Student Activism and Social Justice 101

Dear Gateway Families,

Last Friday, many of our Middle School students participated in the local portion of the Climate Strike taking place across the globe. Unlike some other local schools, where alternate schedules were created and the organizing was done by adults, Gateway students were responsible for figuring out the best way to get involved. The Eighth Grade student leaders determined that interested students needed to attend several organizing meetings and write personal purpose statements (which they have shared with their parents) in order to qualify for excused absences while they participate. This ensured students were educated about and committed to the event, and not simply using this as an excuse to get out of school. From logistics (like walking from campus to downtown, ensuring safety in a rally setting, and organizing an off-site dismissal protocol) to planning a presentation to elementary students after the event, they demonstrated impressive intention and leadership.

But I have to tell you the truth, which is that while I am delighted by this, I am not at all surprised.

Gateway’s mission and vision statement ends with this explicit goal: for students to discover their individual and collective potential to make positive change in the world. After nine years in our classrooms, our oldest students are confident and capable in the academic realm and they are intensely eager to engage with the larger world and advocate for issues of social justice. Consider last year’s Walkathon, which raised more than $12,000 for building new wells in the African nation of Niger, or the 2018 Walkout to End Gun Violence, in which our students staged a 17 minute silent protest on West Cliff Drive during a cold rain. We have an impressive track record when it comes to student-driven activism.

This can be traced directly back to curriculum that runs through the grades at Gateway. From Kindergarten studies of the community, to the Third Grade business reports, to the Three Sisters salad in Life Lab, to the Museum of (In)tolerance project in our Middle School, our teachers regularly guide students to think about other people — locally, regionally, nationally, and around the world — which is one of many ways we help them cultivate empathy. And when we talk in our classrooms about citizenship, we do so at all of those levels, from the immediate community to the global.

Among our school’s nine stated core values are both education for environmental sustainability and the courage to promote a just society. As I recently shared with a parent, climate justice is part of social justice, and Gateway has always believed in and advocated for social justice, because at the core of social justice is the concept of human rights — that all humans have shared rights, and in modern American society, very specific racist, sexist, and other structural biases and ways of looking at the world prevent those universal rights from being respected.

Last Monday, our faculty and staff spent the in-service day learning about a framework for integrating social justice knowledge and skills into our program. Our trainer, Kim Burkhalter, works with Teaching Tolerance, the educational arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and walked us through a number of activities to help us learn a shared language and set of standards for social justice education in the four domains of Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action. We had time to experiment with applying these to our existing curriculum, and to practice the skill of asking essential questions to reframe our thinking about these issues within the curriculum. Throughout the year, you can expect to see and hear from your children (and our teachers) about how we are learning to talk about difficult issues, from race to immigration to the housing crisis, with new language, understandings, and courage. I’ll be blogging about this throughout the year, and I look forward to joining with you in dialogue as we up-skill our entire community of children and adults alike.


Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School