Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

Connecting Civil Rights and Global Competence for Powerful Learning

By Homa S. Tavangar — January 30, 2017 6 min read

As we move into February and Black History Month, Homa S. Tavangar, author of “Growing Up Global” and “The Global Education Toolkit for Elementary Learners”, explores how diversity education supports and aligns with global education.

Join Homa for an in-depth discussion on this topic on Thursday, February 2, at 8 pm Eastern time on #GlobalEdChat on Twitter (just type in #globaledchat to follow the conversation).

As educators who build reasoning and analytical skills, illuminate historical experiences, and strengthen empathy across perspectives, our role feels more critical than ever. This crucial role extends beyond a single month or event, but Black History Month offers a natural opportunity to introduce lessons and conversations about civil rights in the context of human rights and global competence. As a learning goal, this linking can spur solid outcomes, such as:


  • Cognitive complexity: Becoming more attuned to the historic and ongoing challenges particular to Africans and African Americans helps young citizens examine more critically the institutions, assumptions, and behaviors toward minority or oppressed groups, both near and far.
  • : Real progress is made when we break down silos between issues and groups that prevent us from solving intractable social challenges and from uniting across lines that unnecessarily—or falsely—divide us.
  • Powerful collaboration: Collaboration across diverse groups within the teaching profession creates power on multiple levels. A false dichotomy has been created that sometimes pits “diversity” professionals against “global” educators, competing for the same, limited financial resources, professional development minutes, and social issue bandwidth. What if we could harmonize these to work for each other’s benefit?

How Can We Realize These Connections?


  • Read Diverse Books. Curate Diverse Media. Do the books in your classroom reflect diverse faces and experiences? How about the films you watch? Without exploring multiple cultures, the lives of individuals across ethnicities, skin tones, levels of privilege, and levels of accomplishments, we cut off the chance empathize and analyze deeply, as the well-known TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” argues.

    Continuous exposure to diverse literature, film, and media can serve as one of the greatest ways to show humanity’s oneness—the ultimate expression of the linkage between racial and global identity. Scan news headlines from various, dissimilar sources, from Canadian Broadcasting to Al Jazeera, thegrio.com to The Economist.

    Host an African American read-in in your class. Form book clubs and discussion groups among colleagues and community members with a range of interests to realize common concerns and solutions. To encourage media from diverse perspectives, consider posting a world map on a wall, or keep a World Atlas handy, and mark all the places you’ve read stories from. Conscious of the travels of your imagination, you might not only stretch your curiosity, but also your geography.


  • Learn Some Black History from Outside the U.S. The struggle for racial equality is a global one. It’s hard not to be inspired when learning of contributions to literature, science, peace, and other fields by outstanding individuals of African descent around the world. Nobel prize winners from Sir William Arthur Lewis (Economics, 1979), Wole Soyinka (Literature, 1986) and Wangari Maathai (Peace, 2004) represent just a few examples students deserve to know.

    Just as stories of African American innovators need to be told, so should those from Africa. My perennial favorite is The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a story of innovation and grit amidst adversity. Based on a museum exhibit from 2010-2011, The Global Africa Project features the influence of African artists globally and its curated material can serve as a springboard for challenging notions on a range of issues from beauty to innovation. Political movements can be instructive, too; from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation to Haiti’s Revolution.

  • Mix It Up in Social Spaces. In surveys by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), students have identified the cafeteria as the place where divisions are most clearly drawn; while simple interactions across group lines over a meal are proven as a clear path to reducing prejudice. We’ve all seen the cliques in their respective tables; too often these organize around race or ethnicity. Mindful of these pitfalls, school leaders can create opportunities for fun or meaningful interactions that cross barriers. Mix It Up Day is SPLC’s campaign for students to move out of their comfort zones and connect with someone new over lunch. Start with a day or extend it year-round according to interests or common themes. The Mix It Up link from Tolerance.org includes more great school resources.

  • Actively Fund First-Time Foreign Travel. Getting out to see the world, engaging with peers far away, studying abroad, or taking a gap year should not simply be reserved for elites. A service or learning trip can be a life-changer. Check out the amazing travel-learning opportunities for teachers from Teachers for Global Classrooms Program From IREX and more found on this list. For students, look up travel grants starting with this list from NAFSA, the Association of International Educators. If you know a teacher, student (or their family) who has never traveled abroad, go out of your way to encourage them to take advantage of these opportunities.

  • Go Deep Into Civil Rights. Awareness of the civil rights movement can begin in the youngest grades and grow in sophistication as an ongoing topic of exploration, just as knowledge of citizenship, democracy, justice, and equality call for continuous examination. A great resource to start with is We Stood Up, a free download civil rights education audio anthology, with lesson plans, an Educator’s Guide, oral history videos, 2-minute video trailer, song lyrics, instrumental beds, and other resources intended for enhancing student understanding.

Some prompts that can link U.S. civil rights with global learning:


  • Writing prompts: What does it mean to have freedom? What does freedom, opportunity, equality look like in your daily life? What would you like it to look like? What might it look like in (pick a country)? When is it okay to get arrested? How did the 1963 March on Washington affect people who participated? How does the U.S. struggle for civil rights compare to cases in any other countries you have studied? What are you willing to take a stand for?
  • : Ask students to write a quote from a track from We Stood Up or any of the resources linked in this article in the left column and a reaction to the quote in the right column. Set up a video chat with a classroom abroad and compare quotes and reactions between students.
  • Visually Represent What You Learn: Play a track related to the lesson and ask students to create a visual representation based on what they learned. If you have a partner classroom in another country, you might have students share their visual representations with each other, and reflect on the various interpretations.
  • Ask students to create a digital presentation, short video, or podcast about one of these topics: The meaning and value of freedom; milestones of the civil rights movement; creativity spurred by protest movements; what does citizenship look like?

Research on learning styles across diverse cultures and temperaments shows that pausing between asking a question and inviting comments creates a more inclusive learning experience, drawing on less-heard voices. Not only that, but it allows new perspectives to sink in and original thoughts to form.

Taken together, these techniques for deepening analysis, empathy, and collaboration can show teachers and students how closely linked racial justice is to global understanding, well beyond Black History Month. Here’s to making a difference and making history.

Connect with Homa and Heather on Twitter.

We Stood Up image used with permission of Lincoln Financial Foundation.

Pull-out quote and image from Canva.com.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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