How High Schoolers Can Change the World

A summer intensive session at Tufts will teach pre-college students how to use social organizing principles to make a difference
Anjuli Fahlberg with trees in the background. A summer intensive session at Tufts will teach pre-college students how to use social organizing principles to make a difference
“As a sociologist, I think it’s important for students to understand how power operates in society,” said Anjuli Fahlberg.
March 5, 2020

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With the state of politics today, it can be tempting to spend hours venting one’s frustrations in conversation or on social media—especially for high schoolers, who might feel powerless to change things when they don’t even get a vote.

But don’t despair, said Anjuli Fahlberg, a faculty member in the Department of Sociology at Tufts—there are a number of actions young people can take right now to tackle the problems they see around them.

Fahlberg will be teaching high school students age fifteen and older this summer about social movements in her three-hour session “Policy and Politics,” part of the Tufts pre-college  Leadership for Social Change intensive.

The goal of the two-week Leadership for Social Change program is to support students develop leadership skills and civic knowledge to become ethical agents of change. In Fahlberg’s session, students will examine some basic principles of politics and social movements, apply their growing knowledge to situations in their own lives and communities, and, for those who are interested, take the first steps toward making their corner of the world just a little bit better.

“Part of my course is helping students realize that if they’re mad about something, there are some steps they can take to produce meaningful change,” Fahlberg said.

Tufts Now recently spoke with Fahlberg, who is also a faculty fellow with the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, about her workshop, which she also taught last summer, and what she hopes students will take away from it.

Tufts Now: What is your goal with the workshop?

Anjuli Fahlberg: I want to give students an opportunity to learn what they’re not learning in school, and gain skills they are not necessarily getting in school or even from jobs or volunteer opportunities.

As a high school student, no one ever taught me about social movements. I learned about how the government worked, and a little bit about things like citizenship and voting rights, but I never got any training or encouragement to organize around an issue.

We are in a very highly polarized political moment right now, and I sense a lot of anger and frustration. All social movements begin with that—with caring and being passionate—and I get the feeling that young people care deeply. But the next step is learning how to direct those emotions productively.

This session gives those students some of the skills, vocabulary, and theoretical framework needed to understand how social movements operate in relation to formal politics, and to apply them to a particular issue of their choice.

What’s your approach to engaging students with the concepts of social change?

As a sociologist, I think it’s important for students to understand how power operates in society. Not just things like politics, which is often how we think of power, but how someone’s race, gender, or socioeconomic status impacts the way the world perceives them and the types of opportunities available to them.

It’s also important for me to cultivate empathetic reflection among students, which is their ability to not just think about the world in abstract terms and memorize names and dates, but rather to think about what it’s actually like to be a real person navigating all these structures we often talk about in theory.

Finally, I like to do a lot of discussion-based learning in the classroom. I try to get students to a place where they’re not just memorizing information, but thinking critically about it, listening to each other and using discussion as an opportunity to see things from multiple perspectives.

It’s part of my job to help students recognize that we have a tendency to want to call things good or bad because it makes us feel more secure. But that keeps us from seeing things from different points of view and understanding that in the real world everything is very complicated.

What’s an example of an issue students focused on last summer?

One group looked at the dress code at one of their schools, which they were unhappy about. The first step was to gather information. Often we see a news story and then we’re angry, but we have very little information.

So the students concluded that that they had to read the bylaws of the school and figure out what the policy actually was. Until you know how a policy is written or how it’s implemented, how can you change it?

The next step was to decide on next steps. Did they need to start a petition, or file a request with the principal, or go to the school committee? Often we don’t take the time to ask ourselves these really specific questions, which thanks to the Internet we can easily answer. And the third step was to ask, Who are the stakeholders? What concrete actions can we take? What types of framing devices can we use to get other students on board? What are the risks?

Although this was a small-scale issue, it allowed students to think concretely about each of the steps they would need to follow and which people they would need to target if they were going to make a change. It helped them move from a place of frustration to a place of research, planning, and action.

What do you hope students will take away from your course?

My sense last summer was that students were developing friendships with each other over the course of the program. Most had a very strong critical consciousness and came from an activist background, and were really committed to making social change.

For many students this summer, the group might be one of the few opportunities they have to be part of a community they might not find elsewhere—a community of like-minded individuals who care about changing the world.

I also hope the session empowers students down the road. Part of the challenge for young people is that with everything they’re doing to keep up their grades, work, volunteer and get into college, there’s not a lot of energy left to engage in this kind of activism.

But life is long, and they’ll have lots of opportunities as they move forward. My job is to plant the seed so the students can water it when they can, so that when they have the time, the energy, and the passion, they’ll know how to take action.

To learn more, go to the Tufts pre-college intensive Leadership for Social Change website.

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.