Affirming Dignity in the Time of Elections

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In this fall of impossible challenges, schools are doing the best that they can to address issues that they have never had to address before. Principals and teachers are stretched to the max trying to teach in person and virtually, figure out systems to keep children and adults safe, and hold out until a vaccine. And yet there is one upcoming event that happens every four years that comes next week that many worry about–the election.

Four years ago the elections surprised many of us in multiple ways. Not only were the outcomes different than many had predicted, for our students of color, our immigrant children, our multilingual families, for many of us personally, the language used in the pre-election campaign became an immediate and looming threat. In the school that I was leading, children entered school crying. Would they be deported? Would their friend be at school tomorrow? Were we safe?

Four years later, the rhetoric has only gotten worse. While children and families have learned to live under a very different kind of public discourse, the unease that accompanies this election is palpable.

So how do we, as professionals in schools and districts respond? How do we make space for every child, whatever their parent’s political belief? How can we create spaces of belongingness in our schools for all our children? How do we respond to the real threat that some children and families experience?

Essentially, it comes back to the concept of dignity (Hicks, 2011) and treating every person with inherent dignity. We can stand up for dignity by encouraging students to understand that we can disagree without threatening, that we can espouse different values without calling others names, we can honor the office of the president without accepting the behavior of individuals.

If we accept the premise that every person–rich or poor, immigrant or Indigenous, Black or white–deserves to have their dignity acknowledged, then we can begin to separate out the acts of individuals from the political actions they support. We can model for our students ways to affirm each other’s dignity at times when they completely disagree. We can reaffirm dignity for those whose existence has been denied. We can talk back to hate–not as politics, but as fundamental violations of dignity.

As educators, we are in a unique place. Charged with educating and supporting our youth and yet sanctioned if we “become political,” we often don’t know how to respond. This election year, we need to not be afraid to open up conversations in which students explore this concept of dignity. They need to define it, share examples of times they have experienced having their dignity upheld and times in which their dignity has been violated. They need to learn to analyze HOW language is used to violate dignity and how to change language to support the essential dignity of every person. When we have developed deep understanding of the concept of dignity with our students, then they are empowered to analyze situations they encounter, to consider their own agency. They can go beyond deciding that this a situation that affirmed or violated dignity and consider how might this situation have been different if the conflict, disagreement, or challenge been handled differently. We can provide holding spaces where students and adults alike can be brave, name dignity violations, and celebrate dignity affirmations.

Here are resources that you can tap into that can support your work in the lead up and aftermath of elections. Now is not the time to ignore dignity violations…

You can learn more about affirming dignity through these books:

Hicks, Donna (2018). Leading with Dignity: How to create a culture that brings out the best in people. New Haven, CT: Yale Press.

Hicks, Donna (2011). Dignity: Its essential role in resolving conflict. New Haven, CT: Yale Press

Cobb, F. & Krownapple, J. (2019). Belonging through a culture of dignity: The keys to successful equity implementation. San Diego, CA:  Mimi and Todd Press

Or contact West Wind Education Policy Inc. for our customized modules on supporting students in engaging in respectful and dignity affirming conversations.

*This blog was originally posted on the Educational Equity Resources Portal.

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