Notes for Civic Engagement Panel Discussion
By Randall Williams, Carolina Friends School Upper School Civics Teacher
November 20, 2015
As I began thinking about what to say in this panel discussion, I began to think about the approach of Thanksgiving, which led me to envision Service Learning as a family. Among the family members are many relatives with their own beautiful logics. These relatives are volunteerism, service, service learning, critical service learning, civic engagement, and even our distant relatives charity, mission, and ministry. Today, I’d like to talk about a cousin -- Radical Civics.
Radical Civics is a millennial, born out of the wicked problem of climate change, the academic aspirations of intersectionality, and the rage of the #blacklivesmatter movement. Radical Civics is young, and a Quaker. I envision him, her, or them as wearing a second-hand red sweater.
The core ideas of Radical Civics are as follows:
1. Privilege should be used to dismantle systems of privilege
2. All oppressions are related
3. Conflict is generative; any movement that does not provide a process by which to work through
4. Rituals of shared silence can convert zealousness to empathy and courage
5. Traditionally disempowered people should lead movements while traditionally empowered
people should defer, listen, and help
6. Students should have multiple ways to enter movements based on their comfort levels
7. Decisions should be made through egalitarian processes, such as consensus, and not majority
As you can see, Radical Civics is not the same as service learning, or civic engagement, or service, though they are in the same family. Today, I’d like to share with you three stories about some of my recent radical civics work. I’ve ended each story in that exact moment before my students or I took some action so that you can reflect on this mode’s challenges.
Case Study #1: Shelby, Molly, and YARC
Shelby and Molly are inseparable best friends. They are passionate about women’s issues. In particular, they care about reproductive rights, affirmative consent, body image and the media, and trans awareness. Through an Action Civics program that I began in our junior-year curriculum this year, thanks to a Friends Council on Education grant, Molly and Shelby are working with a group called Youth Against Rape Culture (YARC).
Shelby and Molly
The group is organized by the Orange County Rape Crisis Center. Carolina Friends School has worked with the Rape Crisis Center for many years, in particular with our sexual education and health curricula.
YARC, in its second year, is a student-led group of roughly 12 high school students, mostly from public schools. They meet biweekly to discuss how the conditions for sexual violence are embedded in our cultural norms. The students help one another plan and implement campaigns at their schools.
Graffiti at ECHHS
In late September, preceding our state’s Gay Pride parade, someone, presumably a student, spray-painted hate speech on the side of a building at East Chapel Hill High School. Specifically, this person, or people, spray-painted the phrase, “Fuck Gays.” The members of the school’s QSA, who are a part of YARC, contacted the principal, who condemned it in a private email to the group, and promised to look into who perpetrated the act.
The group was dissatisfied with this response: they wanted an all-school statement condemning the action. When the group got administrative silence, they launched a media campaign and petition. This angered the principal even more, which sent the entire district administration into crisis mute mode.
The YARC meetings were then filled with ire. Molly and Shelby, at these meetings, felt conflicted because, as they saw it, the students had responded abruptly. They felt like the QSA students should have articulated their demands, in a letter, to the principal, then requested to meet in person with her, before they went to the media. If the principal didn’t act, then they could escalate the meeting request to the district. Shelby and Molly’s strategy, though, was, no doubt, informed by their privilege at being a Quaker school wherein students are involved in nearly every level of administrative decision-making—from hiring, to discipline, to schedules, to campus design. Furthermore, they had been trained to lobby, listen, and work toward collective truths. They did not have much of a history, or experience, of being disenfranchised.
So, here’s the situation: The group’s adult ally hears that Shelby and Molly have these strategic thoughts and ask them to present a plan to the group. How do Molly and Shelby best help their counterparts? And, is their plan-of-action circumstantial, and applicable only to them at a privileged Quaker school, or is it feasible for public school students as well?
Case Study #2: #blacklivesmatter
Last year, after Freddie Gray died in police custody, organizers in Durham called for an vigil downtown. Because one of the themes of my American Literature class is Race and Identity, I had been processing ideas related to systemic racism with my students for weeks. When I saw that a like-minded organization, the Youth Organizing Institute, was publicizing the vigil, I offered to drive a busload of students to the event. I warned students that there could be civil disobedience, and police action, based on previous actions in Durham. 12 students were interested.
When we arrived downtown, we joined a crowd at the public square. Organizers invited people of color to share their thoughts and feelings. They also requested that white allies take time to listen, not talk. Toward the end of the gathering, organizers asked people of color to gather in a caucus to discuss what to do next. They met, deliberated, and, after a joyful whoop, they returned to the group with a proposal. They wanted to march to the jail and hold a rally there. Attendees at nearby John Oliver concert would be in earshot.
Protester at Durham Detention Center
As we marched together, we chanted in solidarity. One chant, though, was discordant and muddled. Although the crowd seemed to agree that the first half of the chant was, “No Justice / No Peace,” the crowd split on the rhyming second line: half of the crowd said, “No Racist Police,” while the other half said, “Fuck the Police.”
Police on Hwy 147
After we rallied at the jail, organizers led the teeming crowd to the Highway 147, the main artery of Durham. There, lines of riot cops with a sound canon, batons, and zip-ties stood to block the group. The crowd, of perhaps 400, marched by the cops, across the bridge, then down an entrance ramp, to block the highway for 45 minutes.
At school on the following day, my head teacher said that he had heard that some of the protesters that night had chanted, “Fuck the Police,” and he wondered if our students were among those petitioners. One of our parents is a police officer, and it seems inconsistent with our Quaker values to advocate for vitriolic disrespect. I said I thought not, because half of the crowd, including me, were yelling the more compassionate, “No Racist Police,” but I was unsure. I had coached my students to be peacemakers and to represent our school’s philosophy. But I couldn’t see all of my student mouths at that time. I wondered: what did our students do while in the crowd?
Banner at the rally
CFS student at the march to raise awareness about the school-to-prison pipeline
Relatedly, students in our school have marched, for the last two years, in a Youth Organizing Institute rally to call attention to the school-to-prison pipeline. We start at a Raleigh elementary school and end at the Central Prison. At those rallies, the same chanting dilemma comes up.
The query for Case Study #2 is this: How can we best prepare students to ally themselves with popular social justice movements when blame, objectification, and calls for violence invariably arise as well? Should we abstain or engage in these movements? If we engage, how do we frame this experience for students?
Case Study #3: FCNL
For the last four years, my Quaker Advocacy class has partnered with the Friends Committee on National Legislation. In particular, we have sent a student delegation to the group’s Spring Lobby Weekend, a four-day conference in DC.
My class begins with an in-depth training in Quaker process, or consensus-decision making. Through the school’s advisory program, my students run small consensus circles to help the Upper School come to unity on a Declaration related to our lobbying topic. So far, we’ve come to consensus on two Climate Change Declarations and a Peace Declaration related to U.S. militarism. In March, our topic will be mass incarceration.
Students lobbying Burr about climate change-related legislation
Students outside the Rayburn Office Building
There are two interesting challenges that have come up in my Quaker Advocacy class. First, because FCNL picks the legislation, we do not start our consensus process with an open question. We begin with an examination of the issue and specific legislation. Is it true consensus if the proposal is picked ahead of time? More interestingly, the school community is urged to come to consensus within a strict timetable. Is expedited consensus true consensus? If not, how do you fit a consensus process into a rigid school schedule?
The second problem is more personal. Last year, a Quaker, public school student asked if he could go on the trip. He said he wanted to attend Friends School, but his family couldn’t afford it. Considering that lobbying meetings become less effective if more people are in the room, should I have taken this student, and students like him, on the trip?