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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Four Ideas for Approaching Political Conversations With Students

By Jessica Kehayes — February 13, 2017 5 min read
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These days, discussing current politics with young people can be like walking a tightrope. Jessica Kehayes, Executive Director, Center for Global Education at Asia Society, shares some ideas on how best to approach these conversations.

“What is that?” Kala* asked, holding my hand as hundreds of people streamed past us. I couldn’t tell what she was pointing at, but it could have been anything—the signs of the Statue of Liberty crying, groups chanting, a man holding cardboard cutouts of Cheetos with a big X through them, small children perched on their marching parents’ shoulders watching the crowds, or police barricades and dozens of police.

“It’s a protest,” I answered. “People are protesting something the president did on Friday. It upset a lot of people, so they are here expressing their ideas.”

It was late in the afternoon on Sunday, January 29, two days after the executive order titled, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” had been signed, and we were in Battery Park, New York City. We had just stepped off the boat from an afternoon exploring the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

It was a long planned trip between me and my 10-year-old Little Sister from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and the timing of the visit was unrelated to the newly announced immigration ban. Kala had seen the Statue of Liberty in a video game and had been asking for some time to see it for real. We’ve been paired together for almost exactly two years and had developed a nice bond through our monthly outings. She is a curious, kind girl who enjoys science experiments in the park, writing her own songs, and word scramble games. Kala currently wants to be a lawyer so she can “solve crimes and help people.”

On the bus and subway ride down from the Bronx, we defined what an immigrant is, why people would move to a new and unfamiliar country and how hard that might be, talked about her class and friends who were immigrants, and discussed the Statue itself and what it represented. Once on Liberty Island, we went through the audio tour fun facts as we wound our way around and up the statute, but Ellis Island with the Registry Room was probably more impactful. She stood in the cavernous space and processed information about how immigrants were screened, checked for diseases and “feeblemindedness,” searched for family, and fought to stay here.

The stories of people being refused entry stuck with her. “Why didn’t we let them enter even if they were sick? We could help them.”

Her question was so relevant to the current national situation I considered whether to wade into the roiling debate. I didn’t know what she knew and we hadn’t talked much about the election since November. As we meandered through the registry hall and related displays, we began to unpack what was going on in her life. She taught me a bit about how best to reflect on President Trump and our national politics with young people:

1. Make it relevant
We spent our time at Ellis Island talking about the responsibility to help people who need help, and what this meant in her classroom, which has a growing problem with bullying. I knew from her father she had been having trouble, and in bits and pieces throughout the day, she told me her friend had been bullied and no one had stepped in to help her, including my Little Sister. She felt bad about that, and now was also being targeted. This was the first time she was unhappy at school. I knew her father was talking to the school, and I encouraged her to keep talking to all of the adults in her life. We spent time discussing empathy, kindness, and treating each other well, and especially taking care of people who need it—at her school and in her community.

2. Speak honestly and keep my opinions calm
I felt pretty good about our conversations at Ellis Island. Then we got off the boat and walked into a protest. I didn’t want to ignore the thousands of people, which we could have done by walking the other way. I was wrestling with how to contextualize the complexities in the face of what we just saw and discussed around our history of immigration, and taking care of those who need help. I had to say something, and wanted to temper my personal opinions. She wanted to know what was going on.

I asked her if she had heard about a new rule from the President. She had not. I explained the President signed an order that people from certain countries cannot come here right now. Her first question: “Isn’t Donald Trump’s wife from another country? Does she have to leave?”

After answering, we talked about the meaning of the word “ban,” which appeared on every other sign we saw. I asked her what she thought. She said it was mean and we shouldn’t tell people not to come especially if they need help. I couldn’t really disagree with her.

3. Prompt other perspectives
She did not ask why certain countries had been banned, or which countries. It was important to prompt her to think about it, and ask why some people like this rule, while others do not. It took some time for her to work out why the President would create this rule, or why someone might like it, but it was important for her and for me to remember there is a clear rationale for alternate perspectives.

4. Take action
“What do you think of all of this?” I asked, as we looked at the protest before us. Before she could answer, an organizer approached us and asked, “Are you joining us?” I started to say no, as it had been a long day already, but then looked at my Little Sister. She just watched me. I said that we were learning, so we’d like to join for a little bit. As we walked, we talked about Monday at her school and what she could to there to help herself stay safe and to also be kind to others.

Both Kala and I ended that day with more questions than answers and, as we reversed our trek through the city to head back home, conversation lapsed and we retreated into our own introspections. As she fell asleep against my shoulder on the rocking train, I took time to reflect for myself about how I could put the lessons I learned from Kala to use in my day-to-day life.

Connect with the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

*Student’s name changed to protect her identity.

Photo courtesy of Pascual De Ruvo Statue of Liberty, New York. Provided through Wikimedia Commons.

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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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