Learning About Advocacy From Children

by Robert Coles

As I mulled over the matter of child advocacy as a responsibility for teachers, school administrators, or, indeed, the parents of America’s children, I rounded up the usual moral suspects: narrow-mindedness, complacency, inertia, smugness, a lack of imagination, an indifference to the lives of others more vulnerable and needy than oneself.

Then I was ready to urge us all (myself certainly included) to be more self-aware, if not self-critical, as a certain first step. Before we ask something of others, let us make sure we ourselves are in good shape with respect to whatever it is we are proposing. I prepared to have my say by writing a statement urging readers to take up arms, so to speak, on behalf of our nation’s young.

But a day or two before I was set to write I decided to pose this question to a fifth-grade class I was teaching in Boston: "If you were someone running this school, what would you do to make life better for the boys and girls whose education you were trying to make as sound and solid as possible?"

A long silence—one that seemed unyielding—followed. So I began phrasing the question differently. The children looked puzzled, their eyes just a little more focused on me than usual, some of their brows a bit furrowed as if they were wondering not only about the question I posed, but about the one who had put it to them.

At long last, the silence broke—the welcome sound of words from a 10-year-old girl, though only a few: "Why—I mean, why ask us?"

No one else rushed to add anything, though I noticed a few heads nodding in assent.

Tolerating My Pieties

I’m rather too quick with an answer, a long-winded one, I fear. Perhaps this is a measure of how unclear I am in my own mind about answering the question of advocating for children, even as I was requesting others to consider it.

The children in my classroom listened patiently as my pieties poured forth—about involvement in the community, about the needs of children, about activism as a virtue, about empowering all those people who make up a particular neighborhood to which a school belongs. They understand me, I can tell. They are becoming all too relaxed, becoming themselves—eyes looking elsewhere, faces registering thoughts meant to change the subject at hand, or fantasies to enable their escape from the room or the school.

They are bored, I finally acknowledged. Even at their young age they have heard the earnest language of educational (psychological, sociological, political) jargon. Let him become bored, they seem to be silently suggesting. Let our learned indifference (and wariness) become his!

Animated Outpouring

I’m prepared to call it quits after my pronouncing posture ends in vain. Not a further word comes from anyone, so I think of the spelling lesson ahead: which words to summon for their exact, letter-by-letter scrutiny? I look at the list I’ve been given, get ready to shift gears, ask the children to take out their notebooks, write down the words I speak, then check them after I’ve written them, correctly spelled, on the blackboard. Suddenly, I think of the word "advocacy," which I’ve just been using in my failed attempt to establish "dialogue," another word I’ve thrown around a few times.

All right, I decide, let’s do those two, only those two, at least for now. I enunciate them clearly and watch the children closely as they struggle with both words, especially the latter. I’m strangely pleased with myself. I realize I have obtained a kind of revenge on them: one way or the other, I’ll get them to deal with the subject matter I’ve had in mind.

As we prepare to hit pay dirt, to see what the students have made of those two words they have tried spelling rather than discussing, Martha Anne, the same girl who had by her lone self spoken up ever so tersely a few minutes ago, dared to raise her hand and speak again: "Can you do this, this 'advocacy,' if no one out there is going to listen to you? My momma says: ‘People don’t pay us mind, only big shots.’ She says, ‘Big shots talk to big shots.’ That’s what goes on, and that’s how it’s decided what happens. If us kids, if our folks, even if we tried to dialogue, the people who run the show would get huffy. My grandma, she says people ‘up there,’ they get huffy, even our own [Afro-American] folks."

Now I get an outpouring: much animated, even agitated talk, as these youngsters try with one another to understand what they have been told at home and learned on the streets about class and race, about money and power as they connect with everything, including their schooling (and everyone else’s).

Amidst everything said, one more remark of Martha Anne’s stands out in my memory. She offered it toward the end of our spirited discussion, and it served nicely as a summing up: "If you’re going to be advocating, you should be making your connections; you should try to have on your tongue what’s passed into your ears, from the folks you want to help. I mean, you see, you should make those folks your teachers, and you’re learning your lessons from them, and then you write the lessons down for somebody else to know, the one [to whom] you’re advocating (addressing, in hopes of getting his or her support). Like in that magazine you show us (DoubleTake, a documentary-style magazine that draws its moral energy from words and pictures). In it, they try to say it like it is, and see it like it is, and when we’re reading the magazine and looking at the pictures in it, we’re learning something, aren’t we? And that’s advocacy, I think: trying to get more and more people to be ‘in the know.’"

Of Head and Heart

A brief pause follows—and from the class, a most respectful silence. Then, from Martha Anne a most becoming modesty: "I hope I’ve got it right, but I’m not sure I have."

In no time we all hear "you have" again and again, and my eyes wander toward the magazine DoubleTake, on which I work. My mind thinks of documentary work as a kind of advocacy with the pen (these days, the computer) and the camera. Advocacy, as Martha Anne so precisely and forthrightly put it, is a matter of making a case carefully, vividly, compellingly so that others will be prompted to reflect, consider and reconsider, and (one hopes and prays) be persuaded.

Advocacy, whether it takes place on a magazine’s pages or in a conversation, is a matter of head and heart, put on the line in hopes of making a difference in the thinking of others and thereby, step after step, individual after individual, a growing difference in the world.

Robert Coles is a James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University.