As a high school teacher, my favorite assignment to give was the protest paper. It started in one class after reading All Quiet on the Western Front, To Kill and Mockingbird, and Black Boy. We talked about how one writes about the horrors of the world whether it be war, racism, or one of the world’s many other problems. We talked about different approaches writers take to address the horrors of their day. Some tell moving and poignant stories that gently nudge the reader in a particular direction, while others take a more direct approach.
Some students wanted to know if they could do that too – write about problems in their worlds. First, I said, in order to do it well, one must know the complications and nuances of a particular issue. Riveted by the conversation, I re-envisioned the research project requirement and assigned a protest paper. They were to pick any problem in the world, tell us why it was problematic, and offer solutions and strategies for correction.
It was wonderful to see students catch on fire as they learned and informed each other about different topics. By the time of the presentation, they were able to explain the issue they were addressing in detail, explain its problematic nature, and present it in creative and beautifully artistic ways.
However, when it came to actions needed, their solutions were huge and beyond a person’s involvement. Solutions required law changes, government interventions, and large-scale campaigns. Again and again, I was told that the only thing an individual could do was donate money to the cause. These students wanted to make a change; they just didn’t know how. They saw the problem as being way too big for them as individuals and, in some ways, hopeless.
So, the project morphed. In its last incarnation, I asked them to identify a community problem—something that affects them daily. This alone can take a little work. It is easy to think about climate change, for example, as a major issue; it is not always evident how it affects one personally. Through our discussions we teased out some of these issues. Then I asked them to research solutions on three levels.
They were also to research ways they could participate in the national and neighborhood changes. These changes to the assignment helped to keep the fires lit. Not only were students passionate about issues; they became passionate about what they could do.
My goal was to help nurture their activist imagination. While this project was in a secular school, there was a sense of making changes for a bigger purpose. When I had these conversations with Christian youth, many of the same themes echoed throughout the conversations. Again and again, I speak with teens that want to fix what is wrong in the world.
One of the most common phrases that come from the mouths of youth is, “That’s not fair!” And adults throughout out the ages have passed on the response, “Well, life is not fair!” This response is meant to portray a reality, but it also portrays complacency. At some point in our development we have moved from desiring fairness to accepting, perpetuating, and sometimes championing, unfair behavior while asking youth to simply deal with it. At some point between our own cries of “that’s not fair” and our shrugs of complacency with response of “life is not fair,” some forget a key thing—while life is often not fair, it should be.
So, as we walk along youth that want to change the world, I encourage you to remind them that youth have always been active in movements for societal change—and we see that today with young climate activists. The problems are big, but if we break it into bite size pieces, everyone can, indeed, make a difference. Life isn’t fair. But it should be, and if we all do our part, we can get it closer to fair.
This blog post is an excerpt from my upcoming book Nurturing the Sanctified Imagination of Urban Youth. In the text, I present a variety of ways we can encourage youth to make changes in their lives and the world around them.
Dr. Annie Lockhart-Gilroy is a womanist pedagogue and practical theologian who writes and teaches on emancipatory pedagogies and the spiritual formation of youth. She is Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Practical Theology at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK. In addition to numerous articles, and posts, she is the author of the forthcoming Nurturing the Sanctified Imagination of Urban Youth. To find out more, visit www.lockhartgilroy.com.