The intersection between protest, civic engagement, and education

February 03, 2017Duncan McCullough

“Did you hear? There’s going to be a walkout!”

I still remember the apprehension, excitement, and empowerment felt in my first protest, way back in 2003, when students in my Maryland high school demonstrated at the flag pole against the US’ planned war in Iraq. Of course, we weren’t successful in preventing the conflict, but it was the beginning of developing critical skills in myself that have served me well.

Skills like communication, teamwork, social awareness, and leadership, among others, are central to a 21st century education and employability. This awareness is part of what drives the work of promising education programs around the world focusing on civic engagement to help prepare their students for success in the modern world.

Young leaders of tomorrow

Take for example, the Young Leaders Program in Kenya. The organization, now in its 10th year, develops young leaders able to innovate and enterprise to positively change their communities and contribute toward promoting social transformation and economic growth in Kenya. In Embakasi, an underserved and densely populated area in Nairobi, the program uses multiple week-long camps to teach youth the skills they need to make a difference in their communities and in their own lives.

The camp is offered for free to GEF scholars and generates income by opening its program up to other youth in the region and charging a fee. The camp focuses on theory and practice of leadership and experiential learning and requires each student to consider and address a problem or need in their community. In past sessions, students have examined issues ranging from food security, anti-corruption, to job availability (the topics are based on student input). A model of facilitated discussion, field trips, and follow-up problem solving activities enables students to explore the issues that matter most to them, and create concrete steps not only to better understand those issues, but also take action.

school leadership girls education Afghanistan empowerment

Women-driven progress

Focusing specifically on the critical importance of empowering women as leaders and change-agents, the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA) is an Afghan-run and U.S. registered non-profit and the first boarding school for girls in Afghanistan. SOLA enrolls middle- and high-school-age girls in a rigorous, comprehensive curriculum stressing civic leadership skills, English literacy, and cultural self-awareness. SOLA’s students take part in empowering extracurricular cultural and life skills programming such as drivers' education, historical research, and social justice projects in the community. The girls are also connected with faculty and e-tutors based around the world for homework help and globalized perspectives on their course materials. The program is already making an impact, with alumni currently working in government ministries, Afghan NGOs, and the country’s leading corporations.

For children, by children

The "It's My Right, Make It Happen" project is implemented by Indus Resource Centre (IRC). In order to support the realization of children's rights in Sindh, Pakistan as described in the Right to Education Bill passed by the Sindh Provincial Assembly in 2013. The project uses children's clubs to foster child-led advocacy, providing opportunities for children to participate and engage in civil society as informed rights-holders capable of demanding their constitutional rights.

Children's clubs are formed at schools, in partnership with school administrators. An orientation session is held for teachers, parents, and community leaders about the need for children's clubs and rights to education. Advocacy toolkits are developed by IRC and are shared during mobilization workshops. The toolkits include a petition document to be signed by children, parents, and teachers--all of whom have rights outlined in the Bill. The petitions and other activities of the children's clubs are meant to encourage policymakers to address education as a main priority of their work. Importantly, young leaders from existing children's clubs are then selected to help run the orientation and development of children's clubs in new schools, furthering skills of entrepreneurism and independence in these young leaders while also contributing to the program’s efficiency and sustainability.

Looking to the past to move forward

South Africa past future teachers teaching learning social justice history civil rights

In South Africa, a nation with a deep history of social justice movements, Facing the Past provides on-going professional development to teachers through using historical case-

studies from around the world to help young people understand themselves, their country, and their place in the world. The case-studies, which have all been included in the South African national school curriculum, focus on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, apartheid South Africa, Eugenics and Social Darwinism, and the United States Civil Rights movement. With in-person and online seminars and workshops, Facing the Past engages teachers to educate students about dignity and equity. The program regularly offers workshops to train teachers from lower income levels at no cost or minimal cost to teachers or schools. The program supports teachers to teach civic responsibility, tolerance, and social action to young people to promote academic success and foster moral adulthoods.

A service-learning curriculum

The Student Leaders Understanding My Slums Program, or S.L.U.M.S., takes a word with traditional connotations of hardship and disenfranchisement, and flips it on its head.  The project, supported by The Supply, works within informal settlements in Kenya and contributes to curriculum reforms and teacher trainings.  The project incentivizes civic engagement and trains future leaders in political participation, political and social mobilizing, and social justice. 

The service-learning curriculum encourages students each month to ask, dream, investigate, create, and reflect on and around varied monthly themes, ranging from human rights, self-identity and community. In the first week of the month, the facilitator comes up with a research question related to human rights in their community. (E.g. Lack of clean water). The students then ask questions and discuss with their peers, and then participate in either community research or textbook research, and then take the last two weeks to propose some type of direct service project, a research project, or an advocacy project to best answer their primary questions. They do reflections each week, with a capstone reflection at the end of the month, so that every learner has an opportunity to share about their experiences.

Not only are students often the most impactful agents of social progress, but the lessons they learn standing up for what they believe can improve their academic and employment futures.  As evidence accumulates to the positive effect that social awareness - and the determination to take collective action based upon that awareness – can have to improved academic motivation and achievement for students, committed educators around the world are determined to support their students’ growing critical consciousness.

Duncan McCullough is a Senior Communications Associate at the Center for Education Innovations, proud Masters graduate of George Mason University, and former White House Staffer.

Photo credits: The Supply ; School of Leadership- Afghanistan ; Shikaya.

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