Teaching Children Social Justice

The Southern Poverty Law Center has long been a pioneer in combating racism and hate crimes, teaching children and adults how to combat bias in the classroom, at home, and in the workplace.

The organization provides free educational materials to teachers in the United States and abroad, with the belief that classrooms are ideal environments for fighting prejudice. School is often the only place where children and teens meet people of different cultures and backgrounds.
Bias is learned in childhood, the organization writes in its “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide.”

“By age 3, children can be aware of racial differences and may have the perception that white is desirable. By age 12, they can hold stereotypes about ethnic, racial and religious groups. Because stereotypes underlie hate, and because almost half of all hate crimes are committed by young men under 20, tolerance education is critical.” Here is some advice for teachers from the Southern Poverty Law Center:

  • Acknowledge differences among students and celebrate the uniqueness of everyone. In one project, children paint self-portraits, mixing colors to match their skin tone. They then name their colors, which have included gingerbread, melon and terra cotta. They learn that everyone has a color, that no one is actually white.
  • Create an “I Have a Dream” contest, in which students envision and describe an ideal community. In North Berkshire, Massachusetts, winning essays are reproduced and rolled onto highway billboards where ad space is donated.
  • Promote inclusion and fairness, but allow discussions of all feelings, including bias learned at home and the street. Establish a peace table where children learn to fight fair, perhaps with hand puppets in which conflict is acted out.
  • Teach older children to look critically at stereotypes portrayed by the media. Ask them to close their eyes and imagine a lawyer, doctor, rap musician, gang member, bank president, hair stylist or criminal. What did they “see” and why? Confronted with their own stereotypes, children begin to question how they’ve been shaped by the media.
  • Teach mediation skills to kids. At one school in Connecticut, a group of fifth-graders, selected because of their reputations as bullies, respond anonymously to letters from younger students seeking advice on a range of school-related problems, like bullying and harassment. The program helps students develop empathy.

Five steps for parents to take

1. Examine your children’s textbooks and the curricula at their schools to determine whether they are equitable and multicultural.

2. Encourage teachers and administrators to adopt diversity training and tolerance curricula, including Teaching Tolerance magazine and other diversity education materials.

3. Encourage your children to become social justice activists. They can form harmony clubs, build multicultural peace gardens, sponsor “walk in my shoes” activities and join study circles to interact with children of other cultures.

4. Examine the media your children consume, from Internet sites to the commercials during their favorite TV shows. Stereotypes and issues of intolerance are bound to be present. Discuss these issues openly, as you would the dangers of sex and drugs.

5. Model inclusive language and behavior. Children learn from the language you use and the attitudes you model. If you demonstrate a deep respect for other cultures, races and walks of life, most likely they will, too.

Where to find teaching materials

In addition to the law center’s Teaching Tolerance Web site, check out the Web site for GroundSpark, a San Francisco-based film company. With its Respect for All Project that focuses on human difference, preventing prejudice and building communities, GroundSpark has tackled such subjects as bullying and name-calling, gender identity, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues. The company creates both films and classroom materials.

Further Resources

Teaching Tolerance

A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Ave.,
Montgomery, AL 36104



2180 Bryant Street,
Suite 203, San Francisco, CA 94110



Southern Poverty Law Center, Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide, http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/ten-ways-to-fight-hate-a-community-response-guide?page=0,10

Respect for All, Curricular Resources

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