Many students in my Advanced Placement Government class have had little access to diversity within their classes. Each day I am working to help them question the way the government and society functions so they can be future government leaders/citizens/activists. Last week I rewarded them after a particularly grueling reading assignment with a movie day. The two best words for students and teachers alike…movie…day!!!
We had been learning about the American political landscape and ideologies. We were wrestling together with tough questions surrounding immigration, racial tensions, lack of minorities in political office, HB2, and income inequality. The students had read data from Freedom House and evaluated the levels of freedom within countries around the world. I tread lightly as a facilitator in this class and let students start to form ideas. For many students this is hard at first because they want to know what is “right.” My students, like most of us who have grown up in the United States, think about ethics and politics in a purely Western/Eurocentric context (Lock Swarr & Nagar 2010, 78-79, 171). So, without telling students what to think or beating them over their heads with ideas that seem foreign, I learn with them. I struggle with them. We evolve together and try to step out of our comfortable cocoon and into the world.
I try to use these tough discussions as a way for students to begin to “produce, reinforce, recreate, resist, and transform ideas about race, gender, and differences in the classroom” (Mohanty 2003, 194). This is a safe place to start building ideas/thoughts/future programs, and it is static…ever-evolving and changing. This is the first time for many students in my class to talk about race, injustice, sexuality in a way that is open. In a manner that doesn’t necessarily have all the right answers, but calls for us to begin to think about issues instead of keeping our heads in the sand.
The movie I chose for us to watch was “The Good Lie.” This movie is about children living during the second Sudanese Civil War who eventually make the arduous trek to a refugee camp in Kenya, and are then brought years later to the United States. Many of the actors in the film were survivors of the Sudanese Civil War. As the students watched the movie, I watched their faces. A few of them let tears slip down their face or had a look of horror as they watched the children make their way to Kenya. Once in the United States, there was laughter and faces of awe as my students watched the new refugees navigate their new lives. A collective gasp occurred when two of the refugees were asked by their grocery store manager to throw away expired food after spending years hungry.
After the film, we discussed. The students were all surprised by how many people lived in refugee camps together. One student said, “I learned just how hard it can be to live in it. I could not imagine having to stay in a refugee camp for thirteen years like they did. Like the lady said there were around 100,000 refugees at that camp. All of them like the people in the film, waiting for the opportunity to be put on the list to fly to the United States to start a new life.” And another student explained, I learned “It can be rough in a refugee camp, because often times there are thousands of people that need to be taken care of so each person does not get a lot of care. The food given to them is bland and easy to make, which means their diets are not very good.”
Students were very interested in talking about life in the United States for refugees. All of the students described the culture shock experienced by the refugees in the film. Some students expressed these thoughts by saying:
“It was hard for them to fit in and understand everything that we did. They did not accept some of the things that we did in the U.S.”
“It is a really big and hard adjustment with all the technology in the US. Also, the wasting of food really seemed to upset them, considering in the US we really do waste a lot.”
“It was really hard to adapt to another way of living. All the technology and culture were completely different to them. So they had to adapt to all these new things. Like the telephone or cars.”
“It is hard for them to adjust to the different style of living that we have here in the U.S. They didn’t know how to use a phone or how the electricity worked in their house.”
These are all cultural references/experiences these students had never thought about before. They had many questions about living in the US as a refugee and they felt that it would be a very hard transition for refugees. One student explained, “There really isn’t enough people helping those refugees get accustomed, in my opinion. I was surprised that the sister, Abital, would get separated from her family.”
I asked the students if they thought their peers knew about life in refugee camps or what life was like for refugees who entered the United States. They did not think their peers knew about much concerning refugees. They voiced what they wanted their peers to know:
“I wish my peers didn’t take things for granted because the refugees have practically nothing and they have had a much worse life than the rest of us have had. I also wish that they knew that it is hard to switch lives so suddenly.”
“What hardships they went through, lives lost, the danger.”
“How many people are actually in the refugee camps and how food and medicine was scarce”
“I wish they could just see these children, watching their parents get murdered or their siblings eaten by wild animals. I think it would truly change them and make everyone so appreciative of what we are given.”
“How hard it was for them. They have been through so many things and they just want to get away from it and start a new life.”
“Their story and were they came from and that they are people just like us.”
“That it takes more than just funding to allow refugees to survive in a country like the United States. They need people to show them the ways of our society and allow them to make the adjustment. They will not survive in this country without being shown how to function correctly.”
I recently read about the Ananya Dance Theatre and this group of women is using dance and water to bring awareness to women’s rights/struggles within historical contexts and across borders. These women are using what they know in order to speak to audiences and reconstruct shared narratives (ibid. 147-165). We ended class with a challenge to spread awareness. To take what we knew how to do and continue wrestling with (in)justice in ways that we knew how. Students committed to spread awareness in their own ways via social media. Two students even committed to fighting injustice within the school when they heard comments that could be considered racist, sexist, or derogatory. So much of our discussion revolved around the idea of “awareness.” Becoming aware of other people’s lives, identities, struggles. And then mobilizing in light of that awareness.
Lock Swarr, A. and Nagar, R. (Eds.). (2010). Critical transnational feminist praxis. NY: SUNY Press.
Talpade Mohanty, C. (2003). Feminism without borders: Decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity. Durham, NC:Duke University Press.