Teaching Civics Education in a Time of Change: Q&A With Emma Humphries of iCivics

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 has sparked protests across the country. Young people are feeling a mix of fear, anger, anxiety, and frustration. How can they turn these emotions into productive action? How should educators and parents start a dialogue with kids about racism and social justice? And what role does civic education play in all of this?

I spoke with Emma Humphries, chief education officer at iCivics, who offered answers to these questions and more. She also shared how she remedied a “total mom fail” after realizing she had never talked with her two young daughters about race.

Brenda Iasevoli: Why is civics education particularly relevant in light of recent events leading up to and including the nationwide protests?

Emma Humphries: I would argue that civics is always relevant, but yes, recent events following the murder of George Floyd certainly make it feel even more central to our lives. When bad things happen like this, people ask themselves, “What can we do?” It’s important to know what types of civic action are available to us. There’s been a lot of talk about the power of protest, particularly in comparison to voting. If you’re really passionate about change, I would encourage you to do both. It doesn’t need to be an either-or consideration. You can absolutely take to the streets with demands for justice and also research, support, and vote for candidates who prioritize the justice you seek.

In terms of critical knowledge, it’s important to know what level of government you want to influence. It’s a complicated system, but if you have a solid civic education, you can navigate it and determine where to focus your energy. When it comes to law enforcement, the majority of policy and action occurs at the local level through municipal police departments and county sheriff offices. That’s a great place to start. But there’s also state- and federal-level policy regarding law enforcement, not to mention the civil liberties afforded Americans by the U.S. Constitution.

At the end of the day, it comes down to policy, and there are many levers influencing policy in America. A sea of angry voices shouting through their face masks for justice and reform—that’s definitely a powerful lever. So is the ballot box and the opportunity to vote in those who share your values.

BI: How can teachers support students and encourage dialogue around social justice, given the recent events?

EH: For teachers on summer “break,” I urge you to take this time to listen, to learn, to read, to reflect, and to think specifically about the ways in which you’ll approach your curriculum differently when the school year resumes. And remember, you may have to start remote teaching this fall without the benefit of established relationships with your students.

For those who still have young minds in their charge, I urge you to make space for students to ask questions and process what they’re seeing, hearing, and thinking. I doubt they’ll remember any new content you teach them between now and the last day of school, but I promise they’ll remember if they felt comfortable enough to share their thoughts and feelings with you and their classmates during this tumultuous time.

It’s possible your students have misunderstandings and have been exposed to bad information. They are consuming lots of information, and they need to learn the habit of checking it out. At iCivics, we have a game for that: Newsfeed Defenders. It was designed to help students develop critical news literacy skills, which they need to make sense of this current moment as well as the many more they will face throughout their lifetime.

BI: Do you have any advice on how parents should talk about racism with their kids?

EH: Let me first speak to White parents, because my identity and life experiences place me squarely in that camp. My advice is to have these talks now and not put them off for a “more appropriate” age. I’d like to underscore that point by sharing my own failure on that front.

I have two girls, ages 3 and 8. Imagine my horror last summer when my then 7-year-old refused to go swimming because she didn’t want her skin to get too dark. We live in coastal Georgia, and she was worried about getting a tan. When I questioned this concern, she said, “I don’t know. I just don’t want to have dark skin.” She couldn’t articulate why, but she had already internalized that having lighter skin was an asset in our society.

Total mom fail. I am an educator, and one who aspires to be antiracist, but here I allowed my child to grow up in the South and reach the age of 7 without talking to her about race. First, I had to take a moment and acknowledge the privilege that allowed me to make that mistake. Then, I had to make up for lost time. My husband and I had a series of conversations with her. We had to start with what race means (and what it doesn’t mean) before moving into the history and current-day manifestations.

We live in the same county where Ahmaud Arbery was murdered while jogging. When that happened, we told her about it. It was relatable for her because it happened 15 minutes away from her house. It was also relatable because she knows I like to go jogging, and she understands that we have the privilege of not having to worry about me being stalked and murdered, at least not on account of my skin color. But we didn’t just tell her about this one, seemingly isolated injustice. We talked to her about the long history of this kind of violence in Glynn County, Georgia and many other communities, so that she can see the degree to which this is part of the fabric of our nation.

Another important point: My husband and I used to have conversations about race out of earshot of our girls. We don’t do that anymore. We let them listen (even the 3-year-old), and we invite them to join the conversation.

I’m not really in a position to advise Black parents and other non-White parents about how to talk to their kids about race. I suspect they have way more experience in fostering these conversations and probably had them modeled for them by their own parents and elder family members when they were younger.

BI: Can you suggest any resources for parents looking for support on how to talk about race with their kids?

EH: One of my greatest teachers on race and parenting is my colleague, Amber Coleman-Mortley [who is the Director of Social Engagement at iCivics]. Amber is Black and has three Black daughters. She is a Mom blogger and has recently committed much of her personal time to supporting other parents in this moment. It’s a role that she shouldn’t have to play, but she does so graciously, generously, and brilliantly. I encourage you to read her blog, follow her on Twitter @MomofAllCapes, and subscribe to the podcast she produces with her daughters, Let’s K12 Better. Their June 3rd podcast is entitled “Talking to Kids...About Race” and is chock full of wisdom on this very topic.

BI: How is knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and the workings of government necessary in understanding recent events?

EH: It doesn’t take more than basic humanity to look at George Floyd’s murder and know that it was wrong. And if you hold just a superficial understanding of this history of violence toward black bodies in America, then you should know enough to understand that we have a major problem and that folks are right to be upset. And these understandings are important, and the anger and even rage that many people feel in response is more than justified. But if that’s all you know, then it’s likely that any influence you might have over this moral injustice stops there.

Assuming you want to do something in response to recent events, it’s really important to understand the republican form of government guaranteed by our Constitution, as well as the workings of government. One of my favorite civic scholars, Professor Peter Levine of Tufts University, has argued that the definition of a citizen is someone who asks, “What should we do?” Students need help arriving at an answer to this fundamental question, and that’s where iCivics can help. Our County Solutions civic action plan project encourages middle and high school students to examine an issue in their community and create a plan to solve it.

BI: How can young people turn anger over recent events into productive action?

EH: I had that same question in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, so I tuned into as many learning opportunities as I could find. I learned a lot, and I found some hope. The My Brother’s Keeper Alliance town hall was one such learning opportunity. President Obama’s remarks hit home: “I hope that you also feel hopeful, even as you may feel angry, because you have the power to make things better and you have helped to make the entire country feel as if this is something that’s got to change.” (Listen to his full remarks here.)

So pay attention. Do the difficult work of learning our nation’s history of racial injustice—from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration and policy brutality. Learn enough about our system of government to influence it in your own way. Hone your civic skills for the long fight ahead. And don’t lose hope—not because we’re likely to succeed, but because as Dr. Ibram X. Kendi writes in How to Be An Antiracist, “Once we lose hope, we are guaranteed to lose.”

BI: What role do you see young people playing in our country’s healing?

EH: I can’t begin to express just how much hope I have in young people today, and their capacity to heal our country. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, Generation Z (those ages 15 to 23 in 2020) is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation we have seen. Together with Millennials, members of Gen Z are “more likely than older generations to say that blacks are treated less fairly than whites in the United States today. And they are much more likely than their elders to approve of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem as a sign of protest.” I think this puts them ahead of the curve. We don’t have to waste precious instructional time convincing young people that racism and inequalities exist. Instead, we can focus our efforts toward educating them about the institutional and structural reasons why they exist and how to fight for policies that can mitigate or eliminate them. That is the power of civic education!

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