I am very passionate about the power of social justice art education and I have had the privilege of sharing my work with audiences across the country. Often, the majority of my audiences consists of white educators. Inevitably after my workshops during the Q&A, I will get some version of the following :
“I am so inspired by what you shared, but I don’t teach in the inner city….”
“I agree with a lot of what you are saying, but most of my students are White and from affluent communities so this work doesn’t apply to my context”
I am always struck by the question and the assumption it reveals. The assumption being: Social justice education is only for marginalized communities of color.
I try to keep my answer simple:
There can be no oppressed without oppressors.
How can we ever have an equitable society when only the oppressed are being taught to recognize and name the forces that are oppressing them? When will those young people who are “at risk” of becoming the next generation of oppressors be introduced to liberatory education and made aware of the ways in which racism has compromised their humanity?
Studies have shown the white people have a difficult time feeling empathy for people of color. The University of Toronto research, conducted by social neuroscientists at U of T Scarborough
“ explored the sensitivity of the “mirror-neuron-system” to race and ethnicity. The researchers had study participants view a series of videos while hooked up to electroencephalogram (EEG) machines. The participants – all white – watched simple videos in which men of different races picked up a glass and took a sip of water. They watched white, black, South Asian and East Asian men perform the task…..Observing someone of a different race produced significantly less motor-cortex activity than observing a person of one’s own race. In other words, people were less likely to mentally simulate the actions of other-race than same-race people” [Human Brain recognizes and react to race, UTSC Researcher Discover. https://ose.utsc.utoronto.ca/ose/story.php?id=2135}.
The implications of this are staggering and continue to make a strong case for why educators working with white students must embrace social justice education and implement the principles into their teaching practice. White students need to understand how racism has impacted their lives and be given tools to dismantle the racism that exist within them in order to reclaim their humanity and be an allies in the struggle for racial justice. If not, the cycle will continue.
In the next section, I share part of an inquiry-based framework that can be used by educators to explore social justice principles with their students.
A Framework for Liberatory Education
During my time as the first director of the DreamYard Art Center in the Bronx, a social justice arts organization, I had the luxury of working with teaching artists who are all passionate educators and believe that arts have the power to make the world more just.
In 2009, we realized that we needed to develop our own philosophy around social justice and art making. We wanted to capture our commitment to developing young people who are critical thinkers, possess a rigorous artistic practice and are committed to social justice. So, in 2010, we worked with Dr. Susan Willcox, non-profit consultant and expert in youth development practices and critical pedagogy, to create the DreamYard Art Center Framework. The framework, anchored by our core values: empower, create, connect, guides the design of the curriculum at the art center.
Below I have shared our space the space where the social justice work lives: Empower.
- Who am I? → Personal Stories/Histories/Culture
When do I feel powerful/powerless?
What is my superpower/kryptonite?
Who are my ancestors?
- Where am I? → Liberating/Oppressive Forces in Life
- What do I see? (Naming)
- How does it make me feel?
- How am I affected?
- What can I Do?→ Awareness of Personal Power to Transform
- What are the root causes?
- What are the solutions?
- What skills/knowledge do I have/need to change it?
These questions that can be used any classroom regardless of the background of the students. They invite the learning community to examine themselves; their world and their role as agents of change.
I’ll end with a quote by Paulo Freire shares his philosophy on the function of education:
Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.
Who needs social justice education? We all do. This work requires that all hands be on deck–
Robyne Walker Murphy is a social justice arts educator and the Culture Access Program Director at Cool Culture (Brooklyn, NY) . She recently has delivered keynote addresses at the University of Chicago (Amplify Arts Summit) and the Seattle Art Museum (CreativeAdvantage Institute) on liberatory education practices.