A Teacher Struggles with Encouraging Direct Student Action
By Steven Friedman
To protest or not to protest, that was the question.
After showing my seventh- and eighth-grade Judaic studies class Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti, a 28-minute documentary about the exploitation of workers in factories contracted to Disney, I once again faced this dilemma.
By showing the video, produced by the National Labor Committee (NLC), I hoped to encourage some activism. But I was afraid of getting in trouble for influencing the students on what some would consider a political issue. Instead of boldly proposing direct action, I suggested the class write letters to Disney headquarters.
My student Lizzie Louis had another idea. She asked if we could organize a demonstration outside one of Disney’s stores in San Francisco. I told her it was a great idea but that the school would never sanction such an activity. My parting words to her were, “Let me see if I can arrange something for after school.”
I was stalling.
As the school’s community service coordinator, I’d never shied away from raising political or moral issues. Indeed, I’d helped students get involved in a variety of important causes or projects: corresponding through art and letters with patients who have life-threatening illnesses (mostly cancer and AIDS); serving meals to the homeless; tutoring and mentoring children in one of the county’s poorest neighborhoods; collecting food, toys and clothing for area shelters and food banks; volunteering at a prison day care center. So why was I reluctant about my students protesting against Disney?
Disney contracts with factories in Haiti, Honduras, Indonesia, Thailand, and China. Independent monitoring groups (sponsored by unions, religiously affiliated groups, or organizations in those countries) as well as American journalists have confirmed widespread abuses and horrendous working conditions at many of these factories. I knew I was on solid ground with respect to the extent of injustices in Disney’s sweatshops. But I was still afraid.
My apprehension was partly because of a past experience. Last year, my fifth-graders viewed NLC’s video, Zoned for Slavery, about the inhumane working conditions in Central American factories which make Disney and other products. Afterward, my fifth-graders and I wrote letters of protest to Disney CEO Michael Eisner. After tepid responses from one of his vice presidents, the students suggested we provide the school community with a list of which clothing manufacturers used sweatshop labor in countries such as Haiti and El Salvador. The students and I felt that if people knew which manufacturers relied on sweatshops, they might boycott these companies.
After I published the list of the guilty companies twice in the school’s weekly newsletter, the school’s director told me to stop. He said that by becoming a political activist, I was perilously close to muddying my role as a neutral educator.
The accusation was strange because I teach at a private Jewish school where we spend a significant portion of time learning about ethics and values and relating them to our lives. We go beyond teaching about Biblical precepts – such as the commandment to leave the corners of your field or portions of your harvest for the poor – and stress modern applications of these ancient laws, such as helping at soup kitchens or stocking food at local food banks.
But now I had been told that I had crossed a line.
I printed the list once more. The director then told me that my future community service columns would need his prior approval. Apparently it was okay to advertise clothing drives or ask for money to help an inner-city school purchase supplies, but it was “too political” and “too activist” to provide people with information about companies that routinely deny basic rights to workers, many of them children who labor for U.S. markets.
Why, I asked myself, is it too political to highlight the exploitation and repression of workers who earn 7 cents to sew a 101 Dalmatians outfit that retails for $19.95? How can anyone remain neutral when workers, mostly teenage women, are forced to work 12 – 16 hours a day making Disney toys in dusty, sweltering factories using dangerous chemicals?
What the director failed to tell me, but what I knew, were the real reasons I’d been reprimanded. The school was afraid to offend board members who might own stock in Disney; it wanted to be able to attract donations without appearing too political or too controversial. In other words, we had to remain neutral to protect investments in Disney and to secure funding for the school.
I realize there are complicated issues involved in trying to determine when and how it is appropriate for a teacher to guide student activism. For instance, teachers need to be sensitive to the importance of letting students discuss, analyze, and make up their own minds about social issues, rather than merely allowing them to regurgitate what they perceive to be the teacher’s views. And, as is true with any field trip or out-of-classroom activity, communication with parents and parental permission is essential.
But the complexities of the issue should not be used to hide the reality that teaching is never politically neutral. Everything educators do or don’t do can be classified as political. If it’s okay to promote progressive behavior by students (food drives, meals to the homeless), why shouldn’t we guide students into social activism against inhumane working conditions that help cause poverty and homelessness? And I doubt that a group of middle school students protesting against Disney is the revolutionary straw that will break the back of the empire.
I knew I had to answer Lizzie’s question. When word leaked out that I might organize an action against Disney, more students in her class asked about helping and attending. Then the class studied a unit on hunger and poverty and connected the dire conditions of the poor in the Third World with the policies of U.S. corporations subsidized by the U.S. government. The issue of a protest resurfaced. Then some of my former fifth-grade letter-writing activists questioned me about pursuing the topic of sweatshop labor this year (I do not teach the sixth-grade Judaica class). How could I dodge the issue any longer?
The answer came when the NLC announced an international week of action against Disney. A gift had landed in my lap: the NLC was sponsoring the demonstration I’d been afraid to organize. All I had to do was invite my students to the rally on a non-school day and we’d have our opportunity to get involved.
I sent a letter about the rally with some background information on Disney’s behavior to each middle school family (we have only 36 kids) and requested that anyone who was interested join me on the first Saturday of protest.
Most responses were positive. One parent phoned to say that even though she and her daughter would be away during that weekend, she appreciated my organizing the parents and students; three more parents pledged to attend; two other parents took me up on my offer to transport students.
Not everyone was pleased. Soon after the letter was mailed, two of my colleagues and friends felt I’d sealed my fate and would be fired. Although I’d paid for the mailing, they reasoned that involving the school community in political activity, even in an indirect way, would be a direct challenge to the director’s admonition from last school year. They feared the fallout resulting from my termination would hurt the school’s reputation. Another co-worker told me that her boyfriend, a superintendent of schools in another county, had seen the letter (her son is a student of mine) and remarked that if I’d worked for him, he would have had my head on a platter. Two parents felt I’d abandoned my role as a neutral educator by leading students to protest. They were worried that I hadn’t presented both sides of the story.
What are the two sides when people working in factories contracted by American corporations in Asia and Central America don’t earn enough to feed their families, are routinely beaten and abused, and have no legal options to remedy their situation? Balance and other perspectives have their utility, but I completely eschew moral relativism. It’s one thing to strive for balance (and we should) by teaching, for example, that no civilization or religion has a corner on superiority. It’s likewise important to present as valid other perspectives, such as those of indigenous populations, women, and other groups whose stories are often marginalized and distorted by traditional accounts. But certain issues do not have two equally valid sides.
We don’t teach the civil rights movement by equating the views of the Bull Connors of the South with the views of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. And we don’t teach the Holocaust by presenting the Nazi viewpoint as anything other than evil. Why should our approach to the issue of American companies using sweatshop labor be any different?
I believe educators, parents, and students have a responsibility to expose injustice and oppression, and the call for “balance” can be used to cloud the real issues. Why shouldn’t we be forced to look outside our proverbial windows and help make the world a better place?
OUTSIDE THE DISNEY STORE
Two students initially joined me in the protest outside the Disney Store in downtown San Francisco on a cold, blustery Saturday morning nearly three weeks before Christmas. The two students, Jessica Whyman and Natalie Shamash, and I handed out leaflets and asked for signatures on petitions to Michael Eisner. We held placards that said, “Boycott Disney” and “Disney Supports the Repression of Workers in Central America.”
Throngs of shoppers and tourists crowded the streets in search of the latest bargain or the perfect gift, but amid the din of holiday traffic, we felt invisible. Many people passed us with blank stares, few words, and the look of indifference.
Jessica and Natalie were becoming chilled and disillusioned but their mood changed dramatically after Lizzie arrived. While none of the other students had ever attended a “formal” protest before, Lizzie had experience at political gatherings. Two years ago, for instance, she and her father, Jerry, had gone to Washington as part of an OXFAM-sponsored youth meeting to pressure President Clinton on meaningful aid to those ravaged by war and famine in Africa. Lizzie had also won OXFAM’s postcard-drawing contest and had spoken at several functions as a result.
Lizzie’s presence re-energized Jessica and Natalie. People started talking to us, mostly to the three of them, and signing our petitions. Before long we were joined by Lizzie’s father, two more of my students, Samantha and Ian, and their mother, Pam. By noon, our kernel of eight had grown into a crowd of nearly 75 protesters, including members of the Bay Area Haitian-American Council, political activists, several local union representatives, and members of a Unitarian Meeting House. There was also a group of striking workers, mostly Latina women, who had walked out against a Disney licensee over unfair working conditions, intimidation, and discrimination.
What happened when I returned to school on Monday? Luckily, not much. Colleagues who feared there would be repercussions, such as my getting fired, were wrong. As it turned out, the director’s only stated concern was whether I’d improperly used the school directory for the mailing to parents telling them about the protest. The school guarantees that the directory will not be used for business or non-profit purposes, and he was worried that someone might accuse the school of violating that binding agreement.
For my part, I know we did the right thing by attending the rally, just as I know that teaching for social justice is critical to every classroom. By putting social action at the center of learning, we join those who challenge injustice in our schools and in our communities.
Steven Friedman teaches at Brandeis Hillel Day School in California. This article originally appeared in Rethinking Schools (Vol. 11, No. 4, Summer 1997).
Last Updated Spring 2002