when we protest).” I began to reassure him that this would not happen, that it was safe for us to protest together, when he found his own reassurance by saying “Well, we’ll be safe because we’re white.” I responded that he had just brought up something very important: white people ARE safer in our society, and that is exactly why we are protesting. I defined “white people feeling safer” as an example of white privilege, of something that white people get to have but Black and Brown people don’t. White privilege is a term that I’ve struggled to address effectively with my mostly white preschool students over the years, and this child’s comment provided the perfect opportunity to do so in a way that they could understand. The children agreed that this was not fair, and echoed the sentiment that everyone deserves to feel safe, no matter their skin color. That same child then offered up a phrase that he’d learned from his family recently, one that he may be just beginning to make sense of in his life: “White people have a big responsibility, we have to use our power to make things better.”
Once we finished up our signs, we headed out to the canal path that runs alongside our school. One child started the chant “Dr. Luther King!” (inspired from our learning earlier in the year about Dr. King), which the others joined in on passionately. Several cyclists and walkers gave the children smiles, thumbs-up’s, and raised fists in solidarity. Some barely glanced our way. At least one walker gave us a frown of disapproval, but the children didn’t even take notice. We continued our protest parade past more car traffic on Nickerson Street, continuing to chant passionately as we all waved our signs…most cars passed by quietly at first, but then we began to receive some honks and waves of appreciation from drivers. We called out “Black Lives Matter!” as we returned to the Hilltop parking lot, and shared a wave and raised fists of solidarity with another Hilltop family picking up their child. Back at the play yard gate, we all put our hands together for a “go team” cheer, after talking about how what we just did was very important, and how we need to keep working together to make the world a safe and fair place for everyone, and especially for Black and Brown people.
Several times throughout this experience, I felt discomfort and doubt about my ability to get it “right” with these kids, worried about what I was missing, or if this was too much about performative action. My stomach clenched and my heart dropped at the child’s comment about safety and whiteness as we made signs. My pulse raced when another child asked if we could watch the video of George getting murdered (to whom I gently but clearly explained why we wouldn’t). At times the conversation was moving so swiftly that I suddenly panicked at the thought that I would never get it all properly documented and I could never truly capture the power and importance of what had just transpired (as if a written story would hold more value than the actual experience I’d just shared with the children). And in each uncomfortable moment, I breathed. I didn’t shut down the discussion or dismiss anything that was said, no matter how cringey I felt. I did my best to keep being honest about race and justice with these children, and to keep moving forward, because I knew that there was incredible learning happening.
Discomfort is a signal that we’ve reached our growing edge, that we’ve reached the threshold of who we’ve been and now have the opportunity to step over into who we want to be (for our children and in the world). In one episode of Napcast, a podcast produced by Hilltop Children’s Center and co-hosted by two male educators of color, Mike Browne (he/him) and Nick Terrones (he/him), in the episode titled La Revoluciòn, described critical thinking and courage as the most important elements in building a social activist identity in young children. He talks about how we must first educate ourselves about racism through thinking and talking, but then move with our children into action. And taking that action requires risk and courage.
Nothing about this project was done “perfectly,” and I don’t believe that should ever be the goal in social activism work. Nor will this work ever be done, not with this group of children or the next that enters our classroom. I’m sure that there are several of you reading this article who will see shortcomings in my handling of this experience, and have constructive advice for me in how to do this work better with young children. And I welcome that feedback from you. I still have so much learning to do, and that requires that I keep taking these kinds of risks both in my work with children and in my personal journey towards becoming an anti-racist activist. It requires that I keep diving into my discomfort in order to become an effective agent of change and to model for the children in my classroom how to keep going in the fight for racial justice. I challenge you to find that courage in yourself.
Becky (she/her) is an educator with 3-to-5 year olds at Hilltop Children’s Center where she has worked since 2017.
Hilltop Educator Institute collaborates regularly with change agents across North America, Europe and New Zealand to provide professional development opportunities in Greater Seattle through evening, half-day and full day workshops known as the Educator Discussion Series (EDS). Hilltop Educator Institute provides resources and support to educators, programs leaders, children’s advocates, and the community at large, in order to widen access and opportunity for all children. To study at Hilltop for a day, register for upcoming workshops, or learn more about our services, email Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us at www.hilltopcc.com/institute.