Brown University Teaching High School Kids to Be Social Justice Warriors

While some high-school students spend the summer playing video games or hanging out with friends, other teens have different plans — and many of them are learning how to become social justice activists through college-sponsored summer programs.

Next month, Brown University will play host to one of these programs, a “Leadership and Social Justice” class geared towards students as young as 15.

Taught by Caitlin Murphy, a social studies teacher with a history of teaching kids social justice, the class vows to teach students “the tools and theory needed to become successful activists” and to fight for “social justice” in the realms of LGBTQ and immigration rights, among others.

The course appears to be a kind of advocacy boot camp.

During the course, students will be asked to “engage in various hands-on workshops and simulations, such as identifying an issue, developing a realistic timeline, publicizing a campaign, engaging the press, catering to an audience, and choosing effective tactics,” according to the course description.

Students will also be asked to develop a “Social Action Plan” with the help of their teachers, a detailed game plan on how they can fight for social justice once the program concludes and the students return home.

While the course description says it’s perfect for students who are already activists, students who don’t have a background in social justice advocacy shouldn’t be discouraged. “Students who hope to become activists” are invited too.

The class is part of Brown University’s Leadership Institute for high school students, which has been hosting leadership programs for teens since at least 2010.

Recent alumni who took other courses through Brown’s Leadership Institute — not the new one focused explicitly on social justice — praised the program in interviews with PJ Media.

Peter Prastakos, who just graduated high school and will be headed to Yale University in the Fall, credited the program for inspiring him to create an environmental club at his high school. "I always knew I wanted to do something related to the environment,” Prastakos said.

During the program, he worked alongside his instructors to devise a plan for an environmental club at high school, and when he got back to his high school the following year, he put his plans into action.

Prastakos spearheaded the launch of his school’s environmental club his sophomore year of high school. The club successfully reduced the amount of plastic bottles sold in the cafeteria, and Prastakos worked alongside his peers to sell reusable water bottles to his peers, too.

Even though Prastakos no longer is in high school, the club was so successful that it will go on in his absence, led by other students who are also inspired to fight for environmental justice.

He said he’d “definitely” recommend the program to other high school students.

Lydia Breksa, a senior at Brigham Young University who took a “Women in Leadership” course from Leadership Institute while in high school, told PJ Media that she appreciated the experience.

While “there was a theme of social justice” in her program, Breksa appreciated that her instructors gave her readings from “both sides of the story” so she could “make up [her] own mind” about what to believe.

She said she’d also recommend the Brown program. “I really enjoyed it,” she said.

Brown is also offering other social justice courses through their Leadership Institute, including a class on “Identity, Diversity, and Leadership,” taught by the school’s director of University Inclusion, Professor Lynn Hernandez.

During the class, students will be asked to examine issues like “systems of oppression,” “sexual orientation,” “unearned privilege,” and “gender identity and expression.”

No word on whether the content will be age-appropriate, though. Neither Professor Hernandez or the school’s media department responded to an inquiry on that.

Nevertheless, the course promises that as the students “develop a more sophisticated understanding of their own identities” that they’ll be able to work better with people from “different backgrounds” after the course concludes.

“To work effectively as a leader towards social change, one must have self-knowledge and an understanding of how individual, institutional, and societal inequity manifests in society, both locally and globally,” the course description says.

The classes are part of Brown University’s Leadership Institute, a $4,196 two-week program that’s offered a few times this summer, according to their website.

As I explained earlier this month, other colleges like Sarah Lawrence College and Wesleyan University all offer programs geared towards teaching high schoolers how to fight for social justice, too, teaching high schoolers about things like “Gayborhoods,” the “Theater of the Oppressed,” and Black Lives Matter.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen