Why do people decide not to act against injustice, even when they have the capacity to make a difference? That’s what I asked my seventh-graders during our English unit on activist memoirs. After the students had read memoirs written by activists, studied the concepts of injustice and nonviolent action and written about how activists use their strengths to make change, they responded to my question with lots of reasons.
“I don’t know how.”
“I don’t have time.”
“No one would listen.”
“It’d be scary.”
“I don’t do that kind of stuff.”
“Not my problem.”
We then categorized their reasons into four kinds of barriers to action (adapted from Russ Harris 2009, 32):
- Getting stuck in self-limiting beliefs (e.g., “I’m not motivated enough to organize a protest.”)
- Avoiding unpleasant emotions (e.g., “Asking strangers to sign a petition would feel weird.”)
- Lacking awareness (e.g., “School shootings are tragic, but that kind of thing would never happen here.”)
- Facing external barriers (e.g., “I don’t have a way to get there.”)
We discussed how we tend to see our reasons for avoiding action as external—no time, money, space or support—without realizing or acknowledging how many of these barriers are inside us. When we really think about it, the barriers we call external are often internal. Sometimes, the things we see as impossible are just hard or unfamiliar. Students then wrote about the barriers that prevent them from acting against injustices that matter to them. Many reflected that they felt “guilty” or “pathetic” that they make so many excuses.
I wanted my students to know it was normal to want to avoid unpleasant emotions and to have self-limiting beliefs. I asked them to find passages in their books where their activists faced these kinds of barriers, and I shared some experiences of my own. To give them a visual tool for overcoming self-limiting beliefs and excuses, I did a version of Passengers on the Bus, an exercise first described by psychologists Steven Hayes, Kirk Strosahl and Kelly Wilson (1999), and now widely used to help people accept the unpleasant thoughts and feelings that can get in the way of values-consistent action.
I gave out half-sheets with a picture of a bus and said, “Imagine this is the bus of your life. Draw yourself in the driver’s seat because you decide where the bus of your life goes.” They liked that. “Next to you, in the navigator’s seat, write some of the values that lead you to care about a particular injustice. Now, imagine that the self-limiting beliefs and emotions you want to avoid are noisy passengers, trying to keep you from driving where you truly want to go. In the bus windows, draw these passengers, and make speech bubbles to show what they’re saying to you.”
As the students worked, I showed them my bus so they could see I was willing to make myself vulnerable. They kept their buses private. As they finished, I said, “The next time you encounter an injustice that matters to you, you can listen to your passengers and hit the brakes on your bus. Or, you can gently acknowledge the passengers and keep driving in the direction of your values.”
We also discussed how to overcome barriers by growing our support networks. We listed family members, friends and allies who could help us find creative workarounds, increase the impact of our actions, provide resources (like time, money and knowledge) or listen with compassion. The students then found places in their books where their activists got support—no one who makes real change acts alone.
There are lots of ways to use this exercise beyond English class. When racial and gender micro-aggressions became an issue among the seventh-graders, I did Passengers on the Bus with my advisory group. I wish I’d known about the exercise when I taught history because I could have asked my students to imagine the passengers historical actors like Chief Joseph, Ida B. Wells and César Chávez carried on their buses—and notice where they drove anyway. And I wish my own teachers had used it to help me deal with my math apathy and gym anxiety.
What would schools be like if students—and teachers—acknowledged the passengers on our buses and kept driving toward our values?
Harris, Russ. ACT Made Simple: An Easy-to-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2009.
Hayes, Steven C., Kirk Strosahl, and Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change. New York: Guilford, 1999.
Porosoff is a seventh-grade English teacher, curriculum design consultant and author of Curriculum at Your Core: Meaningful Teaching in the Age of Standards.
- The Place for Activism in English Class
- Reading and Writing to Learn About Activism
- 'Browder v. Gayle'
- The Activist Award Essay
- Juliette Hampton Morgan: A White Woman Who Understood
- Freedom's Main Line
- Browder v. Gayle: The Women Before Rosa Parks
- Rosa Parks: Abused and Misused
- Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement
- Bridge to the Ballot