Inspiring Maine Students with “The Abolitionists”

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By Brian Baldwin and Nicole Rancourt

We knew that a match lay in our future. That was apparent from the first time we met. In the summer of 2014, the Maine Humanities Council was brainstorm­ing the ways in which it could more effectively bring its work to Maine’s students. The Civil Rights Team Project, a school-based anti-bias program from the Office of the Maine Attorney General, was seeking more strategies to support its teams in participating schools. There was clearly a mission match, and match for planned work, too. As a team sharing our respective strengths and resources, the MHC and CRTP would increase the impact we both could have on civil rights teams and their school communities.

We started thinking big for our first year of partnership, choosing the Civil Rights Team Project student trainings for middle level and high schools. Held every fall, these trainings invite all the students who serve on civil rights teams throughout the state to sessions in Augusta, Brewer, Farmington, Portland, and Presque Isle. The trainings help teams see their work in the context of a statewide lens. They also identify civil rights issues in their school communities and gain tools to be an active, visible, and vocal presence in addressing these issues. In the 2015 school year, more than 1,200 students from 96 schools across the state participated.

The centerpiece for our nine middle level and high school trainings this year was the PBS American Experience docu-drama The Abolitionists (made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Created Equal project). Students and team advisors watched close to one hour of clips focusing on Angelina Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison, and Frederick Douglass, all key figures within the abolitionist movement surrounding the American Civil War. The film looks at how they were drawn to the movement to abolish American slavery, the tactics they employed in their work, and their successes and failures — and those topics provided a parallel in students’ own thinking.

We asked students to focus on how to get people thinking and talking about civil rights issues, using the abolitionists as examples and inspira­tion. Students shared their thoughts through “community circles,” structured opportunities for students to connect with the film and interact with students from other schools. With the film as “text,” we guided participants in thinking and talking about their own work in the Civil Rights Team Project through prompts like these:

 

  • The abolitionists were a diverse group. In what ways are your civil rights team or student group diverse? In what ways could you be more diverse?
  • The abolitionists’ work is very difficult. It’s not easy to change people’s minds about something. People resist change. How do we continue on with difficult work when people resist us?
  • Angelina Grimké wants to make gender equality and women’s rights part of the abolitionist movement. She is basically told that it’s not the right time and that everyone needs to be united in fighting against slavery. What do you think of this argument? Is unity ever more impor­tant than doing what’s right?
  • Both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe tell stories. Why do you think this storytelling is a good idea for the abolitionist movement? Why do stories work so well?

 

Students also shared their voices in three “working lunch” activities. The first asked students to think about basic guidelines, with a specific focus on actions, for being good allies and advocates in the world of civil rights; students wrote their ideas on a large sheet of paper taped up on the wall. Both the MHC and CRTP are com-piling all guidelines into one master set. In the second of the working lunch activities, students created a mural of things they’d like to see abolished in our schools. Hundreds of ideas were shared, resulting in an impressive look at students’ concept of social change. Many sticky notes focused on:

 

  • Specific forms of bias (racism or transphobia and many other -isms and -phobias)
  • Specific examples of bias-based language
  • Categories of jokes related to people’s identities

 

Some notes were especially powerful because they were so specific. Although the wide range of responses could be discouraging, we’re encouraged to think that our students have identified these issues as the things that we need to abolish in our schools. Even better, they are working to make it happen.

Our third working lunch activity asked students to vote for their favorite of four quotes. They were from our four featured abolitionists, but students didn’t know that; the quotes were presented, unattributed:

 

  • If a law commands me to sin I will break it. (Angelina Grimké)
  • It’s a matter of taking the side of the weak against the strong, something the best people have always done. (Harriet Beecher Stowe)
  • We may be personally defeated, but our principles never! (William Lloyd Garrison)
  • Without a struggle, there can be no progress. (Frederick Douglass)

 

Students overwhelmingly chose the Frederick Douglass quote as their favorite. This was true at all nine of our middle level and high school training sessions. It’s exciting to think that the words of an escaped slave and leading abolitionist are inspiring the work of our student civil rights teams today. Perhaps some of the students who attended these trainings will go on to write something that will one day be remembered by others who are continuing on with our vision of safe, welcoming, and respectful communities for all our people.

We asked students to end the training by identifying some of the many ways we can get students in our schools thinking and talking about civil rights issues. Students considered the ways in which the abolitionists got people thinking and talking, and how they might accomplish that in today’s world. They also recalled the strategies employed during the day’s work that got partici­pants thinking and talking. In the end, students went back to their schools with plenty of ideas and inspiration. And what will they accomplish? The example of the abolitionists is our model: it may not be easy, but through their commitment, they’ll achieve great things.