The Promise of Centering Childhood in Social Justice Education

Confucius once said that “we have two lives, and the second one begins when we realize we only have one.” I am convinced that social justice education has two awareness deepening lifecycle journeys. The first begins when you connect your personal experience to a systemic level and the second one begins when you realize social justice begins with childhood.

The Two Journeys

My first formal social justice education experience involved volunteering as a part of the Pangaea World Service Team in Nicaragua when I was a college student at the University of Michigan. It devastated me to learn about the role the US has played historically in keeping Nicaragua in poverty. I experienced what Bobbi Harro calls a “critical incident” which “creates enough cognitive dissonance that a change is initiated within the core of a person about what they believe about themselves”. Paulo Freire calls this “conscientizacao” – a transformative process from object to subject that lit my soul on fire for social justice. 

Upon returning from this trip, I joined the social justice education UM Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR). Through social justice dialogues, I began to develop critical consciousness around identity, power, privilege, and oppression across personal, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic levels. An IGR mentor told me that there was a book, Parenting for Social Change by Teresa Graham Brett that would “blow my mind.” It completely did.  

In bringing together parenting and social change, Teresa integrated her previous social justice education experience around identity and power (being a past co-director of IGR at UM) into her relationships with children. Teresa approached her relationships with children as a personal arena for practicing social justice which was integral to her pursuit of justice in the world. Her book helped me begin to see how a transformation of childhood could transform the world as I realized that there were profound lessons from the wisdom of children and childhood experiences that were invaluable for activism. 

After more than ten years of working with leading child and family activists from across the globe, I see the promise of centering the social justice wisdom from children and childhood into social justice education.

Re-Discovering Your Authentic Voice for Social Justice

This new level of awareness catalyzed my search for my own authentic voice at the root of my passion for social justice. Children can empower themselves to maintain their own authentic voice with adults as allies, as the less years you lose it, the better lifelong outcomes. However, for adults who have lost their authentic voice from their childhood it takes work to re-discover that voice. As Robin Grille has said for adults, “activism begins with our inner child”. 

As I meditated on finding my inner child’s authentic voice for social justice, what came up for me is the earliest experience of being in the womb is lived experience of the profound interconnection and interdependence of human nature, and for the first few years of infancy there is no “other”. This is important to remember in pursuits of solidarity and partnership in social justice. As Darcia Narvaez has shown through her research “children evolved to expect partnership care in early life.” It is our true nature. It is our original sense of inter-being that acknowledges that all of our liberation is bound together. Through the integration of these insights and practices the elasticity of my own mindset expanded of the whole world being one family and that children are, as Carol Stack would say, “all our kin”.

Understanding the wisdom of my inner child also brought back memories of having a clear, innate sense of right and wrong as a child. This recollection reminds me as an adult that the pursuit of social justice is not performative, but intuitive and relational. Activism for me as a child was stopping my friends from stomping on ants, inviting the new kid to have lunch at my table, and standing up for a kid in my 5th grade class who was discriminated against because of his race. 

As an adult, I can be mindful of taking action when something feels wrong, like I did as a child, and reclaiming the power of my own inner voice. Children can exercise agency by taking action on issues they care about. And adults can be allies in deconstructing the structures that disempower children. Children can liberate themselves from adultism by honoring their own feelings, trusting their own bodies, and claiming the power of their own voice.

I have found that the amount of love I feel for this world equals my fight for justice, for everyone to have the opportunity to fully experience the magic of life on earth.  My authentic voice for social justice is now rooted in love and joy, as it was in my childhood.

Developing Activism into a Lifestyle

I believe that for activism to be a sustainable lifestyle it needs to embrace elements of playfulness, joyfulness, loving-kindness, presence, creativity, and our capacity to re-imagine what’s possible. The process can then match the goal of social justice from integration of these valuable ways of being that children embody most regularly into activism. Audre Lorde says, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” which calls upon our imagination and creativity in approaching social justice. I believe it acknowledges the wise contributions of children and childhood experiences in activism. It also serves as a reminder of the solidarity and sacrifice of children and youth literally being on the front lines of social justice movements throughout time, which is not credited since history is typically told by adults. Adults can be allies in partnership with children and share the work of creating a just society with the next generation. 

Intentionally approaching activism as a lifestyle also requires looking critically at what I call the “activist paradox” exploring the ways in activists unconsciously recreate systems of oppression, linked to experiences of oppression in childhood within social justice efforts. Paying attention to these paradoxes will highlight the continual inner work adults need to do to heal their inner child. However, if children are empowered with adults as allies working to dismantle adultism across the ecology of the child this may eliminate the activist paradox and the decades of inner child healing that adults typically need to do. The earlier that an individual can place their own individual story of childhood within the larger story of childhood, the earlier it will be empowering.

From reflecting on my childhood, I am able to begin a process of integration that allows me to link the change I wish to see in the world; in myself and my daily routine, ways of being, and relations with others. My childhood experiences remind me that not all activism is done by “activists” even though the dominant paradigm of activism is that it is an action like a protest or a march. I have learned to view activism in a relational way that practices social justice in everyday moments, with change happening at the speed of trust, and inner and outer change being interdependent across levels. 

Becoming Empowered to Maximize Social Justice Impact

As an activist, there is a desire to see clearly the roots of injustice and oppression so that efforts to create change actually transform the systems of oppression and not just the symptoms of oppression. It is known that the nature of oppression is non-hierarchical and intersectional but less known is how oppression is foundational in childhood. The wisdom of the science of relationships has revealed how our earliest relationships set a blueprint for relationships over the lifespan. 

Since the oppression of children is the earliest, most normalized, and rationalized form of oppression; it provides the foundation for other forms of oppression because the first relationships in childhood root initial experiences with the common elements of oppression.  These common elements of oppression are core to adultism, (the supremacy of adults over children), and underlie oppression in any form: 

(1) a false notion of superiority across an identity difference becoming seen as an inherent belief that one identity group is superior to another and 

(2) this belief being enforced as justification for the superior group to normalize its power and control over the other to maintain its superiority. 

Adultism sets an invisible infrastructure for other socially constructed power-over divides across social identity to find deep hold, especially because children face the oppression of adultism with the least control and capacity to resist or language to make sense of the experience. Oppression then becomes internalized and normalized and the oppressed then become the oppressors, but oppression can be uprooted with the unlearning of adultism and the empowering of children, which is called childism, similar to feminism but for children.  

Potentially, the most promising aspect of centering childhood in social justice education is that oppression is not only foundational in childhood it is notably the one oppression that all adults have common experience with – although there is difference in how adverse childhood was, everyone experiences adultism in some form during childhood. For example, despite increasing awareness of the commonality of Adverse Childhood Experiences, ACES, the overall experience of childhood involves a lack of control and domination over children by parents, teachers, and a larger institutional and societal culture of adultism. Because all adults were once children and still carry their childhoods within them, the convergence of adulthood and childhood can be comprehended in the mind and the profound interconnection of adult and inner child felt in body. 

This shared experience presents an opportunity like no other for interest convergence, a concept developed in Critical Race Theory that posits that there will only be social justice progress when it is perceived to be in the mutual interests of both the privileged and the oppressed. Unlearning adultism may provide the simplest convergence of mutual interest across a social identity power divide because it so plainly illuminates how deeply our liberation is literally bound up with one another and how adults and children are equal partners in the pursuit of social justice. Adults cannot be truly free until children are free, and until adults heal their inner child from the internalized oppression of their own childhood. 

It’s time to place our individual stories of childhood within its larger story. As Teresa Graham Brett would say, we can then begin to  “imagine a world where mistrust, power-over dynamics, domination, and oppression no longer exist because children have never experienced them.” We can begin to create a new story of childhood that creates lasting social justice as the final revolution is the revolution of childhood.

Kindred World whose mission is to share the new story of childhood, is proud to announce the launch of its newest endeavor, the Kindred Fellowship Program (KFP) which is exploring the promise of centering childhood into social justice education.  KFP’s mission is to guide college students on an innovative social justice educational journey that explores the systemic roots of social (in)justice in childhood through kindred activism: centering childhood in activism that is authentic, reflexive and relational. 

During the program, fellows are led by experienced instructors to explore the promise of kindred activism and its practical application to global community engagement. With the mentorship of Kindred’s network of thought-leaders, Kindred fellows will be prepared and supported to launch their own innovative community action ideas and begin a life-long journey of maximizing their impact on social justice. 

The Kindred Fellowship Program opens its applications March 1st to April 11th with the 2021 KFP Program taking place from June 14-July 31st. To support, learn more, and apply for this innovative social justice education fellowship please visit www.kindredfellows.org


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