“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Photo by Taryn Simon and The Innocence Project, from the photo essay The Innocents.
Note to Educators:
What is fair to one person may not be fair to another. What makes something unjust?
Understanding—let alone discussing— what injustice means can be tricky and challenging with students, particularly younger ones. How can you help your students become aware of injustice—at school, in your community, and in this world— and dig deeper to discover how they can transform injustice to justice?
Try the following activity to help your students figure out how to deal with meanness and injustice.
- On a poster size piece of paper or on the blackboard, ask your students to write their definitions of injustice. An alternative—especially for younger students—is to consult the dictionary or Wikipedia. Cull out and tighten a definition that your students feel comfortable with.
- Distinguish “being mean” from “injustice.” Is it an injustice when someone calls me a name? Or, is that person just being mean? Unfairness or injustice is when some people are treated one way and others are treated in another. It is one-sided.Use two-column notetaking (mean vs. injustice) for examples that will help your students understand the difference. You may need to frontload the conversation with examples to get students on the right track.
Here are some examples:
Someone’s being mean when she shoves a girl in the lunchroom line. Someone’s being unjust when she shoves only ginger-hair kids in the lunchroom line.
A coach is being mean when he calls his player “slowpoke sloths.”
A coach is being unjust when he puts the second string player on a two-game suspension for cheating on an exam, but the star player—who was also caught cheating—gets to continue playing.
A teacher is being mean when she assigns 50 pages of reading the night before a test.
A teacher is being unjust when he only calls on the “smart” kids.
For further exploration on the definition of injustice, share The Cow of No Color: Riddle Stories and Justice Tales from Around the World, by Nina Jaffe and Steve Zeitlin, 1998, Henry Holt and Company. This collection of stories from throughout the world focuses on a question of justice. After the authors describe a problem, they leave it to you to solve, and then tell you the answer as it appears in the original tale.
Ask your students to write down on a note card or scrap piece of paper an example of injustice that they have faced, been part of, or witnessed in their everyday lives. These may be anonymous. Put all of them in one hat or receptacle.
Here are two options for digging deep and coming up with solutions:
Conversation. Pull one example from the hat and use it to talk with the group about why the situation was unjust. What could each person involved have done differently? Or, were there larger forces at play? What are the first steps to addressing the injustice?
NOTE: Some students may still confuse being mean with being unjust. If their example is a “mean” one, still discuss something they can do to resolve the situation.
Skits. Divide the class into groups of four and have each group choose an example from the hat to create a 2-3 minute skit. Students can have time to prepare their skit or do an on-the-spot improvisation. Keep in mind that this skit doesn't have a tidy beginning, middle, and end. It's not a performance; it's acting out a concept or situation.
As each group performs, the teacher as director gets to say “pause” when injustice is revealed. The question is asked, “If we were to rewind the action, what would we do differently? Let’s edit that part and make it a story of justice.”
Students in the audience may act as directors or the teacher may talk the class through solutions or steps to make it right. By underpinning solutions, kids come away with a strong definition of what justice is and isn’t, and beginning steps to constructing a more just world. Through powerful conversations, your students are able to unpack the challenge that injustice brings. They also will understand that as citizens it is our work to create solutions together—and it isn’t cookie cutter easy, but is definitely rewarding.