It keeps getting uglier at the U.S. border with Mexico, as American officials ended Thanksgiving weekend by shutting down a busy crossing after firing tear gas at a caravan of Central American migrants.
Schools, too, have played a part in the politicization of the caravan, the wall and the immigration debate.
As a professor in a college of education who teaches and researches about how to talk about difficult (and increasingly political) topics with young people, and as a former elementary school teacher and a mother of young children, I have spent time in recent weeks thinking and teaching about the migrant caravan.
I’ve become convinced that politicians, those who are talking about this in the news, and lots of other adults are struggling to have this conversation well. I’ve made mistakes as I’ve talked about the caravan with college students, student-teachers and young children, but there is one thing I have come to be sure of: we need to teach people, especially young people, to be change-makers and problem-solvers. It’s so important to help children (of all ages) learn from their mistakes and be bold in their solutions to social issues like this one. People can acquire these skills at any time in their lives, but college is an especially good time.
A strategy I’ve found to be hugely effective with college students is to hold voluntary open conversations on campus, like the one our Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (where I am director of research and education) recently offered on “polarization, violence and healing.” The conversation was hard and messy, but it is precisely the kind of event that we are not having often enough. Here’s what happened:
There were about 30 people in the room. I was the facilitator, and I didn’t know many of them. The handful of students familiar to me were fairly engaged liberals and one who considers himself a neo-conservative. The rest were people I either didn’t know or knew but who’d kept their political views to themselves.
The conversation went off the rails quickly, and it digressed at points into racist tropes that some of the students had very clearly been raised to believe and internalize. In particular, I was struck by the young white men who felt angry, marginalized and disenfranchised. A small group of white males spoke about the fact that they “will be minorities” in the coming years, and the language they used mirrored that of the U.S. president. The rhetoric was the same, and the anger level not unlike what I hear televised from Trump rallies.
In the same room, however, were young African-American students. Jewish students. Women who do not support President Trump. Each point the Trump-supporting students made was countered by others. And, similarly, each point the left-leaning students made was countered by the Trump-supporting students.
In the end, it was demoralizing. Depressing. Enormously complicated. And the best thing I’ve participated in this year. Students with highly diverse perspectives sat in a room with one another, ate pizza and listened to one another. They did not come to a consensus, but I didn’t expect them to. I’m not convinced that we’re at that place yet. What they did was see one another as human, as individuals with ideas, opinions, fears and hopes. They saw one another as misguided, perhaps, but also as … people.
What happened on my campus can be replicated. Here are five takeaways:
- Admit mistakes. I can’t even begin to count the number of mistakes I made in my facilitation of this conversation. I was tired, not on top of my game. I wasn’t explicit enough in setting the ground rules. I asked the other faculty members to remain quiet so the conversation could be student-led, but then I needed help that I didn’t quite know how to ask for. Rather than ignore these errors, I admitted them. It set a tone of honesty and showed the students that they could admit mistakes, too.
- Remember the rule of “good intentions.” So much of what was said was offensive. And, at the very same time, I’m not convinced that the speakers meant to offend. They were speaking from places of personal conviction. By keeping this in mind, their ideas became easier to hear.
- Enter into the conversation from a place of curiosity. At first, students spoke to convince others to agree with them. Once they were reminded to speak and listen from a place of curiosity, things changed. Rather than try to tell someone what their lived experience is, ask. And then listen openly to the response.
- Don’t have a firm end-goal. The conversation we had was called “polarization, violence and healing,” yet we never got to a place of healing. I really wanted to, but despite efforts on my behalf to lead the conversation in that direction, I never got it there. Those in the room were simply too interested in exploring their differences.
- Allow everyone a voice, even when you disagree. There is a loud and persistent cry that conservative voices are silenced on college campuses. Much of what the “conservative” students said was not in line with what I believe personally, nor what I discuss as inclusive educational practices in my education classes. This was a different setting. My role was to give everyone space and allow all to share their ideas and opinions.
College campuses, community centers, local libraries and even family dinner tables are all great venues for conversations like these. Our country needs the hope and beauty that candlelight vigils bring. But we also need the hard, cold reckoning that comes from listening to and learning from others; from hearing hard and even hurtful things; from knowing we might never come to a consensus, but from seeing people who fundamentally disagree with us as fully human. It’s messy work, but well worth it.
This story on talking about the migrant caravan was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.
Jennifer Rich is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Rowan University, and the director of research and education for the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Her research and teaching focus on “hard histories” (such as slavery, the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Holocaust), and how teachers can talk about these time periods in more honest and inclusive ways.