Responding to Ferguson

Educators who are in the United States – and many of you who are not – will be well aware of the release of the grand jury’s decision on Monday night to not indict the police officer who killed 18 year old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014. Sadly, the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white law enforcer was not in and of itself a remarkable event. But Brown’s death has become a touchstone or symbol of ongoing and systematic racial inequality in the United States and a tipping point for many Americans who feel outraged that the case is not at least being brought to trial. One of my colleagues here at Harvard is writing her dissertation on “the talk” that African American parents feel obliged to have with their sons about the unique dangers they will face out in the world because of the ways in which the majority population will perceive them. This kind of fear is a lived reality for many families here in the United States.

Why am I writing about Ferguson and not a host of other serious, real-world issues? I know that injustices are being enacted throughout the world on a daily basis, with Paul’s recent reporting on the plight of Syrian refugees being a case in point: see my recent blog post, Responding to injustice in the world. However, as an educator based at a school of education in the United States I feel duty bound to speak up about what is happening in Ferguson and to acknowledge the deep pain that many people are currently feeling, particularly those from the African American community. With so many US educators involved in Out of Eden Learn, keeping silent at this time would not seem right to me. That said, I hope that we can create a space within our Out of Eden Learn community to allow educators to share resources that could be applied to initiate conversations around other difficult topics and situations across many different contexts.

Some of you may have seen the resource-sharing that has coalesced around the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus on Twitter, courtesy of an initiative by Marcia Chatelain at Georgetown University – as explained in her piece in The Atlantic. This response by educators is heartening, as was the large community meeting held yesterday at the Harvard Graduate School of Education: Ferguson seems to be galvanizing people to take action to make change happen. And as educators, we are in a unique position to make a difference. At the same time, I don’t want to pretend that taking on difficult topics in the classroom is easy for educators. Research by Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy, for example, suggests that many educators avoid discussing difficult topics such as contemporary race relations and other political issues in their classrooms. I am not going to lie: I tended to steer clear of them myself when I was a high school history teacher in England and Australia. By pooling resources and supporting one another, however, we can and should do this important work in ways that are appropriate to the specific teaching contexts in which we find ourselves and our own racial identities. (For those new to this blog, I myself am white.)

Here are some of the thoughts and questions I have related to Out of Eden Learn:

Promoting dialogue

Incidents such as Ferguson focus the mind on the need for effective dialogue between young people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds – especially in the United States where de facto school segregation exists in most parts of the country and race is such a defining factor for people’s everyday experiences. We do not have a good sense of the racial and ethnic diversity of students within Out of Eden Learn: we can only get a general sense of what is going on from the school descriptions provided by educators. A question I now have is this: would it be appropriate for us to ask students (and educators) when they register to indicate their racial and/or ethnic identity as a way for us to make greater effort to put young people (and adults) in dialogue with one another? Or, given that we are trying to encourage young people to think in new ways about themselves and the world, would posing that question prime students to position themselves in particular ways within our space? These are questions that we need to ponder. Meanwhile, we believe that having young people exchange stories about one another’s lives within geographically and socio-economically diverse groups is a step in the right direction in terms of countering stereotyping and “othering”. In the much-quoted words of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we need to overcome “the danger of a single story”.

Talking about race

How might we leverage Paul’s walk and writing to initiate meaningful and nuanced conversations about race and social injustice? In The Eddy, Paul tackles these issues head-on in his account of meeting the Ghawarna: dark-skinned Jordanians who are genetically of African descent but who resolutely adopt an Arabic identity despite suffering ongoing discrimination. Digging into complex questions about identity and comparing experiences of race and culture in different geographic locales can help us to question the inevitability of what is happening with regards these issues in our own contexts. I especially like how Paul challenges the notion of fixed identities, while recognizing that how people think about themselves and how they are thought of by others have very important consequences. How can we have conversations about race, ethnicity, and culture in ways that feel safe and productive within an online space?

Recognizing the importance of historical perspective

Paul incorporates different layers of history into his writing: he often reflects on the story of our human species writ large, transcending historical narratives organized according to nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, etc. But he also refers to more immediate historical timeframes, such as the forced transportation of the Ghawarna from Africa to Jordan in the 12th and 19th centuries. I was just at the annual National Council for the Social Studies Conference, held here in Boston, where I attended a lunchtime session called Lessons From Ferguson. The panel called for educators to frame the situation in Ferguson within a broader historical context. Rather than focus on the specifics of what happened on that single day in August, we need to situate Michael Brown’s death within an ongoing story of institutionalized oppression and injustice – something that the African American community is indeed doing. As a former history teacher I am eager to think about how we might encourage young people in Out of Eden Learn to dig below the surface of what they are observing in the present day to ask questions about why things are as they are and, crucially, how things might and should be in the future.


  1. Thanks for presenting the “long view” of the issue. I hadn’t heard of Hess and McAvoy’s Political Classroom book, so I’ll be getting a copy soon. Hadn’t come across “The Danger of a Single Story” either. Lots to think about here. I’ve also been thinking about how educators create “political classrooms” here:

  2. Thank you, Liz, for the thoughtful blog post.

    I teach in a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, in a small, docile school district that is 90% Caucasian in the student body. I do teach about race, both as a social construct and a significant national topic, in all my 11th grade American Literature classes and in my Journalism class as well (that’s the one participating in the Out of Eden Project). Since so many authors have been inspired to write or speak to address the tensions and judgements they live (or lived) through because of skin pigmentation and social judgment, I feel obliged to address maybe the most confusing of American topics as my class reads and studies texts, even back to foundational documents, from a rhetorical perspective. For instance, our country’s Founding Fathers declared freedom from an oppressive government, but yet could not find a rationale to denounce slavery as they began framing their own democracy. It’s an American dilemma, one still clearly resonant today.

    My high school experience was filled with English teachers assigning memoirs like I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and novels like The Color Purple and Beloved. But for this generation, those texts are as much history as whatever is listed in their Social Studies textbooks. Twitter is filled with students trading comments bemoaning institutional racism and suggesting they can’t really change the future. Hopefully our classes can be a vehicle for informed reading and discussion about history (as your blog post outlines) and current rhetoric about race, politics, law enforcement and freedom in 21st century America.

    American high school students must at least acknowledge that the country with a black-skinned President hasn’t become a post-racist society simply because of Obama’s election and re-election. I agree fully that students must address the larger questions beyond this tragedy of another young person dying in a violent manner and look at what so many inspiring teachers are trying to accomplish. The Global Education Conference was filled with teachers in the US and abroad who seem like a great fit to lead current students to make meaning of these videos and images of riots, protests and press conferences – I left the link below.

  3. Thanks so much for this post. I regularly share “The Danger of a Single Story” with my Social Studies students and it is powerful. #Ferguson was the topic of conversation all day yesterday. I am in an international school and this has impacted students from all over the world because
    a) we are all connected
    b) everybody has a story and
    c) discrimination and lack of process is not unique to the USA.
    It’s been 60 years since MLK won the Nobel Peace Prize, and his words are sadly still applicable in 2014: “As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

    Facing History and Ourselves had some good resources/ questions for the #FergusonSyllabus to complement class discussions as well.

    1. Thanks for sharing that quote Brenda. I had some more conversations with some colleagues last night about Ferguson (and now, sadly, Eric Garner), and one of my takeaways was that when we teach history, for example, we need to emphasize how creative problem solvers have addressed similar situations in the past. Marcia Chatelain (who started #FergusonSyllabus) tweeted:

      Resist students thinking that racism is inevitable.Show them history of interracial organizing-from John Brown to Ferguson movement

  4. Liz, thank you for opening dialogue on how we can address the systemic issues of inequality and injustice that #Ferguson has come to stand for. I think this is a key opportunity for us to reflect on the ways that race and racism affect us all, as well as how our racial identities intersect with other identities (e.g. class, age, gender) to shape how we move through the world. With protests springing up across the U.S., and with solidarity expressed between folks from Gaza to Hong Kong to Ferguson, I think this is also becoming a moment for us to consider what it means to be a local/global citizen. Further, it speaks to how powerful young people are, at the heart and in the leadership of these movements–and how critical educators are in creating safe spaces for youth to engage with social issues.

    Brenda, Scott, and Chris – thank you for the resources you’ve shared, and for all the great work that you’re doing with your students. Here are a few more pieces that might support teachers in facilitating learning and discussion on the topic of #Ferguson (and more):

    1. “Further, it speaks to how powerful young people are, at the heart and in the leadership of these movements–and how critical educators are in creating safe spaces for youth to engage with social issues.”

      So true, Jessica. I think that’s a big part of what we do. How can we get the voices of our youth into these important civic discussions? For my part, I try to connect them to other student networks (like Out of Eden) and also to get them connected to adult mentors and producing media that professional organizations can help distribute (like the local media, KQED & PBS NewsHour).

  5. Kristina adams · · Reply

    Thank you for this post and to those who have responded. It is so good to hear from the thoughtful, the educated, the unbiased. Reading the post and comments has put sanity back on the table.

  6. […] Liz asked in her previous blog post: What is Out of Eden Learn’s stake in all of this? What do we want to teach young people about […]

  7. And now? As an American Literature teacher in a very racially unbalanced public school, it now seems (with Mr. Garner’s death, subsequent reactions, protests) there is a different lesson that must be taught, and maybe this holds true to all of you as well. The story is how we, as modern Americans, view stories. As a Journalism teacher, I have been extremely interested in Twitter’s role in shaping the public rhetoric for these tragic stories. But there are also many, many essential facts also missing from the pathos-driven posts getting retweeted hundred or thousands of times. This tragedy is deeply complicated – so many angles to sort out, address, and teach. So many angles to the story of how Americans are granted, earn, and maintain justice. Unfortunately, the same could be said, too, of injustice. This is not a new subject, nor a new theme to American Literature. It’s already sewn throughout the curriculum, just like it is in many of your classes. Sadly, though, we have one more anecdote to refer to when addressing this subject.

    To me, I see an opportunity for our students to read, discuss, and learn about how our country was formed, how Founding Fathers intended justice to be defined and maintained, the challenges of writing documents to allow all to access that justice, and even the rhetoric in writing (and now social media) that expresses conventional wisdom about who receives that justice.

    I wonder about latitude within the classroom to read tweets, to examine the rhetoric, to look at the pathos, even the claims and counterclaims, being volleyed across Twitter, as well as the internet at large. At my school, I have that latitude and I think it will be very resonant to read tweets with my class. In a more conservative school, maybe this would be frowned upon? Regardless, it has me thinking about Paul, too.

    After the Arab Spring, twitter started using much more imagery of the Eastern world in its’ branding. I would really appreciate Paul taking time to write a dispatch about how he has encountered “fast journalism” in the Arab world. More so, with his expertise, it would be great to read his thoughts about how people in these villages, and especially in the more modernized towns, learn about conflicts around them. Do they experience a richer, more detailed sense of story when they first learn about a conflict around them? Do they get very emotionally charged moments when they first learn about tragedies? Paul’s view of media in the places he walks would be incredibly valuable, and his own expertise makes what he might offer very meaningful.

    1. Thank you very much Scott for this thoughtful reflection – and also thank you for your earlier comment. I will be sure to alert Paul to your suggestion. His partners Meedan may have a good sense of how people learn and talk about unfolding local events via social media like Twitter because of their work taking “core samples” of local Tweets for Paul’s milestones on the Out of Eden Walk website
      And yes, tough to hear about the ruling concerning Eric Garner’s case so soon after the Ferguson decision.

  8. […] the police and the Black community. While this is not my focus here, readers may be interested in an earlier post that considered the implications of Ferguson with regard to Out of Eden […]

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