Exploring Why People Don’t Become Activists

Editor’s note: This is the third blog in a series about an English unit using activist memoirs to teach about social justice. Read the first and second blogs here.

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?

Works Cited:

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.

You Can’t Mix It Up Alone

Do you know what piece of advice we hear most from our Mix coordinators? Don’t plan your Mix It Up at Lunch Day alone. Call in some reinforcements—and look beyond the usual suspects. If you’re going to ask your students to mix it up, it’s only fair that you get out of your comfort zone and meet some new people too!

Mix planning is a great opportunity to create relationships with teachers in other grade levels, subject areas or departments. And don’t forget to enlist administrators, office staff and cafeteria workers—this is a lunch event after all!

Here are some tips for getting started:

  • Four or more! Invite a minimum of four people to an initial planning lunch. Begin with at least two teachers from departments or grade levels other than your own. Then invite at least one administrator and a couple of folks from the cafeteria.
  • Maintain an air of mystery. “I have an idea I want to talk to you about. Can you come to lunch with me to discuss it?”
  • Get away for a while. Meet in a location where you can talk without distraction.
  • Break the ice. Use these Mix It Up icebreakers to get the group comfortable with each other.
  • Get ‘em in the mix. Make an announcement: “I want our entire school to do what we just did!”
  • Spell out the details. Tell them all about Mix It Up at Lunch Day, set for Oct. 28.
  • Assemble your team. Ask each staff member to commit some time and energy to helping you plan this year’s Mix event. They may know other colleagues who would be perfect for the planning committee. You’ve just created your core group!

While you’re on a roll, enlist parent organizations, local sports teams and community groups that intersect with your school. Organizers who have “mixed it up” themselves will be the best models for students when the big day arrives.  

Student involvement is also essential to Mix It Up success. More on that topic next week!

Leveling the Economic Playing Field

When I was a student, many of my classmates and I didn’t have empathy for people experiencing poverty. Nothing I learned in school ever helped me to build that empathy. I had to acquire it in adulthood, and I find that I still need to check myself from time to time. But what does being empathic to students experiencing poverty actually look like? How can educators respond to—and mitigate—the divides created by inequity, such as wealth disparity? Below you will find a list of policies that my after-school program uses to address this challenge.

Backpacks. All youth, regardless of need, are supplied with a backpack at the beginning of the school year, filled with school supplies. This policy helps to ensure that all participating youth are prepared to start the school year and that they will be on equal footing with their classmates, rather than some being seen as "charity cases." My organization is also equipped to help those who cannot afford school supplies stay well stocked throughout the year.

Pocket Money. Students are not allowed to bring pocket money on the field trips. Of course, they still do at times. “Miss,” they’ll whisper, “I’ve got money. Can I play games at the arcade?” or “Miss, can I buy myself and my friends some pop? I’ve got my own money.” They flash me a glimpse of their money, tucked in their purse or already palmed, and I’m supposed to shake my head and say, “No, not today.”

With few exceptions, that is how I end up responding, coupled with a reminder that not everyone brought money and that it would be unfair. Depending on the youth’s age and my relationship with them, I might gently remind them about our program’s policy and why it exists. The older youth are receptive and respond along the lines of, “I don’t want anyone to feel bad” or a soft-spoken, “I get it.” If their families aren’t experiencing poverty, they have friends who are—or they see it in their own extended families.

Snacks. During the summer months, youth who participate in the program are served two snacks each day—one first thing in the morning and another just before they go home. During the school year, there is one snack. The youth are not allowed to bring additional snacks, except on special—and infrequent—occasions, such as days when there will be a lot of physical activity. What all of this means is that youth who are experiencing food insecurity feel very little—or at least reduced—pressure to fit in by having the popular (or any) snacks.

Toys & Devices. Youth are not allowed to bring toys or electronic devices to our program. The intention here is twofold—to mitigate the appearance of "haves" and "have nots” and to minimize unwanted distractions.

Although these policies do not remove all signifiers of students’ socioeconomic status or their families’ discretionary incomes, they have several advantages:

  • Reduce the risk that youth feel left out or experience bullying.
  • Allow for teachable moments about empathy and inequity/equity when students question the policies or go against them.
  • Create an environment where youth are free to explore their interests without the immediate influence of money.
  • Lessen the possibility that staff will unconsciously discriminate against youth based on real or perceived economic standing.

I wish policies such as ”no pocket money” on fieldtrips and “backpacks for all” had been in place during my own childhood, which is perhaps why I’m okay with enforcing them now. I remember going on field trips—sometimes having money, sometimes not—and always being aware of the kids who brought enough money to buy souvenirs or extra food. I also recall the kids who were teased on field trips, the playground or the school bus for being poor. One girl, in particular, typically busied herself talking with the teacher or chaperone while other kids circled through the gift store selecting their prized purchases. I never stuck up for her when she was ridiculed or excluded for being poor. These memories have stuck with me. My intention now is to create an equitable and inclusive environment for my students—and to shape what memories stick with them.

What polices and practices do you use to level the economic playing field for your students?

Clift works in an after-school program for youth and as the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.


Students Are Watching Ferguson

The world is watching Ferguson, Missouri. Tuning into daily reports of unrest. Weighing in on (or avoiding) conversations about the role of race in Michael Brown’s death. Speculating about who’s to blame. Worrying about what will happen next.

But we’re not hearing much about what it’s like to be a kid in Ferguson, a kid who was supposed to start school two weeks ago, but couldn’t because of the volatile atmosphere, broken glass and tear gas canisters that would impede his walk to school. (School buses do not run in the Ferguson-Florissant School District.)

Educators in Ferguson, however, didn’t forget about the children who should have been starting school. Some teachers held classes at public libraries, and a handful of school cafeterias opened so they could provide lunch to low-income students. Many educators also stepped up and used those “days off” to clean up the debris and restore Ferguson to what it was before the rioting—for their students and for the community as a whole.

Students stepped up, too. They joined clean-up efforts and continued to peacefully protest because they understand the historical significance of this moment. As 12-year-old Leslie Adams told NPR, “At first I was absolutely, absolutely scared … [b]ut then, since I was watching the news, I understood that it was history that was going on.”

Teachers around the United States also understand the historical implications of this moment and know it would be a mistake to assume the events in Ferguson haven’t had an impact on their students. That’s why a number of educators, collectives and educational organizations are sharing resources for addressing Michael Brown and Ferguson in the classroom. For those educators who are nervous about facilitating what certainly will be uncomfortable, difficult conversations, NPR offers some guidance, including a syllabus that teachers created and shared in the wake of Jordan Davis’ murder and perspectives from teachers who have already made lesson plans addressing Ferguson.

Here is a small sample of the growing list of resources available to educators who want to help their students understand what happened in Ferguson, contextualize its place in our nation’s history and empower young people to work for a more just, peaceful world:

Unfortunately, Ferguson has also inspired some missteps that are harmful to students, like the incident in Selma, Alabama, where a teacher had her sixth-graders reenact the shooting deaths of Brown and Trayvon Martin. But perhaps the most harmful approach of all is simply ignoring Ferguson altogether, which is what Edwardsville, Illinois, teachers have been directed to do.

At a time like this, educators can’t afford not to discuss Ferguson in the classroom, but it must be done in safe, supportive ways. Our students are watching along with the rest of the world, and they need us to be real with them about what they’re seeing. At the heart of it all is the goal of education: to prepare students to engage in the world and to equip them with the skills they need to make it better for everyone.

Bell is an associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.

New Teachers Going “Back” to School

It’s back-to-school season! Schools across the country are welcoming new and returning students, educators are making lesson plans and setting up their classrooms, and students are navigating new buildings, classrooms and peer groups.

For first-year teachers, this back-to-school season marks an important career milestone. Earlier in the summer, Teaching Tolerance posed this question on Facebook: “What positive advice would you offer first-year teachers?” We received wonderful responses on topics ranging from how to manage a classroom to simple practices for surviving the workday. Your advice was heartfelt and reflected several important themes:  

Focus on your students

You could very well be the most important influence in a child's life. This is an awesome responsibility. Love them. Learn from them. Enjoy them.

From an old to a new.....focus on the students and NOT the administrative chaos that is is constant. The reason is, you cannot effect the chaos but you can definitely effect the students and that is why you teach.

Treat your homeroom like a community. Let the kids know that you care.

See your students for who they are

Just remember that each child is an individual, and they will all have their own needs for you to discover and support, strengths for you to identify and foster, and learning styles for you to use to help them embrace learning.

Remember that all kids make mistakes and try (try even harder with some kids) to separate the mistake from the personality/ability of the kid. For many kids, you may be the only one encouraging them to be their best selves!

[T]each each child. They aren't interchangeable, and neither are their minds.

Find support

Find the positive teachers because they can help you through tough days. 

Be open to the wise words from seasoned teachers (not necessarily the ones your admin points you too). Listen with your ears, eyes and heart.

Find a good mentor! But don't necessarily pick the first person who seems to want to be a mentor. Keep your eyes big and your mouth small for a while as you determine which teachers are truly good at what they do and teach for the right reasons. Pick someone that cares about helping you become the best teacher you can be.

Be kind—to others and to yourself

Cut yourself some slack—it takes time to find your groove; you'll learn a lot about what works for you and your students over time.

Golden rule, treat ALL (teachers and students) the way you would love to be treated regardless of gender, race, religion, wealth or lack of each and every day! Tall order, but it is worth it to be successful.

[Don’t] expect to get it all the first year—or second for that matter—and [that’s] ok

Relax and carve out downtime

You will be overwhelmed and you will work harder than you ever thought possible but don't forget to take time for yourself (exercise, meditate, occasional happy hour, whatever makes you happy and relieves some stress).

Take time for yourself. Do something you love (at least once a week) during your "off" times that has nothing to do with your job.

Take time to reflect and keep a journal.

Remember the simple things

1. Don't pass up an opportunity to use the rest room. 2. Wear comfy shoes.

Laugh. Always remember to laugh everyday.

If you return home exhausted and drained, [y]ou are probably doing a good job.

Teaching Tolerance wishes all educators—and especially new teachers stepping into their very first classrooms—a productive and enriching school year. Remember, the TT community is here for you—and our resources area always FREE. Consider signing up for our free weekly newsletters, following us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, and subscribing to Teaching Tolerance magazine. These resources connect you with social justice educators across the country and to support, ideas and resources that can inspire, inform and guide you through the challenges ahead. For more ideas on how you can become involved in our community, check out these suggestions.

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