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March 17, 2021

Teaching for Civic Engagement: Criteria for Effective Civic Engagement

See Matt’s Video on Teaching Channel: Encouraging Students to Take Action

Identifying and analyzing what makes for effective civic action is pretty murky business. One reason it’s so challenging to evaluate the effectiveness of a particular movement, group, or action step is because definitions of effectiveness vary so much.

There are a number of ways to define an effective action or group. You might choose to focus on the outcome, such as how many people were impacted, the extent to which a demand was met, or the amount of concrete change that’s accomplished. Others might choose to focus more on the process of making change, such as the degree of solidarity and community formed by a group, the style of leadership or core values that are developed, or the extent of internal change or consciousness raising that’s created. The reality is that none of these criteria are wrong — it just depends on your perspective.

For these reasons, instead of giving my students the criteria I think they should use to evaluate past efforts for social change, and then use to plan their own action steps, I allow them to develop and hash out for themselves what they think makes for an effective social justice movement.

To begin the process of getting students thinking about what makes for an effective social justice movement, we analyze a current case study that most students are familiar with: Black Lives Matter.

Contextualization: Police Brutality & The Black Lives Matter Movement

I begin by providing context through a brief presentation about the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement, which came in the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. I also outline some broader statistics about police brutality along with the goals and vision of the Black Lives Matter movement. Then, I assign two readings to students. Both articles look back on the first year of the movement. One article appraises the movement positively, while the other article is more critical of Black Lives Matter activists. I ask students to annotate each article for evidence showing that Black Lives Matter is a successful movement or evidence showing that they’re not yet successful.

Black Lives Matter images

After reading the articles, students engage in a structured academic controversy, which I discussed in an earlier blog post. After reading, thinking, and discussing the Black Lives Matter movement from multiple perspectives, I ask students to come to their own conclusion – Is Black Lives Matter an effective movement?

Focus on Criteria

After students write a brief paragraph, synthesizing their own thinking and what they discussed in their small groups, I push their thinking in the direction of criteria, which is one of our vocabulary words for the week. I ask them to take a step back from their answer about effectiveness and consider the underlying criteria they’re using to evaluate the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s helpful to model an example with the class, but their criteria is usually found in their topic sentence.

For example, if a student writes, “The Black Lives Matter movement is successful because they’ve gained a lot of attention and helped people feel a sense of racial pride,” then the criteria they’re focusing on are gaining attention and development of racial or self pride. Likewise, a student might argue that “The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t successful yet because they’ve not built relationships with other civil rights organizations,” in which case this student is prioritizing the criterion of solidarity or coalition building.

After students have reflected on the criteria they think is most significant, I ask them to choose one criterion to describe in more detail. I want them to begin thinking in specifics.

For example, if you’re going to argue that a successful social justice movement is effective if it reaches “a lot of people,” what does this look like? How many people are “a lot”? What does it mean to “reach” someone? Does it mean there are national news stories about a group? Does it mean a certain number of people show up to events or regular meetings?

Clearly, there are no right or wrong answers here. The key is for students to begin defining their criteria in more specific detail. This thinking will not only help them evaluate historical case studies more carefully, but it will also prepare them to plan their own effective action steps at the end of the semester.

Case Studies: Social Justice Movements

After using an analysis of Black Lives Matter to begin thinking about criteria for effectiveness, we look at three historical case studies of social justice movements from the 1960s and 1970s. The purpose of these case studies is for students to understand the goals, tactics, and accomplishments of historical social justice movements in order to practice applying their criteria for success and to begin thinking about how they can continue the work of the past with their own action projects.

Civic Movements through the years

For each case, I use a combination of primary and secondary sources, including visuals and documentary film clips, to cover the goals, tactics, and legacy of each group. I generally spend a week on each historical movement. There are so many different groups to cover, but since my class is focused on California Studies, with a particular emphasis on the Bay Area, I cover the Black Panther Party, the Third World Liberation Front, and the United Farm Workers. These groups also help us cover a variety of tactics, from art to legislative change to direct action. The accomplishments and legacies of these groups are also quite subjective, so they make for interesting class discussions. Additionally, covering these groups helps me represent the racial and ethnic diversity of my class in my curriculum.

I close the case studies by asking students to return to their criteria for effectiveness and make an argument about which social justice movement was the most successful and why. This assessment is generally in the form of an essay, but of course there are a variety of different ways to get at this question.

Why Think About Criteria?

My goal in pushing students to think about criteria is that if they can identify what makes a social justice movement effective, they’ll be more likely to consider that criteria in their own work. For example, if students argue the most effective criterion is getting your demand met, this will help them focus and narrow down their demand. Alternatively, if students say that the most important criterion is outreach to a large group of people, this would shift their tactic and action.

Most importantly, the case studies put them in the historical driver’s seat and ask them to evaluate what has come before, so that they’re prepared to move forward. Ultimately, there is no one answer for what makes a movement or action step effective. I don’t want to dictate to students my definition of effectiveness — I’d rather have them develop their own standards for their work.

These case studies and reflections of what makes for an effective social justice movement are the final step in my history curriculum before students design and implement their own action steps. I’ll detail that process and my reflections on this year’s projects in my final post for this series.


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