‘Protests are collectives of practitioners, connected by common cause and interest. As such, they are fertile grounds for learning.’
On Saturday, June 6, 2020, my wife, my two children and I assembled our posters, water bottles, and sunscreen and set off for the Van Cortlandt Park Parade Ground, a sprawling lawn in the northwest corner of the Bronx. When we arrived, there were some 200 people on the green. White people like ourselves, Black, Latino, Asian. Four or five young people of color were leading the chants. Call: “Black Lives.” Response: “Matter.” Call: “No justice.” Response: “No peace.” They called out the names of the recently slain, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and the names of Black Americans murdered in years past. We looked around at the people and their signs. “Latinos for Black Lives Matter.” “White Silence = Violence.” “Say Their Names.” It had been 12 days since the murder of George Floyd and like hundreds of thousands of people across the United States, my wife and I had assembled to assert publicly and unequivocally that Black lives mattered. But we had another motivation as well: our children. In the weeks and years preceding this demonstration we had taken Alma, 13, and Sam, 10, to smaller protests in the neighborhood and had engaged them in conversations on the topic of police brutality and racial injustice, but what this meant to them—what they were learning and how they were processing this quickly changing world—wasn’t clear.
In an interview with reporter Terry Gross, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah Jones described the challenge of explaining to her 10-year old child the recent murder of George Floyd:
She wants to know why. And it is the hardest thing as a parent when your child asks you, why would that police officer do that to him? And you don’t have an answer because you don’t know why. And how do you explain to your child, you know, the sweep of 400 years of history that leads this man to think that that would be OK and he wouldn’t get in trouble and to feel so little humanity towards this man because he’s a Black man?
Jones, who has spent the better part of her career lucidly explaining to the public how race and racism operates, didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t alone. Across the nation, parents and caregivers were all asking themselves the same question: what do I tell my child? What do I need them to understand about this moment?
These conversations are never easy, but the current moment—a period of quarantine and social isolation—made these conversations particularly challenging. Parents and caregivers are children’s first teachers, but typically we are not alone. We have the support of teachers, counselors, peers, grandparents. Our children are enmeshed in an array of communities and these communities help them make sense of the world. It is how they learn to think, read, and play. It is how they develop social intelligence and a moral imagination. But in March, when schools closed, when we stopped visiting friends and family, when we stopped going to church and mosque and the local rec center, our physical and social worlds collapsed. Zoom emerged, but it quickly became clear that video conferences were no replacement for true fellowship and learning. Elementary students who weeks earlier had access to markers and blocks and math manipulatives were left with a computer they did not know how to use, if they were lucky enough to have a computer. Students without a computer at home or the necessary wifi simply couldn’t log on to class. None of us knew what to do. As a developmental psychologist told me a few months into the lockdown, “I was never taught how to help children during a pandemic.”
And then, just as we were settling into this new world, came a rash of particularly horrific killings. Seemingly overnight a social movement coalesced. Across the nation citizens and noncitizens alike took to the streets to voice their indignation and desire for change, risking exposure to the coronavirus. While initial data suggest that the protests did not contribute to increases in COVID-19 cases, this was not known when people began leaving their homes to join the demonstrations.
Many were shocked when the largest, most sustained series of protests in 50 years emerged in the midst of plague and social isolation. But perhaps we shouldn’t have been. Protests, in the age of COVID-19, seem to address two needs at once: the moral compulsion to stand up and say no to an unequivocal social malady, and the human need to join together with others to process what we are going through. We tend to think of protests as outward-facing tactics to achieve change, and of course they are. The most important objective of all protest is to draw attention to a social ill, making the case for social change. And yet, this is not the only aspect of protest worth exploring. Protests are collectives of practitioners, connected by common cause and interest. As such, they are fertile grounds for learning.
An active force
When we think of the conditions that must be in place to support learning, the idea of the social environment is a useful frame. The concept, which can be traced to the philosopher and godfather of progressive education John Dewey, refers to the totality of conditions and influences that promote or hinder learning. It is the surroundings, but not only the surroundings. It is the people in one’s immediate proximity, but not only that. It is one’s milieu, one’s social network. As Dewey notes in Democracy and Education, it is the conditions that lead one to be a “sharer or partner in the associated activity so that he feels its success is his success, its failure, his failure.” The social environment is not a latent background but an active force that calls out to individuals, leading them to develop into particular types of people. The social environment declaims “Black Lives” and the uninitiated respond “Matter!”
The idea that a protest promotes learning and is an important component of a young person’s social environment is not an intuitive one. Protests tend to be high in intensity and low in nuance. If one hopes to understand the arguments surrounding qualified immunity, whether body cameras improve police behavior, the effectiveness of civilian review boards, or how one’s police department’s union contract protects officers, a protest is not the place. Learning the history of how white supremacy has contributed to our current state of affairs and how we might undo 400 years of state and vigilante violence must take place outside a protest. The educative role of a protest is to pique interest, connect members of the community, and provide a space for the enactment of learning by doing.
Protests are not designed to teach and do not have an explicit focus on youth development. And yet, such a focus is not necessary since learning does not require intentionality. In 2009, the psychologists Maricela Correa-Chávez & Barbara Rogoff conducted an experiment in Guatemala that demonstrates this point vividly. Drawing on a theory that learning happens in traditional communities through indirect, unintentional mechanisms, the researchers designed an experiment in which a teacher was told to teach one group of students how to build a toy while ignoring a separate group. They found that the ignored children nevertheless attended carefully to the lesson. Afterwards, they were able to make the toy. Chavez and Rogoff argue that their experiment helps to illustrate a common mode of learning in indiginous communities of the Americas: children learn by observing the world around them and begin to pitch in when they are ready.
What makes protests particularly generative spaces is that they are a particular type of social environment. They are, to use the language of anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, communities of practice. A protest is a group of people brought together by shared interests and values. They are there to do something, and while learning may not be at the forefront of their minds, it is almost inevitable. As Lave and Wenger have shown, this, in fact, is how out-of-school learning works. In other words, the type of learning that Chavez and Rogoff describe is not unique to indigeous communities of the Americas. In studies conducted around the world, in studies of midwives and tailors, butchers and naval quartermasters, Lave and Wenger found that a consistent process takes shape: novices join existing communities of practitioners, gradually develop skills and knowledge, and eventually move toward full participation in these communities.
The civil rights protests of the 1960s, as we see in the writings of the late Congressman and activist John Lewis, were communities of practice that supported the learning of protest organizers and attendees. In Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, Lewis describes protests that took place across the country: Nashville, Tennessee, Selma, Alabama, Rock Hill, South Carolina, and beyond. The participants in these communities of practice were heterogeneous. Some, like Lewis, attended weekly workshops before and after protests to learn about the history and tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience. Others, like many of those who attended the historic 1963 March on Washington, were novices, eager to listen. But all were learners. What are the tactics that will lead to the integration of lunchroom counters? How to respond when a policeman is approaching you with billy club in hand? How should advocates engage and inspire individuals outside the protest community who are nonetheless potential supporters? A central way that Lewis and other members of the civil-rights movement addressed these questions—how they learned which tactics were most effective, how to respond to threats of violence, and how to capture the attention of the broader community—was by participating in public demonstrations, listening, observing and reflecting.
Like the activists who joined together during the civil-rights movement, the group of Bronxites that assembled on the Parade Ground on June 6 was a community of practice. While our backgrounds and beliefs were undoubtedly diverse, we were nonetheless united by an understanding that police violence was a systemic problem, that change was needed, and that we each had a role in helping to bring about this change. The children who joined us on the Parade Ground and other protests across the country—The New York Times reported nearly 550 protests across the country on that Saturday—may have had a less central role in the protests. They did not help to organize events or lead chants. But they too had important roles. Before leaving for the event, Alma and Sam, like other children, each created their own sign. Sam’s was simple: Black Lives Matter in black marker across a white background. Alma’s was more involved: she listed the names of more than 30 people killed by police in teal, blue and brown under the banner of Say Their Names. By inviting children to make signs, parents ensured that they were not simply attendees but active participants. We gave them a defined role and in so doing reinforced the idea that they belonged. Belonging, as we know from educational scholars like Na’Ilah Suad Nasir, is a critical ingredient in a learning environment. As Nasir writes in a piece in individuals are more likely to engage in a topic and develop understanding when they are made to feel part of a group, are treated with respect and encouraged to incorporate aspects of themselves in whatever it is they are called on to do.
On June 6, our family’s sense of belonging was buttressed when we saw people at the protest we knew. Seeing people one knows at a protest or any community event is never assured, but such a sighting typically reinforces a sense of connectedness. On this day, we saw members of our church, long time friends from the neighborhood, the father of a child Sam went to preschool with, and members of an emergent neighborhood organization that came together in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Alma and Sam each saw a good friend. Seeing their friends provided a much needed leavening to an otherwise somber day. It also introduced a certain banality to the day. We bumped into friends at this event in the same way we might have seen them at the playground or supermarket. The protest was one small part of the children’s broader social environment.
Access to experts and expertise
One hour after arriving at the Parade Ground, a walking caravan of some 200 additional people emerged from the south. They were loud. They were raucous. They were eager to share. One after another, young men and women of color who had experienced racial oppression took turns teaching us about themselves and ourselves. And here lies the second crucial element of protests as learning spaces: protests provide participants access to experts and expertise. Parents and caregivers do everything we can for our children, including teaching about injustice and their role in combating injustice. But there is a limit to what we can offer our children. This is the case for all caregivers in all scenarios. It is particularly true for parents who are trying to teach their children about police brutality and systemic racism. We cannot do this alone.
Learning research suggests that experts play a critical role in helping novices to develop knowledge and skills, but how might we think of expertise in this context? Who comes to mind when we think of experts in the area of police brutality, criminal justice reform & combating racial oppression? One might think of attorney, writer and professor Michelle Alexander who wrote the best selling and much discussed The New Jim Crow. One might think of MacArthur Genius Ta-Nehisi Coates or Ibram Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist. Or one might think of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, the activists who originated the Black Lives Matter hashtag and helped to launch a movement.
But these are not the experts I am thinking of. The experts I have in mind here are lay people who have developed expertise through their own family and community networks and their first hand experience of racial oppression. While well known experts like Coates and Garza are indispensable to our understanding of how to resist racial oppression, we would be wrong to assume that expertise does not reside outside the professional classes. In fact, recognizing and validating non-professional expertise is critical to understanding the experiences of the historically oppressed. This is a key insight of fields such as African American Studies, Critical Race Theory, and Latina/Latino Critical Theory. As Dolores Delgado Bernel of the University of Utah finds in her research with Chicano/Chicana colleges students, people who have been the victims of systems of oppression have within them experiential knowledge, rich funds of expertise that can help us better understand how the world works—and how to change it.
The most memorable expert we learned from this summer was Kwame Browder, the brother of the late Kalief Browder, who in 2015 committed suicide after spending three years on Rikers Island (where he was brutalized by guards and inmates) without ever being convicted of a crime. At a protest organized by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, Kwame shared his story. He talked about what it was like to live in a community under constant surveillance by the police, what it was like for this mother to find her son just minutes after he killed himself, and the legal battles waged between the Browder family and the city. Kwame was angry. Unlike the other speakers who spoke on this day—organizers who pointed to particular changes they wanted made to city budgets and NYPD policy—Kwame had a different answer. We need to arm ourselves, he exhorted.
“They got guns,” he said pointing to the police officers who surrounded us, “why don’t we?” The community, he declared, needed to police itself. This was teaching that my wife and I —white, middle class activists who believe in nonviolence—simply would never have provided our children. Yes, we could share what we knew about the history of the Black Panther Party, and why activists like Huey Newton and Malcolm X held that an unjust state should not have a monopoly on violence. But for us, those were stories from the past. For my daughter, Alma, however, this was the speech that stuck with her. And it stuck with the rest of us as well. None of us left the rally as second amendment converts, but we did leave asking questions we hadn’t asked ourselves before. What would it be like to really and truly feel that you were better off arming yourself than relying on the police? That police were more problem than solution? We left the rally and did some homework. We learned that the COVID-19 pandemic and the social unrest that followed George Floyd’s murder had led a spike in gun sales, and that a National Shooting Sports Foundation survey found that gun sales in recent months have been greatest among Black customers. Kwame Browder’s call for Black Americans to arm themselves was not an isolated one.
On this day, we heard pastors speak to us about the moral and spiritual need to stand up and resist racial oppression. We heard a trans activist read the names of members of the LGBTQ community who had been shot by police. And a 17-year old youth activist who explained how he and his fellow activists had been organizing to get the police out of schools. It was Kwame Browder, however, who spoke to Alma. Drawing on what philosopher Patricia Hill Collins calls the “testimonial authority of storytelling,” Kwame Browder—who brought his five-year-old son to join him—took us behind the headlines of the Kalief Browder story and left us pondering the effects of—and the legitimate responses to—systematic assaults on the Black body.
The value of embodied learning
In the spring, when COVID-19 struck, schools and after school programs across the country closed down and how students were called upon to learn changed drastically. Gone was physical proximity. Gone were assignments where students worked together on the same poster or same experiment. Gone were group presentations and labs. Playgrounds were closed, the rims taken off of basketball hoops. Sports programs – soccer, baseball, basketball and on and on – cancelled their seasons outright. Seemingly overnight, the physical world disappeared and was replaced by a keyboard and a screen.
Before the pandemic, the allure of remote instruction, of disembodied, cyber learning was ascendant. Yes, the much heralded MOOCs—those massive open, online courses—had come and gone. And yes, the value of fully online high schools and colleges hadn’t scaled the way their proponents promised. Nevertheless, in recent decades, before we were forced to close schools and conduct all of our learning on a laptop, there was a sustained whisper of do we still need in person schooling? Can’t all of our learning take place on Khan Academy’s digital platform? Can’t we just use AI and machine learning to develop problem sets and writing assignments that are perfectly calibrated to meet the particular needs of individual students and have Siri or Alexa teach them everything they need to know?
The answer of course is no. As much as we might be tempted to think otherwise, learning does not take place independent of the body. The human being is more than an information processing device encapsulated in flesh and bone. Human learning requires bodily experiences. As the German researcher and psychologist Marc Wittmann writes in Altered States of Consciousness, “The brain does not simply represent the world in a disembodied way as an intellectual construct, but rather the organism interacts as a whole with the environment… Our mind is body-bound. We think, feel, and act with our body in the world.” Educators have long intuited this fact. It is why we see so many “hands on” activities in elementary schools across the nation. It is why social studies teachers call on students to re-enact famous moments and movements in history.
In recent years, researchers from a variety of fields including psychology, linguistics, mathematics, memory, and performing arts have demonstrated in the lab and in the field the value of embodied learning. As Professors Robb Lindgren and Mina Johnson-Glenberg write in Educational Researcher, “the enactment of knowledge and concepts through the activity of our bodies” is associated with an increased likelihood of knowledge retention. As progressive educators have long argued, we learn by doing. Or as Aristotle writes in the second book of the Nicomachean Ethics,
For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.
Protests are particularly well suited to learning because of how they exploit physicality. Whether people march through the streets, conduct sit-ins at lunch counters, “die-ins” on college campuses or chain themselves to nuclear power silos, protest is an inherently embodied experience, and such experiences are particularly well suited for learning.
The most acute moment of learning that took place on June 6th was not something we heard or observed; it was something we did. We had been on the Parade Ground for about three hours when one of the speakers held up a bullhorn and addressed us.
Two weeks ago, he began, George Floyd was brutally killed by an officer who pinned his knee to Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. He then went on to call on each of us to kneel for the same amount of time. I would later come to learn that this act would almost become a ritual with activists across the country doing the same. I heard from friends in Attleborough, Mass.; Waitsfield, Vt.; and Raleigh, N.C. that they had knelt for George Floyd. Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues in the House even took a knee. And my family would do the same at a future protest. But at the time, it was a novel and powerful act. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds—the amount of time Officer Derek Chauvin bore down on George Floyd’s neck—we knelt in silence. As we knelt, many in the crowd lifted their right arms, displaying the Black Power Fist. My daughter did the same. The protesters kneeling and holding up the Black Power sign evoked an earlier moment, 54 years earlier almost to the day when Bronxite Stokely Carmichael first introduced the rallying cry of Black Power in a speech delivered in Broad Street Park in Greenwood, Mississippi.
Sam knelt because he was asked to. He was not asked to raise his fist, and so he did not. But then, about four minutes into our kneeling, he did. He may have done so simply because he saw his sister doing the same, but the act—this embodiment of a long tradition of protest, enacted among a community of practitioners—struck me as something important, something worth attending to. In the days and months to follow, when we were back in the quiet of our home, it would be a moment to reflect upon and explore further. Why was everybody lifting their fists? What does it mean for a white person to hold up the Black Power sign? What is our role in the broader movement for Black lives? The June 6th protest did not provide answers to these questions. Like any worthwhile learning experience, it left us resisting pat answers, eager to know more.
Jeremy Greenfield, Ph.D., is a Bronx-based educator and parent. He has taught at the high school, undergraduate and graduate level, and his publications have appeared in The High School Journal and Linguistics and Education.