Educating Activist Allies: Social Justice Pedagogy with the Suburban and Urban Elite
reviewed by Darren E. Lund - February 28, 2014
Title: Educating Activist Allies: Social Justice Pedagogy with the Suburban and Urban Elite
Author(s): Katy M. Swalwell
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415529468, Pages: 184, Year: 2013
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For many in the broad field of social justice education, a key focus remains around creating equitable opportunities for marginalized populations, overcoming structural and attitudinal barriers that limit educational outcomes. This book represents a significant and concerted departure from that important work, to turn our attention to improving ways of engaging students from dominant groups in interrupting social injustices at both individual and systemic levels.
Much of the first two chapters answers the questions of why it is important for equity minded scholars and teachers to attend to the education of privileged children, and how we will all benefit from harnessing the power they inherit (p. xx) to work toward equitable outcomes for all students. An introduction from the book series editor, Michael Apple, reminds readers that schools are always political places in which teachers have long sought to enact social transformation. Speaking to directly resisting contemporary conservative attacks on public schooling, he lauds Swalwells attention to enacting democratic policies and practices that seek to engage what her title names the suburban and urban elite. The reader is invited to consider the many advantages this population enjoys through their classed, racialized, and gendered positions, and how these attributes can best be used strategically to address inequalities. It is a lofty task, and the author provides a well-organized and theoretically robust volume that capably maps and undertakes the first steps of this journey.
The lessons from this book will inevitably be relevant to a wide audience. Anyone who works in teacher preparation programs in the US, Canada, or other Western colonized nations recognizes that a majority of those who are drawn to the teaching profession are typically middle-class females who have thrived in schools just the way they are. Engaging them in critical self-inquiry and exposing hidden forms of oppression and unearned privilege is always a large part of the challenge of critical teacher educators. This text offers a very readable and accessible analysis of privilege that effectively invites those who benefit from injustice to see themselves as implicated in the struggle for more equitable schools and schooling. Further, the author offers specific illustrations and examples of approaches and practices that can raise awareness of a collective responsibility that reminds us how racism and classism dehumanize all people including the elite.
The author reminds us that Freire and others have long recognized that poverty is not simply about poor people struggling, but it is intricately woven into the relationships between people of all social classes. Indeed, critically conscious people from dominant groups can play a critical role in liberating people from oppression, and Swalwell frames this movement as seeking to create a more just and humane society for all people. Seeking to avoid efforts simply to indoctrinate students undemocratically to a particular way of thinking, the author frames this immense task as follows:
To expose students to the realities of an unequal world, to raise questions about how best to address that inequality, and to ask students to think about their complicity and obligations . . . is not beholden to ones political affiliations and critically important for a functioning and healthy democracy (p. 13).
The actual work of doing so, however, is never straightforward, and begins with gaining insights into how students in privileged communities are raised, their conceptions of themselves, and how they can be led into justice-oriented notions of engaged citizenship that invite them into challenging and disrupting exploitive or destructive social relations. Raising awareness to a counter-hegemonic sensibility is no small task!
Swalwells chapters about children from these privileged communities are detailed, respectful, and poignant, with richly described portraits emerging from her research conducted in social studies classrooms in two elite academies and a suburban school. Her findings reveal the nuances in how privilege is understood and exercised, and how it can be challenged through dynamic social justice pedagogies that she describes as bursting the bubble and disturbing the comfortable (p. 53). She reminds us that effective pedagogical approaches must be varied and contextual, and the detailed case illustrations provide some solid grounding for multi-faceted approaches that take into consideration the specific student populations at hand. Pushing students out of their comfort zones through thoughtful pedagogies and strategic community engagement allowed educators to honor multiple perspectives in moving these privileged students into social critique and action. As many activist teachers can attest, this work is always about finding a balance between bringing about new, critical ways of thinking and acting and facing the inevitable resistance and backlash against social justice pedagogy.
Surprising to me, the content of the book is drawn from a single study that Swalwell conducted as her doctoral dissertation research; I should clarify that my own investigation revealed this, as the book itself stands as a strong academic piece illustrative of a mature scholar. Her study is framed through a critical lens informed by cultural historical activity theory (CHAT), using a comparative critical ethnographic case-study research design. It is no surprise that this work in its dissertation form won the 2012 Outstanding Dissertation Award from the American Educational Research Association, Division B: Curriculum Studies. Outlined in some depth in a detailed appendix section, both her personal positioning and the research approach are capably explained and contextualized.
At a number of points, the author goes to some lengths to justify her choice of research participantsperhaps somewhat defensively in placesbut certainly necessary for explaining to a sometimes cynical social justice audience the importance of engaging privileged people in the struggle for equity. Swalwell directly addresses concerns that this work could simply re-center the views and experiences of the already privileged, or that it would somehow give voice to the already loud. She argues convincingly that all anlyses of the experience of any population would involve deconstruction of narratives and constructive critique that is simultaneously respectful and critical (p. 136). It is clear that she fulfills her intention to treat her participants and research findings with a balance of both compassion and critique (p. 137).
I welcome this thoughtful and engaging volume as an important contribution to the growing body of literature that offers thoughtful analysis along with specific illustrations of both how to dismantle, and how to use, white privilege in the quest for educational equity. Swalwell uses compelling arguments and examples to show ways we can invite privileged students to be authors of their own emancipation as social justice advocates. She maps and analyzes student responses toward a framework for working with privileged students that can pry open their eyes to injustice around them and their related social obligations (p. 110). The author offers solid advice to educators and to teacher educators to encourage our students to make emotional and intellectual personal connections to injustice, to engage in ongoing critical reflection, to listen deeply to marginalized voices, and to find opportunities to build relationships with people from backgrounds different than theirs. In sum, this book stands as a crucial reminder that we cannot simply critique the powerful as we seek to disrupt sources of oppression without also engaging in meaningful ways those who hold the most power and influence in our society toward shared goals.