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April 23, 2020

By Kevin Ko-wen Chen, Communications Manager

In February, when Ethical Culture Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coordinator Vanessa D’Egidio asked Pippa C. ’29 and Finley R. ’29 if they knew what the acronym LGBTQ+ stands for, the two 3rd Graders struggled to identify all five letters.

“What does trans mean?” Pippa asked.

Over the next few weeks, as members of the LGBTQ+ rights social justice action group, Pippa and Finley would learn not only what identifiers like bisexual and queer signify, but also where LGBTQ+ rights remain contested around the world and how to advocate for LGBTQ+ people. They would learn to explain what being transgender means and to advocate for gender-neutral bathrooms in schools — just as their peers, in their own social justice action groups, tackled many of the most pressing issues confronting society today.

Last school year, the social studies focus for 3rd Graders at Ethical Culture was on Native Americans and the stereotypes, racism, and cultural appropriation that Indigenous communities face. The 3rd Grade team noticed, however, that once students learned about taking action to fight injustice, they were hungry for more.

“Other topics were coming up that the kids wanted to talk about, but with our schedule, there wasn’t time,” explains 3rd Grade Teacher Kate Culligan. The team’s solution, then, was to create social justice action groups: spaces for discussion that would serve as “a way to be reflective and proactive and honor what the kids were asking for.”

Back in their classrooms, the teachers asked students what issues interested them. From those conversations, seven major topics emerged: racial justice, environmental justice, immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, religious rights, women’s rights, and children’s rights. After students ranked their topics of greatest interest, the 3rd Grade teachers assigned them to one of the seven breakout groups. The teachers then recruited faculty and administrators from across Ethical Culture to facilitate social justice action group sessions over the course of three months.

In some groups, students came in with plenty of background knowledge about the specific topics they hoped to explore. Right off the bat, 3rd Graders in the women’s rights group wanted to examine the representation of women in sports, politics, and entertainment. In their sessions, students took a closer look at the Equal Rights Amendment and counted the number of times female athletes appeared on the front page of major sports network websites (spoiler alert: none).

In other groups, students entered with less prior understanding — but soon became galvanized to fight for the cause. When Kingston W. ’29 learned that children were being exploited to farm mica for use in cosmetics, he took it upon himself to spend his recess period designing a poster to draw attention to the issue of child labor.

For each group, the 3rd Grade team emphasized the importance of actionability; no matter what topic they chose, students should be able to take concrete steps to address an issue. Sometimes that involved pivoting from one problem to a different, but related, one. In the environmental justice group, for example, 3rd Grade Teacher Yan Davydov encouraged students to redirect their interest in protecting endangered animals like polar bears to protecting a more local species. As a result, the 3rd Graders honed in on the declining bee population and the dramatic toll the loss of cross-pollination takes on the ecosystem, brainstorming ways to plant flowers and restore some of the bees’ natural habitat.

Meanwhile, in Barbara Downing’s science classroom, a group of students built models of buildings and city plots with the principles of climate-adaptive design in mind. In their elaborate constructions of cardboard and paper, the 3rd Graders were tasked to pay attention to everything from how to streamline pedestrian traffic to what sort of vegetation to use in green spaces. “In science, we just did a unit on invasive plants and native plants, so they’re really thinking about what kinds of indigenous plants we can use,” Downing explains.

Whether they crafted a PSA or erected an eco-friendly transport hub from the ground up, every 3rd Grader found a way to translate their interests into an action they could implement in the world around them. “The whole point of this program is to give kids the opportunity to work on what they’re most passionate about,” says Davydov.

The closure of ECFS’ campuses due to the COVID-19 pandemic brought a premature end to the social justice action groups unit, but even in the month and a half that 3rd Graders were able to meet, they accomplished a great deal.

They learn about the different forms that activism can take: You can be an educator or a reformer or a healer.

“The kids within the action group were learning things they weren’t aware of,” says 3rd Grade Teacher Cara Regan. “I really love that they were talking with themselves and with their families about it.”

For many students, the social justice action groups unit was their first introduction to activism — a core part of the ECFS education. It proved that everyone can take on the mantle of advocating for change. “I think that a lot of kids think that being an activist means being in the streets and protesting,” says D’Egidio. “They learn about the different forms that activism can take: You can be an educator or a reformer or a healer.”

Just learning about an issue — and being able to pass on that knowledge to others — is a kind of activism. In one of their last sessions before spring break, Pippa and Finley played a game in which they matched LGBTQ+ vocabulary words with their definitions. Pippa picked up the card for trans.

Without hesitation, she found the right answer.