Teaching Ferguson

About a month ago, I was hanging out on a Friday night with a friend in downtown Brooklyn who had agreed to dog-sit for a neighbor. Unfortunately, while she had her friend’s keys, she did not know the exact address, and her friend was on a cross-country flight to San Francisco. Late that night, we went from apartment to apartment in a two-block radius, trying keys on random doors, in an effort to make sure the dog would not be home alone all night. This went on for about 45 minutes before we gave up (my friend got the right address hours later).


Throughout the night, not one person gave us a suspicious look. There is no way that same indifference would have occurred had we both not been white.


I tell this story not for any specific lesson, but rather, to demonstrate that I, as a white, upper middle class male, have absolutely zero credibility to make any new arguments about the situation in Ferguson. My own personal experience means that I have no idea what it’s like to walk down a street as a black person, or to engage with the police in such a situation. And so I won’t be speaking to the situation itself. There is a lot of interesting, provocative, and important commentary that’s been written in the aftermath of the grand jury decision in the last week.


From an organizational perspective, at Generation Citizen, we’ve realized we need to address the recent decision, with an eye towards the educators (teachers and our college volunteers) who are working with our students in the classroom. We are an organization that purports to teach young people, many of whom are minorities from low-income areas, how to take action on issues they care about in their communities. Thus, we want to make some recommendations to educators on how to think about addressing the situation in their classes.


The most important thing we can say, however trite it might be, is that educators must talk about Ferguson, and everything that has come with the death of Michael Brown. They should talk about the actual shooting. They should talk about the Grand Jury’s decision. They should talk about the protests that have happened in the decision’s aftermath. Study after study has shown that educators are reluctant to address controversial issues in the classroom. But this issue hits too close to home, and students are talking about it already. There are a number of sites with great resources on teaching about Ferguson. The Root has complied a number of great resources here, and author Michelle Alexander wrote a poignant piece about the difficulty in talking to her son about the situation.


In teaching about Ferguson, educators cannot be color-blind. I’ve seen a number of analyses in the aftermath of the Grand Jury decision arguing that Michael Brown’s race should not be the issue, but rather, we should focus on the fact that a young person died, period. But race is at the center of this issue, and needs to be talked about as such in schools.  When studies show that young black males are 21 times as likely to be shot dead by police than white counterparts, race is at the center of the issue.


This is undoubtedly challenging. As a country, we are not very good at talking about the realities of racial inequities. Even our president, being half-white and half African, has tended to explicitly avoid the topic since coming to power. But when talking about Ferguson, teachers must talk about race.


And teachers need to talk about what young people can do. This is where it gets a little more complicated. Many GC classes this semester, especially in New York City, are taking action on police brutality. Many of our students know classmates who have been shot to death. The issue hits home. So what do we do about it? Do we encourage them to work within the system, to have constructive dialogue with police departments? To pass legislation? Do we teach them that the criminal justice system is fundamentally broken? That, if they are black, the legal system does not treat them fairly? What do we say to them if they say that they are nervous walking at night when they see a cop?


I don’t know the answer to these questions. Undoubtedly, the system is not fair right now. And fixing it is not as simple as taking an action civics course for a semester and then putting that knowledge to work. They are not going to stop police brutality, or fix the entire justice system, in just one semester.


But I think that’s exactly the point. GC, as an organization, wants to give young people the knowledge and skills they need to take action, now, and in the future. Because change is really hard, it takes a lot of time, and it requires so many different types of action.


When I was an advocate to end the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, I was frustrated every single day, and so I tried taking every action I could. I met with legislators and helped passed legislation. But I also participated in civil disobedience and was arrested in front of the White House. I pissed off my university administrators by shaming them in a news article. And to this day, I feel that both the system-friendly, and the direct action, was necessary.


Obviously, I was not directly affected by the genocide in Darfur, while many of the young people we work with feel like this issue hits home. But I think the principles hold – we want our students to be frustrated, and we want them to try take action in different ways.


There are smaller ways in which students can focus on changing policy now, within the system. For example, one of our classes in Providence is pushing legislation that would make a “new board with community members to oversee the police”, while another class in San Francisco helped write and testify for anti-gun legislation, largely because one of their classmates was recently stabbed. These efforts make a difference.


But the system is also broken. And the only way it will get fixed is if the young people affected by the inequalities do something about it.


And so, in the aftermath of Ferguson, we don’t have all the answers. At all. And largely because of that, educators should talk about all of the emotions, challenges, inequities, and fears that Ferguson brings up with their students. And they should encourage them to take action, both inside and outside the system. I can’t fix it – I can still walk around Brooklyn in the pitch of dark trying keys on doors and get away scot-free. But someday, I’m confident that our young people can.


– Scott Warren, Executive Director

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.

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