Students building a better world

Walking the talk

Encouraging students to ‘live social justice’ creates adept decision-makers and helps them become active participants in democratic and civil systems. But schools need to lead by example, Dr Joseph Agbenyega from Monash University’s Faculty of Education tells IE Journalist Tara de Boehmler.

For social justice education to take hold it must be taught as a way of living, rather than limiting it to isolated projects, Dr Agbenyega says. In practice, this involves asking every student what they want their schools to be like.

“Very young children must also be included – all must be able to make a contribution,” he says.

“At primary and secondary schools, students who have been included in decision making will perceive themselves as part of the school community and will hold themselves accountable when part of rule-making. This also drives them to participate in the classroom.”

Dr Agbenyega says there are various roles that schools can play, including:

  • capacity building according to the different capabilities and abilities which individuals can use to help them escape from disadvantage
  • building students’ strength by focusing on ability rather than deficits, as a deficit focus can lead to exclusion
  • creating transformation in personal agency, building an ability to act with intent
  • building a range of new relationships, ensuring students meet with different types of people and transform the way they see the world
  • developing students’ emotional, cognitive and physical wellbeing by linking with families so schools know what students are going through, and
  • everyday education that provides a convivial atmosphere leading to personal skills and development.

Dr Agbenyega says relationships within schools are fundamental to a functional school. He also suggests intercultural and multicultural – not mono-cultural – buddy systems to help students learn about each other’s culture while providing academic support.

Learning from Mandela

The legacies of Nelson Mandela provide key principles for living social justice, Dr Agbenyega says. These principles include:

  • look at me, myself, and then you learn from me
  • education is living and living is education
  • use education as a platform for sustainable living
  • where children cannot speak for themselves advocacy is vital, and
  • being relentless in pursuit of our dreams and what we believe in.

Legacies in the making

When looking for inspiration for social justice teaching, Dr Agbenyega says many people are still making legacies.

Ertharin Cousin As Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Program, Ertharin continues to advocate that there should be zero malnutrition and that no child should go hungry on any day. Bringing food to children in war-torn countries and those impacted by environmental disasters and other issues is vital. If children are hungry they cannot talk about social justice.

“Children can’t learn when they are hungry so education and social justice must go hand in hand,” Dr Agbenyega says.

Zhan Haite This “ambitious girl growing up in rural China” is standing up to the government policy that rural children must remain rural educated and cannot be admitted to the better resourced city schools”, Dr Agbenyega says.

“She migrated to Shanghai and in response to the exclusionary policy is advocating and mobilising around it. She is now having great breakthroughs,” he says.

“Our schools and educators can transform the way our society is today by ensuring all students are included, and by diversifying and valuing all subjects equally.

“We live as role models so students learn how to come to the next level.”

Wherever they are schooled, whatever their socio-economic backgrounds or their nations’ political systems, young people demonstrate an innate desire to actively work for a better world. When they speak out, their voices carry a power and a purity that begs our attention. When they act, they inspire us to follow.

Remember where you came from

In the lead-up to the 2013 Federal Election a group of students from Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview, made headlines when they wrote a public letter to the nation’s Jesuit-educated political candidates, calling for a more compassionate approach to asylum seekers.

In August 2013 the Saint Ignatius’ College student advocacy group sent a letter to Jesuit-educated candidates, including Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten, Joe Hocky, Christopher Pyne and Barnaby Joyce. The students wrote:

“As students in a Jesuit College standing within a near five century tradition of formation of head, heart and hands, we feel compelled to write to you, having shared this formation ahead of us, and now offering yourselves as future leaders of our nation.

“An Ignatian education has always embraced and esteemed growth in competence, conscience and compassion, the mission of the Jesuits and all their ministries is ‘the service of faith and the promotion of justice’. We share that with a passion. The currently proposed solutions to the so-called ‘refugee problem’ by both the Labor Party and Liberal-National Coalition are inhumane and unjust. They betray our national character of being large-hearted, of giving someone ‘a fair go’, and of ‘helping the battler’. They lack moral courage and, in the light of our international obligations, may be illegal.

“We feel compelled to express our disappointment that, as graduates of our Jesuit schools, you would allow those principles, cultivated in our common tradition, to be betrayed. We look for heroes among our alumni, for insignes (generous and influential people, as Ignatius styled them). Instead we see only allegiances to parties that trade human lives for political expediency, that choose the lowest common denominator to woo the populace, and that speak of economic problems rather than the dignity of the human person, especially the most vulnerable.” (abridged)