My purpose as a writer is to create a world where every child has an equal opportunity to an education. This purpose is multifaceted, and one of the ways I accomplish this goal is to introduce my students and my own children to activism.
Today, I am very excited to introduce you to Rebekah Gienapp. Rebekah has worked with social justice organizations for over two decades. She is an ally to so many marginalized groups and causes. Rebekah has dedicated her life towards human rights and equality for all.
Rebekah is here today to give you practical ways to encourage children to be involved in different types of activism. She has a list of expert tips for showing children how to speak out against when they see injustice. She outlines practical ways to be involved in activism other than just joining marches or protests.
We dream that our children will be compassionate, loving people. We want children to care about their own families and friends, as well as their communities. As we think about how to raise global citizens, many of us also think about the impact our kids can make beyond our own backyards, to how they can change the world.
There are lots of things that we can do to help our children become loving changemakers. One of those things is introducing kids to activism at a young age.
Who can be an activist?
An activist is someone who works to bring about political or social change. When you think about “activism”, you might visualize people who were arrested for trying to change an unjust law. Maybe you think of folks who join in marches, pickets, or protests.
Activism also includes behind-the-scenes actions that may not make the news. As a community organizer for an economic justice organization, I learned that lots of people who cared about a living wage weren’t comfortable holding a sign or chanting slogans. Say it with me; that is ok! There are so many different kinds of activism that are needed.
Whether you write a letter to your member of Congress or march in the streets, if you’re working to solve the root cause of a problem, you’re an activist.
We also tend to assume that all activists are adults. Some of the people working for change who I admire most are kids or teens.
Healing the World Requires both Charity and Justice
Think about any of the big problems plaguing your community or the world. Often, our first response to these problems is charity: meeting people’s immediate needs, usually on a short-term basis. Most of the things we think about as “community service” or “giving back” are acts of charity.
Examples of acts of charity are:
- donating food to a food bank
- serving at a homeless shelter
- tutoring children or
- assisting a refugee family
Social justice is getting to the root, structural causes of issues like homelessness, poverty, or the refugee crisis. Rather than just looking at the individual who has needs, social justice takes a step back. This step allows you to look at the social, political, or economic factors that are affecting whole groups of people in crisis.
Examples of acts of social justice are:
- lobbying lawmakers to provide more affordable housing
- calling on employers to a pay a living wage
- pressing your local school board to stop racial bias in how kids are disciplined
Clearly, if we’re going to solve big problems, we need justice. We also need charity because we can’t ignore the suffering that people are facing right now. Charity allows us to take action even while we work for long-term solutions.
It’s definitely simpler to introduce children to charity than to justice. We as parents or educators cannot afford to wait until children are teenagers to teach them about activism and justice. If we do this, the likelihood is that in turn, they will grow up with a warped understanding of why these systemic problems exist.
One way that you can introduce the ideas of justice and charity to children is through this two feet of serving the world activity.
Activism teaches children that they are not “the rescuers”
I’ve been an activist for more than twenty years. I can tell you it can be disheartening if there aren’t immediate lasting changes. The result of our activist efforts are often unclear.
However, there is one thing I know I’ve learned from engaging with social justice.
I am not the hero, nor should I strive to be.
There is not a group of people out there waiting for me to rescue them. My role is to listen to the solutions of people directly affected by the problem. Then, I need to figure out how, with my particular gifts and personality, I can support those solutions.
I recently received an email from the fantastic organization Doing Good Together about how to avoid raising a “rescuer.” They pointed out that one unintended consequence of teaching kids to be in service to others can be that children see themselves as “givers” and others as “receivers.”
To introduce children to activism models to them that we all have a responsibility to work together to solve our community’s problems.
Activism helps Combat Stereotypes that Affect Children
The racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia that are present in our culture impact all children, though in different ways. For kids who are part of a marginalized group, they are continually receiving subtle and not so subtle messages. These micro-aggressions tell them they are unworthy on a daily basis.
However, these systems of oppression impact all children. Oppression hurts every child, period. Marginalized children are hurt, and so are their allies. My white middle-class 5-year-old boy is receiving all kinds of messages that he is more worthy than others who don’t share his race, gender, or wealth.
I don’t want my child to grow up thinking and acting like he is better than others. I certainly don’t want other children to grow up thinking that their lives are not as precious or valued. Engaging in action for social justice gives children the chance to stand up for what is right. This explicitly teaches them to see our common humanity.
So, I talk to my son about social justice. Usually, that means simplifying it to the concept of fairness.
Ways I teach activism in normal and everyday life:
- invite him to write simple messages to our Congressman about immigration reform
- read him books about people who worked for change
- talk to him about race and skin color
- tell him about the activism that I engage in, even when he doesn’t go with me to an event
The Do’s and Don’ts to Introduce Children to Activism
- Think about what opportunities for learning and action fit best with your child’s personality. If your child loves participating in marches, wonderful. Use alternative strategies for children who are overwhelmed by noise and crowds. For example, stuffing envelopes for a social justice organization. You can use it as an opportunity for learning as you talk through the purpose of the letter.
- Take plenty of time to talk through what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Your child may remember a moment in your conversation even more than what you actually did.
- Notice what topics or issues that your child is enthusiastic about. Our five-year-old is a budding environmentalist. His questions and concerns have raised our awareness of how to engage in environmental activism.
- Read these interviews with every day women who are fighting for basic human rights in their every day careers (human rights, mental health, education, and healthcare)
- Force your child to take part in something that doesn’t want to. Extend the invitation to go with you to an event or take part in an activity at home. If your child says no, honor that in the same way you would an adult saying no. This prevents resentment building up that can harm your efforts to raise a compassionate child in the long run.
- Feel that you have to do everything at once. We have conversations about the same social justice topics at our house over and over. If I feel like I didn’t quite get it right in one conversation, I try again on another day.
Rebekah Gienapp is a mama, Methodist minister, diverse book nut, and social justice activist who blogs at The Barefoot Mommy. Her passion is helping families and educators raise little global citizens who want to change the world. She lives in Memphis, TN with her husband and two kids, ages 5 and 19.
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