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The Power of Listening

After Baltimore, helping young people explore their feelings about violence, race, and their communities
Baltimore watercolor skyline

Against the backdrop of civil unrest in Baltimore and a swell of activist uprising against police violence in cities across the country, how can educators help students navigate their fears, feelings, and opinions?

It begins with listening.  

In an EdCast recorded this week, Senior Lecturer Rick Weissbourd and doctoral candidate Eve Ewing sat down to talk about how young people — particularly high schoolers — are understanding and reacting to episodes of police shootings, civil strife, and a burgeoning protest movement. They also talked about how educators and parents can respond in a way that encourages honesty and empathy — and that creates a space for kids to explore their feelings.

“When it comes to adolescents, it’s very easy for us to move into a place as adults where we want to be reassuring, we want to be soothing, and sometimes we want to give them the answers,” says Ewing, who researches issues of race and inequality. “The fact of the matter is, young people really may be processing these questions and opinions in a lot of ways — they may have values that differ from your own as an adult, they may have questions that you don’t anticipate. So I think it’s really important to initiate the conversation not by jumping in and trying to give them all the answers, but by listening to them process and seeing where they are.”

Adolescents can handle honest discussions of these difficult topics, which are filled with ambiguity and complexity even for adults, says Weissbourd, co-director of the Making Caring Common project at HGSE. “But I do worry about adults venturing into these conversations and not being able to facilitate them. These conversations can be very loaded and very fraught, and people have intense and complex feelings about these things, so I think getting some support around facilitation really does matter.”

Adults also have their own biases, Weissbourd adds — sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit. “So in entering these conversations, you have to be self-reflective, too. You really have to understand your biases and be able to discuss them and manage them.”

Ewing encourages educators to help kids understand the current protests by connecting them to past activist movements and focusing on lesser-known leaders. “We have an unfortunate tendency to focus on huge, luminary figures, and so a lot of our students grow up hearing all about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, but they don’t necessarily hear about the organizers of SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] — young people very much like themselves who were really at the forefront of these movements.”

Parents have a more intimate role to play, both researchers say. “Often these experiences will have echoes for kids of other kinds of childhood traumas, or other experiences that they’ve had with discrimination or unfairness,” says Weissbourd, “things that are hard for them to explore in a classroom but that they can explore with their parents.”

Parents can use these events as an opportunity to talk about their own family values and family narrative, Ewing says. “There’s some great research that helps us see that young people, even when they’ve experienced traumatic events, if they have a sense of their family narrative, their family story, that can help them develop some resilience and some ability to move forward through those marginalized feelings.”



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