Banned in Jersey, Welcomed on Broadway

Students Learn Unexpected Lessons from their Play on Sweatshops

By Stan Karp

Hawes’ elementary kids performing at the Roundabout Theater.

The show closed after one night on Broadway, but it was a smash success nonetheless. On Oct. 27, Maria Sweeney’s 4th-grade class finally got to present, “Justice, Do It!” an original play they wrote last spring about sweatshop labor conditions in Nike and Disney manufacturing plants. Less than a week before the play was to be performed at Hawes Elementary School in Ridgewood, NJ, it was canceled by school officials who deemed it inappropriate for young children.

It was an act of censorship familiar in many schools, where efforts to bring thorny social issues into the classroom often run up against sanitized curricula and nervous administrators fearful of controversy. Issues of social justice are frequently deemed “too political” for the classroom, while the equally political implications of more traditional, mainstream viewpoints—for example those that celebrate patriotic or historical myths—are regularly overlooked. What was uncommon in this case, however, was the high-profile publicity that followed the play’s cancellation, and eventually led to a triumphant performance at the Roundabout Theater in the heart of New York City’s theater district.

Sweeney’s students had chosen the sweatshop theme for their year-end play and social studies unit. During her five years as a teacher in Ridgewood, an upscale community known for its excellent schools, Sweeney made it a practice to let children end the year by picking a subject to explore in more depth and to dramatize for the school. Previous classes had chosen Columbus’ voyages, South African elections, a famous textile strike out of the labor history of the nearby city of Paterson, and the Montgomery bus boycott. Last year some current events discussions had raised the issue of poorly-paid, poorly-treated workers, including young children, who made products abroad for two companies very familiar to Hawes’ students: Nike and Disney. The class enthusiastically selected the topic and began their research.

Sweeney drew materials from a variety of mainstream news sources. She showed videos from CBS’s 48 Hours on “Nike in Vietnam,” and NBC’s Dateline about child labor in China and Indonesia. She took articles from The New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, and Time for Kids. These were supplemented with materials from Global Exchange and the National Labor Committee, watchdog groups that promote awareness of exploitative labor practices by U.S.-owned corporations.

Students also wrote for and received materials from the companies themselves, which denied or minimized the charges of worker abuse. They found other resources on the Internet, made charts, and scoured their homes for Nike and Disney products. As a guest speaker, Sweeney invited Jeff Ballinger, a former grant administrator for the Agency for International Development. Ballinger formed a media/information group called Press for Change after spending many years in Asia researching and writing about labor conditions.

Sweeney helped students sift the materials they found for information and for signs of bias. “Throughout this process,” she says, “the children were encouraged to consider the information and form their own opinions.” Finally, they began to dramatize the information they had compiled into a play.

The play begins with students on the Hawes playground discussing what they’d learned about the people and practices behind the Nike sneakers and Disney toys kids like so much. The scene shifts to a McDonald’s where kids are eating a “happy meal” and enjoying the Disney toys that come with it. A Vietnamese student tells his friends about his sister and other Vietnamese teenagers who worked for $2 a day and suffered chemical poisoning on the job while making such products.

Next, the audience is taken to a hut in Haiti where the family’s income from making 101 Dalmations pajamas for Disney doesn’t provide enough to eat or allow the mother to stay home with a sick child. Another scene, set in a Haitian factory, shows workers abused for talking about organizing to improve conditions.

Other scenes depict Disney CEO Michael Eisner in his office counting his profits (“one million … two million”), as Mickey and Minnie Mouse enter and threaten to turn in their ears unless Disney cleans up its act: “Lots of people out there in this country, many of them kids, are very angry about how the workers in your factories are treated,” Mickey and Minnie tell Eisner. “Their lives are nothing like ours, but they’re people just like us. … They want to be able to feed their kids and send them to school.” Eisner is unmoved (“six million, seven million … ” he resumes as they leave). Another scene shows Vietnamese workers making Nike sneakers for 20 cents an hour who are not permitted to stop long enough to get a drink or go to the bathroom. Like much of the play, the episode dramatizes information drawn from the monitoring reports of human rights groups.

Other scenes show Michael Jordan in an imaginary confrontation with one of his children who says she’d be “happy with a lot less” and just wants “people to be treated right”; and a stockholder being dragged away by security after trying to challenge Nike president Phil Knight at a meeting.

The play ends back at the Hawes playground with students talking about where all this “really depressing” information came from and what they can do about it.

Boycotts, letter writing, protests at home, and labor organizing abroad by Third World workers are the suggestions they come up with. “If we can just get tons and tons of people to join in this movement, I think we can make a difference,” one says. “Let’s get started!”

Sweeney’s students were pumped up about the prospects of bringing their concerns to their schoolmates. As student Josie Russo said later, “We wanted to do this play. We wrote the whole script. We learned our lines. We brought in every single prop. … We were doing this play not just to do this play, but to change the minds of the children out there. … Not one single kid in the audience we hoped to perform for knew where their sneakers and toys came from. We wanted to change that.”

But on a Friday afternoon last June, as Monday’s scheduled performance neared, Sweeney was informed by her principal, Cathy Marino, that the show would be canceled. A parent of a Hawes’ student, though not one in Sweeney’s class, had seen a copy of the script and had written to Superintendent Fred Stokely complaining that Sweeney was “politicizing” the classroom and imposing

her own views on the children. Sweeney had been made aware of the complaint, and in fact had responded with a detailed letter to Stokely explaining how the topic was chosen, what resources she had used, including the information from Nike and Disney, and offering to meet with the superintendent and the parent to discuss things further.

But Stokely left the fate of the play up to principal Marino, who along with assistant superintendent Deborah Pearce, decided to cancel the show for the school and allow only a performance for parents in Sweeney’s classroom. Though the administration later claimed it was concerned primarily about the play’s suitability for younger children at the K-5 school, it apparently never considered allowing a performance for grades 3, 4, or 5. Marino also indicated strongly that she thought both the sweatshop unit and the play were inappropriate for Sweeney’s 4th graders.

Sweeney recalls being stunned by the news. Her experience in the district had given her no reason to expect such censorship. In the past, occasional complaints from parents had always been handled by discussing specific concerns and explaining the overall curriculum context of particular activities.

But now Sweeney had to tell her students the play was off. It wasn’t easy.

One student, Jessica Greco, remembered, “After lunch we came back to the classroom all happy and laughing. We were excited about the play, saying that we couldn’t wait until Monday. But when our teacher told us the decision, we all stopped laughing and just froze. It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop, but not for long. Soon there was disbelief, arguing and some yelling. Two people got very upset and cried.”

Since neither the principal nor the superintendent ever spoke to the children directly, Sweeney did her best to explain the administration’s reasons as they were given to her. School authorities maintained that the issues were complicated and young children could not understand them clearly. Later Marino would say the play wasn’t balanced and didn’t show “all the good things these corporations do.” Stokely told reporters, “The heads of the companies, Nike and Disney, were characterized in an extreme manner, as really being evil.”

Sweeney’s students seemed to agree that a “terrible thing” had been done, but in their minds it was the school administration that had done it. They wrote eloquent letters of protest (see sidebar).

Ordinarily things might have ended there, with the disappointed students limited to a classroom performance for parents and Sweeney wondering what the implications of the incident might be for her teaching, and perhaps her job. However, when Jeff Ballinger of Press for Change returned to Hawes to catch the play, he was surprised to find the venue had been changed from the large multipurpose room to Rm. 108. After hearing the story, he contacted a labor reporter at The New York Times, who in turn gave the information to one of the Times’ New Jersey reporters.

On June 26, Evelyn Nieves devoted her “Our Town” column to the story of the fourth grade play that was banned in Ridgewood. She recounted the events, reporting all sides, sympathetically quoting parents and students as well as district officials.

As everyone soon learned, a lot of people read The New York Times.

One was Scott Ellis, who saw the story while riding the subway to work at the Roundabout Theater where he is resident director. Ellis was impressed by the fact that the students were using drama to express their ideas and appalled by the censorship. “How can you say to 4th graders, one, that you don’t know what you’re talking about, and two, that you can’t say it anyway?” he asked. Ellis began to look into the possibility of making his own theater available.

Disney’s Michael Eisner also reads TheNewYork Times. According to a story that filtered through the halls at Hawes, Eisner saw the article the morning it appeared while in a meeting with some people who happened to be familiar with Ridgewood and the school. When Eisner read about the principal who thought the children’s play deserved cancellation because it didn’t show “all the good things these corporations do,” Eisner wanted to call to say thank you, and, reportedly, he did.

The Times article triggered a flood of other reactions, letters, and media coverage. Sweeney received calls from civil liberties columnist Nat Hentoff and the populist radio commentator Jim Hightower. Ridgewood school officials received letters of protest from parents, labor advocates, and opponents of censorship.

Michael Robbins, the editor of Audubon magazine, saw the article and wrote to Sweeney: “Of course what your principal did was censorship; that’s the plain, unvarnished truth. And of course ten-year-olds can understand injustice. … It also appears to me that they have learned some unexpected lessons from this episode: they

have learned about the incendiary power of facts, good reporting, and the exposure of injustice. They have learned how some adults — allegedly leaders and role-models — can chicken out when faced with a real-life controversy. They have learned how some grownups fear the power of big, famous corporations. And they have learned that sometimes it takes real courage to seek out the truth and then say it right out loud.”

Along with letters of support and protest came Scott Ellis’ offer to help bring the play to Broadway. A cautious Sweeney hesitantly checked to see if the superintendent would object. Stokely gave his approval, as long as the school itself had no official connection to the event.

As the new school year rolled around, the play’s authors, now fifth graders and no longer in Sweeney’s class, devoted many after-school hours to working with Ellis and other theater personnel to prepare their production for Broadway. Sweeney and parents put in many hours as well.

As opening night approached, there was another wave of publicity. Sweeney and some of the students appeared on local all-news radio stations and other programs, including one of NBC’s weekend network morning shows. There was front-page coverage in the major New

Jersey papers as well as reports in Education Week, the National News Reporter, and the New York dailies.

Though she appreciated the publicity and the support it generated, Sweeney also recalls how superficial much of the coverage was. Most media outlets were more interested in playing up the “kids’ play gets to Broadway” angle than in dealing with the substantive labor or economic issues involved. Reporters often tended to reduce the issue of sweatshop labor practices and multinational corporate exploitation of Third World countries to one of “child labor,” even though the use of underage employees was but one aspect of the problems being raised.

Ridgewood school officials, at least some of whom were clearly uncomfortable with the content of the play and of Sweeney’s curriculum, increasingly confined their public reservations to the matter of the play’s “inappropriateness” for the youngest children in Hawes school. As the October premiere approached and the media spotlight grew, district officials spoke equally of the “wonderful opportunity children were getting to work with theater professionals,” and Superintendent Stokely attended the performance and praised it to Board of Education members afterwards.

Finally, those connected to the Roundabout Theater (which is coincidentally located next to one of Disney’s busy retail outlets) stressed on a number of occasions that the theater was supporting the right of the students to express themselves through drama, not endorsing the political message of the play, although many of the staff volunteers were clearly sympathetic.

Taken together, these responses suggested that being young was hardly the only, or even the main, obstacle to grappling with the central issues involved, namely the right of children to take a public stand on issues of social justice and the merits of the stand these particular children took.

October 27 was an off-night for the Roundabout Theater’s regular run of the musical “1776” (which Ellis pointedly noted is about the country’s founding struggle to establish a democracy). Instead, Kids for Fairness presented Justice, Do It! The 500-seat theater was filled to near capacity with a celebratory crowd of parents, supporters, students, and human rights’ activists.

The lobby was decorated with artwork about the labor issues, done by other school children in solidarity with the Hawes’ students. There were large photos of the student actors and a professional playbill complete with “Who’s Who in the Cast” bios, such as the one for “Han Park (Boss/Narrator/Worker) [who] is 10 years old and was born in Korea. His favorite subject is math and he enjoys building rockets. He has guppies, goldfish, and hamsters.”

Theatergoers also were handed a folder with background information on the topic, a resource list, and a petition to circulate. The combination of education, research, and activism that first led Sweeney’s students to create their play at Hawes was not left behind when they brought it to the “big time.”

In the aftermath of what was alternately an alarming, intense, and exhilarating experience, Sweeney knew that her students had been through something they’d never forget. Some may mostly remember the bright lights and attention. But for others the lasting memories will be about the risks and rewards of taking a stand for something you believe in.

As Sweeney says, “I believe that I am preparing children to participate as critical and caring participants in a public democracy. … I am giving them experience in taking a stand on important issues and trying to effect social change. I feel this kind of teaching is essential.”

To charges that she is “politicizing the classroom,” Sweeney would respond that nearly all teaching is value-laden and, in a sense, “political.” The solution is not to avoid controversial topics or to pretend that complete “neutrality” is possible or even desirable. Rather it’s to present complicated issues fairly and with sensitivity to issues of intimidation and the rights of dissent. Even more important is to help students develop tools of critical social analysis so they can identify and evaluate for themselves the various interests that can influence the “free exchange of ideas.”

The best defense against inappropriate political manipulation in the classroom is for students to learn how to critically examine different perspectives, whether they come from their teachers, their textbooks, or other “authoritative sources.” They also need to learn that ideas and actions have real consequences and often involve moral choices. To pretend that such issues don’t lay hidden behind many classroom lessons is itself a kind of censorship.

Finally, Sweeney reminds her critics that Disney, Nike and other corporations have multi-million-dollar advertising budgets to get their views across to the public and to kids. Further, she underscores, the companies’ views were prominently included in the materials given to her students. “The students had the opportunity to represent Nike or Disney’s point of view in the play if they chose to,” she said. “If the play is one-sided, it’s because this is the side that the children took.”

Stan Karp ( teaches high school English and journalism in Paterson, NJ, and is a Rethinking Schools editor.