If young people are to engage in democracy and society, young people need to learn how to respectfully disagree. Yet, educators often find it challenging to lead discussions on contentious issues.
Based on my experience as a middle school social studies educator, I’ve discovered that there are ways teachers and others who work with young people can show them how to deal effectively and respectfully with controversial topics – as well as what controversial topics to take up. Though the list of seven ideas I have created below were designed with educators in mind, they are applicable beyond the classroom.
1. Avoid personal attacks
In my former classroom, we had a mantra: “We address the ideas, we don’t attack the person.” When a person feels attacked, they stop listening.
Collectively determine what respect looks and feels like within these types of discussions. For example, a student may raise their voice as they passionately discuss a topic, but that can be perceived as yelling. Have a conversation on students prior to discussion on tone, style and how to engage in a topic when it becomes heated.
The educator’s role as a facilitator is to ensure that students maintain respect for their peers as they passionately express themselves. Making this investment will pay off tremendously for any discussion you have, whether in a classroom or another venue. If young people don’t feel like their viewpoints will be heard and respected, they will likely not speak up.
2. Try easy topics first
Before you dive into a more contentious topic, practice the skills of debate and disagreement with a topic such as school uniforms or cellphone use in classrooms.
A critical element of disagreement must also be empathy. Lived experiences often shape beliefs. Allow young people to share their experiences and their rationale. You may not agree, but you can be sensitive and try to understand their perspective. Remind students to seek to understand without focusing on being right.
3. Introduce familiar as well as new topics
To engage students, select social issues that young people are passionate about. This allows them to utilize their own experiences and knowledge as a frame of reference. It’s important that you truly know and ask your students what they’re interested in. Do not make assumptions. At the same time, recognize that there are topics or issues students may not aware of such as racism, global warming, indigenous and LGBTQ struggles for justice, and that this can be an opportunity to introduce them to narratives outside of their lived experiences or interests.
Be mindful when discussing issues that are connected to young people’s lived experience. Understand that certain topics can evoke strong emotions.
4. Keep discussions structured
Effective discussions are structured, whether it is a formal debate or Socratic seminar where students facilitate their own learning through group discussion rooted in shared texts or sources. No matter the format, establish and communicate clear rules. This will make it easier for you as a facilitator to enforce the rules of engagement and respect.
5. Have students prepare
Students should be prepared for the discussion, which means they should have read, viewed and researched multiple sources on the topic. It’s important to emphasize that students understand the topic from various viewpoints. Allowing time for students to prepare will ensure that all students will be able to contribute and engage in the discussion.
6. Take politics head on
Election season provides an array of topics to analyze, which will provide lots of material to inform student opinions for the discussion. With the midterms, students can discuss and evaluate candidate platforms as they relate to various social issues and their proposals for change. Ballot measures and amendments such as abortion in West Virginia, transgender rights in Massachusetts, and voting rights in Florida are vital to evaluate as well. Have students read and question the ballot. There are many social issues embedded within ballot measures and examining them prepares students to be informed voters when they are a little older. The midterms can serve as a springboard, but you can continue having these discussions throughout the school year.
7. Examine social movements
The complexities of social movements such as women’s suffrage and civil rights are not highlighted enough in middle school and high school curricula. There is usually a focus on leaders and not the long-term collective actions of individuals.
Examining historical and contemporary social movements like pro-choice and pro-life, Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter, and the LGBTQ movement, provides fertile ground for diverse individual and collective perspectives of an issue. Students can analyze the websites, news articles of social movements, or engage in a pro/con exercise to grapple with perspectives of a social issue. Questions can be posed to students such as: “Why are people organizing?” or “How does each group see the issue differently?” You could facilitate writing projects to legislators and activists or design a research project where students investigate the purpose, perspective and civic actions of a social movement. A lot of insight can be gleaned from social movements that can enhance discussions. More importantly, young people can find ways to engage in civic action themselves beyond the classroom.
MODEL STUDENT AND CITIZEN: Dajae Coleman, 14, was walking home from a party with friends when he was gunned down. Police say he was not the intended target. (Family photo)
Chicago-area residents were reminded once again of the senselessness of gang violence when 14-year-old high-school freshman Dajae Coleman was shot and killed as he walked home from a party with friends on Saturday night in Evanston, Illinois. It’s an all-too-familiar story: a “model citizen” and “well-mannered” young man’s life needlessly taken. (Police say he was not the shooter’s intended target.)
Making the story even more poignant was news today that Coleman’s school and family released an essay that he had written two days before his murder. Titled “My Belief Statement,” it’s a heartfelt expression of his love for his family and community. “My mom pushes me to do better, she always tells me to never settle,” Coleman wrote. “I think the kids that are on the street not doing anything with their lives don’t get the type of support they need from their family. They probably don’t have anyone to look up to.”
The tragic irony is that Coleman did have positive influences and a bright future. But in a culture of ever-increasing violence and disregard for life, that didn’t matter.
Still, people are finding hope in the life-affirming message that Dajae Coleman left behind. In a Chicago Tribunevideo, a visitor to the makeshift memorial site for Coleman described the young man’s essay as “prophetic, profound, and part of [Dajae’s] legacy.”
We can only hope that other young people — and adults — will read the essay and be inspired to pursue a more positive direction in life. Just like Dajae.
When Alissa was only 16 years old, she met an older man at a Dallas convenience store. In the amount of time that it took for her to step inside for a Diet Coke and a pack of Newports, the man talked Alissa into giving him her phone number and walked her back out to the car, even opening the driver side door for her. Over the next few weeks he wooed Alissa, taking her to expensive restaurants and complimenting her fragile beauty. Those first few weeks were filled with expensive gifts and a promise of a better life. When Alissa’s new boyfriend asked her to move in with him, she said yes without hesitation, her eyes filled with the promise of safety and security.
Instead of finding security in her new home, Alissa slowly broke to her new boyfriend’s control. He began to beat her, forced her to watch porn so that she might become a “better lover,” and even made Alissa get a tattoo of his nicknames, further branding her as his own. Soon, this man convinced her to begin escorting other men on dates and having sex with them for money. Further expanding his enterprise, he posted prostitution advertisements on the Internet and demanded that Alissa have sex with the men who responded to the ads. This boyfriend turned pimp easily kept Alissa in line. With an assault rifle in the closet and a combination of verbal and physical abuse, he brandished complete control over his captive.
Alissa’s story serves as a mirror for countless others throughout the United States every day. The United States legal system defines sex trafficking as, “commercial sex acts induced by force, fraud, or coercion or commercial sex acts in which the individual induced to perform commercial sex has not attained 18 years of age.” The Polaris Project reports that though the number is largely indistinguishable, hundreds of thousands of US citizen minors are believed to be at risk for commercial sex exploitation. The same report noted that 40 to 70 percent of youth runaways fall into prostitution as a way to meet their essential needs. Most often, girls are only 12 years old at their time of entry and boys, only 11. In all, it’s been estimated that there are between 100,000 and 300,000 prostituted children in the United States.
The Pervasiveness of Human Trafficking
Human trafficking doesn’t only exist within the confines mentioned above or the boundaries of the United States. According to the Polaris Project, examples of human trafficking cases cover everything from sex trafficking in India and Latin America to exploitation of the workers in the shrimp industry in Thailand to the use of child soldiers in Burma. To further put things in perspective, it’s estimated to be a $32 billion industry and impact 161 countries across the globe.
We generally believe we’re safe here in the United States. We teach our children the basics — don’t talk to strangers, don’t take candy from anyone you don’t know, only play where we can see you. Yet, Alissa’s story is one that follows a common pattern learned by traffickers in the sex trade industry. When examined more closely, many follow similar recruiting and “seasoning” strategies designed to sell the illusion of love and security before conditioning their victims with a new lifestyle and belief system of blind obedience and abuse.
We’re making steps towards recognition. According to 2011 Human Trafficking Hotline Statistics, “2,945 victims of human trafficking were connected to services and support.” Of that number, “calls from self-identifying victims increased by 61 percent,” showing that the hotline number is reaching those people that need it the most.
These statistics help show that there is an increasing awareness and response to the human trafficking crisis. Just this past summer, a child prostitution crackdown — dubbed “Operation Cross Country Six” — occurred from June 21 to June 23 in 57 cities across the nation. Local and federal law enforcement officers worked with the FBI to arrest 104 suspected pimps in the operation. They also freed 79 children who were being forced to work as prostitutes. These children were found at hotels, truck stops and storefronts, some barely over 13 years old.
Overall, prostitution isn’t what it often seems. It isn’t a thrilling lifestyle chosen by women (or men) to expand their sexual portfolio or cash in on ritzy perks. As evidenced above, most barely even have a choice in the matter. Take Patricia’s story, for instance. As a child of Chicago’s South Side, she had witnessed her share of poverty and crime. Her father was a pimp; her mother, a prostitute. When Patricia was a suitable age, her father tried to purchase her. Finding this out, her mother took her and ran. Patricia was later molested by her mother’s boyfriend and forced out onto the street at only 12 years old.
With nowhere left to turn, Patricia engaged in “survival sex” for nearly two decades — very often by no choice of her own. With the help of advocacy groups like the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, Patricia has worked hard to find a rhythm of normalcy in her life. Today she works in the food service business at her first job outside of prostitution.
Shining a Light on the Issue
A wide range of other organizations in the United States exists to bring awareness to the injustice of human trafficking and provide education and empowerment. Nicole Marrett, the owner and founder of Radiant Cosmetics, seeks to raise awareness by raising funds for victims and those involved in leading the movement forward through her cosmetic sales — 20 percent of her company’s profits go toward assisting victims and educating the public on the issue.
Marrett first dreamed about starting this social venture while spending time in Thailand for missions work with the World Race. “I became friends with a prostitute in Thailand, and my heart broke for this woman,” said Marrett. “Walking Bangla Road, home to over 200 bars and countless women who’ve been trafficked, I felt alive. A vision began to form.”
It was from that vision that Radiant Cosmetics sprung forth. With 80 percent of the sex trade industry comprised of women and young girls, Marrett hopes to rally this generation of women to fight for their fellow sisters, “one lipstick at a time.”
Many in the Christian community have been instrumental in calling attention to the sex trafficking issue. In fact, many local churches have added groups ministering around the issue to their missions budgets. And Christian academia has realized the important role that education and empowerment must play in fighting trafficking. Earlier this year, Moody Bible Institute announced a new four-year undergraduate major designed to equip students to work with victims of sexual exploitation. During their time in the program, students will learn about contributing factors (both societal and spiritual) and familiarize themselves with human trafficking organizations in the area. They’ll also have the opportunity to participate in a six-month, off-campus internship between their junior and senior years. Internships can either be with domestic or international organizations, depending on the student’s preference.
Courtney Fillmore, an incoming Moody Bible Institute student, is entering the program this fall. She heard about it from a friend who knew of her passion to fight this injustice.
“Last year, God led me to spend three months in Thailand with Youth With A Mission (YWAM). It was here that I saw first hand the tragedy that is sex tourism, sex slavery and human trafficking,” said Fillmore. “We would go into bars at night and just talk to the women that worked there. It changed my life. I knew that I couldn’t go back to America and continue to ignore the issue.”
Since being back in the United States, Fillmore states that she’s seen how human trafficking is just as prevalent here as it was in Thailand — maybe not as outwardly noticeable, but flourishing just the same. It’s a filigree of secrets and lies, a cobweb in a dark attic corner. Women like Alissa may be our neighbors, students, waitresses that top off our cup of coffee every morning. But darkness can’t survive once it’s brought out into the light. And just as Fillmore has refused to ignore the issue, it’s up to us to respond to the crisis.
How You Can Help
For more information on how you can directly take action, please visit The Polaris Project to find info about volunteering, attending events, advocating on the state or federal level, or even reporting cases of human trafficking.
For further reading on this topic, please check out these recent books:
LITERACY MISSION: With his tour across the nation, Acts of Love founder William E. Hall hopes to improve the lives of urban kids one book at a time. (Photo by Amanda Edwards)
How do you measure the impact of an act of kindness? Is it by the words that are spoken or perhaps by the response that you elicit? Or is it something subtler?
For William E. Hall, pastor and founder of Acts of Love, the measure of his organization’s effectiveness comes by counting the number of smiles he sees each time he hands out books to children.
Based on the mantra “Extending a Hand and a Heart to the Next Generation,” Acts of Love is a community-based, non-profit campaign founded with the goal of collecting and distributing 1 million books to marginalized and underprivileged youth. “Our ultimate hope is to improve the reading and comprehension skills of students across the nation,” said Hall.
Birthed four years ago on DePaul University’s Chicago campus, Acts of Love is an outgrowth of Hall’s civic outreach organization, Communigize. Along with several of his closest friends, Hall launched Communigize as a community program centered on educating, mentoring, and inspiring urban youngsters.
Hall was born and raised in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. He grew up like any normal teenager, having fun and exploring the city and all that it had to offer. But he discovered early on how random acts of kindness can transform a person’s life.
“For me, it was always about how can we make lives better, for real and that’s no cliché,” he said. “As a kid, I saw so many examples of that right next door. My grandma and grandpa would wave or talk to strangers walking down the street and make their day.”
Hall added that his grandfather was especially interested in encouraging young people. “He just lived to see young people walk by, and encourage them by giving them pencils and raisins, and little cookies for afterschool treats.”
He carried those ordinary examples of kindness with him as he grew into adulthood. Now as a youth pastor, one can see how those principles have helped shape his ministry.
WORDS OF LIFE: At urban schools around the nation, Hall shares with young students about the importance of reading, learning, and making good choices in life. Here he meets with students at a Chicago grade school.
At DePaul, Hall always had those principles in mind as he pursued his studies as an economics major. While on campus, he was instrumental in starting several student organizations that shared that focus. Groups like Soul Food and Communigize were organizations designed to positively impact students’ hearts through the Word of God.
But Hall quickly realized that by only working with kids while in classroom settings, his outreach was limited. He remembered a specific field trip where he and his friends took several students to Navy Pier.
“As a youth pastor, we used to bring young people up and would allow them to run around on campus. We would just mentor them and expose them to places they probably wouldn’t see. When driving past [Chicago’s] Navy Pier, one of the kids in the car did not know what it was, and looked at the big Ferris wheel and was like, ‘What’s that?’ And that’s when I knew how important it is to really love young people and to really help them.”
Over the course of the next four years, he would yearn to do more. Hall realized that although he had touched the lives of numerous young people, God had placed a greater mission field in mind that would extend far beyond his reach with Communigize and the city of Chicago.
He completed his bachelor’s in 2007, and then went on to further his studies at McCormick Theological Seminary, where he received his master of divinity degree in 2011. It was during his years in school that he says God inspired him to take the message of love and inspiration across the country.
“I told my friends, let’s do this. Let’s organize and begin to look at ways we can strategically build something to help young people,” Hall said. And that’s how Acts of Love was born.
“[We are] living out what’s required of us as Christian people created by God, and that is to love others,” he said. “When we do a kind act, that’s really saying to someone I’m giving you the joy and happiness that comes from God, abounding love.”
This summer, Hall and his team of volunteers hope to inspire 700 or more adults to join the “Love Young People Tour” in going door to door, visiting some of the nation’s poorest communities in cities like Chicago, Gary, Detroit, Miami, and Washington D.C., and handing out 7,000 or more books to elementary, middle, and high school-aged students.
THE POWER OF BOOKS: Hall loves counting the smiles that come as he and his volunteers hand out books to young people. After getting their books, these young students in Columbus, Ohio, were eager to start reading.
Hall says he wants to make love tangible, and wants young people to “fall in love with knowledge” and the wisdom that can be discovered on the written page. He believes that when a difference is made in a young person’s life, the world can be changed. That’s why he and his staff of volunteers have partnered with Chicago aldermen Pat Dowell and Roderick Sawyer in hopes of counteracting literacy rates in the Windy City. And he hopes to duplicate this in other communities around the nation.
He added, “We never know how the seeds of knowledge that these kids find in books or just in the art of reading will impact them 10 or 15 years from now.”
In addition to the ambitious goal of collecting a million books, Hall also plans to join with other community partners to provide new books for urban libraries, build 50 reading rooms centered on growth and development, and supply 50 urban schools with a comprehensive extracurricular reading curriculum to aid them in improving student reading skills.
With more than 6,000 books already collected and nearly 500 people that have already pledged their support, Hall and his team are seeking additional supporters willing to make the commitment of sowing a seed of knowledge into the lives of the next generation.
“I want people to understand the power of love, and the need to love young people,” he said. “That’s what I was created for. We want a million people to make that commitment; to take that pledge, participate, and pass the word.”
If you would like to partner with the Acts of Love campaign or the Love Young People Tour 2012, please visit the www.millionactsoflove.org for more information.
I was born in 1987. Looking back over my childhood, I can proudly say that I was a “church kid.” Every Sunday morning and Wednesday night, I was there with my family for service, Sunday school, and Bible Study. Even during my high school and college, I took my faith seriously and participated in church activities even when people questioned why. I grew up and befriended other “church kids”; however, in later years some tend to distance themselves farther away from the church. It turns out that this is a normal phenomenon in my generation.
Earlier this year, there were two major studies published that came to the same conclusion: more “millennials,” or people born since the 1980s, are losing belief in God. In April, the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs released the results of the 2012 Millennial Values Survey. According to the survey, 25% of college-aged millennials (age 18 to 24) identified themselves as “religiously unaffiliated,” compared to the 10% that identify themselves as a “black Protestant.” Of those that are now non-religious, many grew up in religious households.
Last month, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press published their own survey stating that although “the United States continues to be a highly religious nation,” 68% of millennials say that they never doubted God’s existence, a 15-point decline from 2007. In fact, only 55% of millennials say that they agree with the three religious values presented in the survey: the existence of God, the personal importance of prayer, and belief in a Judgment Day. In contrast, two-thirds of older generations say that they believe in all three statements.
Although the Pew survey doesn’t show how each racial group views religion, researchers behind the Millennial Values Survey were surprised with their results. “There was some expectation that racial divisions among this cohort would be somewhat muted compared to what we see in the general public,” writes Daniel Cox, the Research Director of PRRI. “However, we found dramatic differences in the view of white, black and Hispanic Millennials.” One noteworthy difference: African Americans, as well as other ethnic minorities, are less likely to leave the church than Caucasians.
KEEPING THE FAITH: Surveys show African American millennials, as well as young adults from other ethnic minorities, are less likely to leave the church than whites.
Cox believes that there are two reasons why African American millennials tend to stick with their religious upbringing. First, African Americans generally are more religious than their white counterparts, meaning that we are more likely to attend weekly services, pray, and express religious views. According to the Millennial Values Survey, this applies to millennials: 77% of black Protestants stated that religion is either very important or the most important thing in their life. Second, Cox writes that the black church has and continues to be a central part of our community. “I think because it plays such a significant role both spiritual and socially for many African Americans that religious commitment remains strong among African American Millennials,” he writes.
One thing that is noticeably missing from both surveys: how millennials of different socioeconomic levels view religion. Fortunately, there are past studies that could give us some clues. According to a 2010 report, children from in low-income neighborhoods and attend church regularly earn a higher GPA than their wealthier counterparts. In addition, young people who attend religious activities at least once a month are more likely to enjoy school, be in gifted classes, and work harder academically than those who attend religious activities les often. Mark Regnerus, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, suggests that religion is just one of many positive extracurricular resources for more affluent teens; as a result, religion tends not to be as important later in life. In contrast, religion for a lower-income teen is one of very few positive influences in their lives. Since religious organizations are more accessible in urban areas, it acts as a positive distraction from negative influences like gangs.
Despite the high number of black millennials staying in the church and the well-documented benefits for urban millennials, the question remains why many are leaving in the first place. One reason is that millennials have mixed feelings about modern Christianity. Although 76% believe that Christianity “has good values and principles” and 63% state that it “consistently shows love for other people,” 62% describe Christianity as “judgmental,” with 63% saying that it is “anti-gay.” However, the answer might be in the way the church conducts youth and young adult ministry.
Drew Dyck, author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith and How to Bring them Back, suggests that youth ministries today focus more on reeling people in than nurturing spiritual growth. “Some have been reduced to using violent video game parties to lure students through their church doors on Friday nights,” he says in an interview for BibleGateway.com. “There’s nothing wrong with video games and pizza, but their tragic replacements for discipleship and Bible teaching. Many young people have been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculates them against authentic faith.” In other words, youth ministries cannot survive on lock-ins and pizza alone. As for parents, Dyck says dropping teens off for a few hours doesn’t make up for what they see at home: “Parents need to be modeling and teaching a dynamic faith at home. They are the primary faith influencers.”
As Christians, the news about millennials leaving the church can be discouraging. But we can use this research to reflect on how our ministries and parenting styles are helping — and hurting — this generation. As we turn from a focus on simply packing the pews with young people to teaching them how to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we will follow what was said in Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”