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Middle Schoolers Take On Systemic Change: And They’re on Point!

by Nandita Batheja
November 2017

I can’t think of one day we’ve spent with the kids at the Camden Street School where the art & eden team walked away unchanged. Each visit, we are blown away by their creativity, their empathy, their insights and the sometimes-heavy realities of their stories.

Last month we tackled a pretty big topic: systemic change from the inside out. That might seem a little lofty, even for an artist-activist curriculum, but the more I work with kids around social change, the more I’m reminded of the completely obvious fact that kids are not sheltered from oppression. In fact, they are deep, deep in the belly of it. And they know it in ways that are more raw, more embodied and more present than many adults. They are in process of learning—in my opinion—toxic messages fed to us by oppressive forces. They are in process of learning to stop listening to their bodies so they can ‘sit up straight and focus for eight hours of the school day. They are in process of learning that American society values what they do, how much they make, what their title is, more than who they are, how they feel, what kind of character they have. The are in process of going unseen or experiencing racial profiling, of having those formative encounters with sexism or racism or classism or homophobia or xenophobia—on top of whatever dynamics they were already born into (and if I have a human body, I am implicit in some kind of dynamic no matter my demographic).

For the second year in a row, when we discussed injustice and the things in the world that hurt us, the kids almost unanimously brought up bullying.

Last year, I remember feeling surprised, and then feeling surprised that I was surprised. Of course bullying is the major injustice on their mind. Isn’t that the first way abuse of power shows up? Through bullying? Before bullying takes on the names of corporate oil/gas companies destroying rainforests, before it shows up as police brutality or corrupt politicians or a mass shooting, it shows up in school, amongst kids, little ones learning habits of intolerance and mistreatment from what’s modeled in the world around them. And, to be fair, it also comes from the sheer truth of our humanness: sometimes we take, sometimes we are selfish, sometimes we are mean, sometimes we hurt others.

A large part of the work we do together at Camden is to create language and community around all forms of bullying so that at least we can recognize when it’s happening, put words around it and support one another in stopping it and/or healing from it. We do this by sharing our stories with one another, by learning about how activists have historically dealt with Big Bullies, by innovating our own solutions and, of course, by playing and making art.

On our last visit, we swapped stories and re-told them from the other person’s shoes. For several minutes, everyone got to experience themselves as though in a mirror, and they also got to experience being someone else for a moment.

We built off this empathy-exchange by learning about our comfort, stretch and panic zones and then exploring the compass of reactions we have to conflicts; all incredibly useful tools that I learned from YES! World’s work with global changemakers.

We formed small groups to further explore different reactions (attacking ourselves, attacking others, avoiding the conflict, or withdrawing away). We culminated this part of the day with short performances from each group showing what it looks like to go into that reaction, and how to come out of it back into our stretch--our learning and listening--zone. Performing was a process that put many of the adults in their panic zone (ahhh! 8 minutes for a performance?!) which meant we got to practice our reactions in real time ;)

In the afternoon, we moved into diagramming how these very personal moments of conflict interact with systemic problems. We began to see how systemic injustices were expressed through interpersonal relationships, and then how they impacted personal bodies. The same things happen in the reverse: a personal bias or injustice could then impact a relationship (e.g. with an employee) which then accumulate to form a whole system.

The kids helped come up with examples of how this shows up in this world. Some of the things they named included:


Systemic: Racism
Interpersonal: Police violence
Personal: Feeling like you’re a bad person
Systemic: Unfair pay/worker abuse
Interpersonal: Managers treating employees badly
Personal: Health suffers, or people treat others badly too
Personal: Anger
Interpersonal: Taking it out on other people
Systemic: A violent community

They were brilliant! They came up with almost all the examples in our chart on their own. Now, this could’ve been really depressing and disempowering had we ended our day there. But the most crucial part is what followed. If injustice can seep through these systems, then so can positive change and reform!

So we slowly started the reversal process: what would it look like to change some of these issues? How would the effects ripple out?

We got back into groups! The kids picked issues they wanted to concentrate on—two groups chose bullying and one group chose the environment—and how they wanted to innovate solutions and responses to these issues. We had a social innovation/design group and two art/drawing groups. The kids conducted independent research to find some facts, statistics and reports, noting how it confirmed or surprised their expectations. Then they worked in their groups to think about what to do about these problems.

The results? See for yourself :)

Group 1: Design/Innovation on Bullying
Proposal: Anti-bullying website and social network


Group 2: Art/Drawing on Bullying
Artivist works:


Group 3: Art/Drawing on Environmental Crises
Artivist works:

These are now hanging in our office as our daily inspiration for why we come to work! The kids have spoken. Now it’s time that we adults do our part to make this world a more loving, fair place.

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Middle Schoolers Take On Systemic Change: And They’re on Point!

y Nandita BathejaNovember 2017 I can’t think of one day we’ve spent with the kids at the Camden Street School where the art & eden team walked away unchanged. Each visit, we are blown away by thei
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