We are three weeks into the fourth grade and my Daughter is already on her second school-based activism/organizing campaign. It’s hard to know what is nature and what is nurture, but neither of these campaigns has been drummed up at home or from conversations with my wife or me. My daughter has just come home and said: this is what I am doing.
The current campaign has just begun: a drive to organize donations from other students in her school to help the flood victims in West Tennessee. On her own, she’s gotten support from the Principal. She’s garnered a teacher sponsor. She and her sister were making signs last night to put up around school. For a couple of days in, she’s got a pretty solid plan and process in place. We will see how it all unfolds.
But, it was her first campaign that was so important and has the most to learn from.
So, my daughter came home one day saying that she and her friends had started a petition that would ease the restrictions on standard school attire for fourth graders. No doubt, a year of being schooled at home makes standard school attire seem that much more annoying. Not to mention, as a fourth grader, she is starting to want to express herself through her fashion and accessorizing in new and different ways that are largely outside of standard school attire.
She decided she could - and should - do something about it. And, despite ultimately canceling the effort – or perhaps because of that – she illuminated some powerful lessons about organizing and life in general:
LESSON 1: Passion ignites action.
Clearly, my daughter and her co-conspirator friend had talked and were feeling strongly about their rights as fourth graders to wear what they want to, and even to be treated a little differently. They felt that as the oldest kids in school and those doing the “hardest” work that some reprieve from standard school attire would just help relieve all of that bottled up stress. While loaded with some pre-middle school drama at its source, I have to say she presented her argument logically and thoughtfully with a level of passion that I certainly wanted to encourage.
LESSON 2: You can’t go it alone.
Not to mention, by the time I even knew anything, she and her friend had already created a petition and enlisted others to help them gather signatures – which was pretty badass. They had even talked with a couple of teachers who, to their credit, encouraged the process the girls were undertaking without dismissing them, discouraging them, or otherwise derailing their passion. But, my Daughter and her friend knew they ultimately had to get the Principal’s buy-in.
LESSON 3: Start with a plan (but be willing to throw it out).
And, to do this, they were going to gather signatures from all of the 4th graders and deliver this petition to their Principal. They had decided who was going to cover which classes and which periods when they could gather signatures without disrupting their coursework. When they had all of the signatures, they would deliver the petition.
LESSON: Stay open to feedback.
So, it was at this point that I finally heard about this campaign. At dinner, my Daughter was so excited and fired up that she talked and talked and talked until I finally had to break in and ask a few questions. I told her I appreciated and supported her action, and was proud of the steps she had already taken, I could tell she had really thought about how to do this, but that I had some questions for her to consider:
- Why should 4th graders be treated differently? Yes, 4th grade is harder, but isn’t 3rd harder for the rising students as well? And 2nd? And, kindergarten for that matter? So, should her goals really just be targeted for one group of students and not the others? Regardless of the answer, she might want to be able to answer.
- Did she know why standard school attire was put in place as a policy in the first place? Had she asked the Principal or done any research to understand the policy so that she could be better informed about what she wants to change and how? (She had not.)
LESSON: Back your passion with reason. Do your research.
To her credit and her friend’s, regarding the first question, they decided they couldn’t reasonably answer why 4th graders should be treated differently and they quickly opened there demands for school attire leniency to be more inclusive of other grades. They were no longer seeking change that privileged one group over the other. This was, I thought, a pretty great breakthrough and recognition on their part.
But, more importantly to the second question, a couple of days later, they actually did go to their Principal to ask why standard school attire was instituted in the first place. And, what they learned is that standard school attire is an attempt to ensure no one feels excluded if they can’t afford new, or stylish, or even clean clothes to come to school every day.
LESSON: Recognize your privilege - and reframe.
As she processed this learning, she explored other options. Maybe you could wear pajamas. Maybe a school t-shirt. Maybe if you didn’t have clothes to wear you could just stay with standard school attire. There were several more, but she quickly realized that all of them ended up with the same challenge: kids from lower income families always ran the risk of being spotlighted inadvertently. As we discussed this at dinner and she ran through the possible variations and adaptations of her campaign, she finally just sort of got quiet. She was obviously reflecting – also badass.
LESSON: Don’t be too proud to change.
I didn’t hear anything else about the petition for several days. So, this morning, I asked what they had decided to do. She told me she and her friends had decided not to carry through with their campaign. They didn’t want to do anything that made other students feel uncomfortable or different because they may have less money.
I am writing this having just dropped my girls off for school, loaded with signs and plans and preparing speeches to gather donations to help the flood victims. Campaign #2 is now under way, and I am again proud of her efforts (and her inclusion of her little sister – both kind and strategic).
I am sure there will be more to come, but for now, I couldn't be more proud of the campaign that wasn’t.
* And, for the record, the masks don't bother them at all!
Update: Here’s a shot of the donations for pets (with mine hoping for a ride) collected by her school and delivered to Waverly.