Facing History using the Ten Questions

By Chaebong Nam, Adam Strom, and Danielle Allen 

I am pleased and proud to see my colleagues from the YPP Action Frame Project collaborate with Facing History to explore how our ten reflection questions for budding civic agents can support the sorts of inquiry that Facing History so ably guides. Below you will find a powerful suggestion for a classroom exercise that links study of past examples of civic agency with efforts to cultivate the civic empowerment of young people in the present. –Danielle Allen


I. Facing History

For forty years, Facing History and Ourselves has had the opportunity to challenge young people to reflect on the moral choices they face in their own lives. Inspired by what they have learned, many of those students look for ways in which they can make a positive difference in their classrooms, communities, and world. Indeed, the Facing History journey ends with a reflection on choosing to participate. But, what does it mean to choose to participate in a digital world, in which participatory practices, using digital tools, are increasingly being used to take on the work of traditional institutions? We believe the Youth Participatory Politics Action Frame can serve as a model to guide young people to reflect on the moral and ethical choices they face in their desire to make a difference.

The YPP Action Frame is a series of ten questions that guide reflection during acts of civic participation. The questions are generally present and future oriented. We ask them of ourselves and about our plans for action. You can find them here.  

  1. Why does it matter to me?
  2. How much should I share?
  3. How do I make it about more than myself?
  4. Where do we start?
  5. How can we make it easy and engaging for others to join in?
  6. How do we get wisdom from crowds?
  7. How do we handle the downside of crowds?
  8. Are you pursuing voice or influence or both?
  9. How do we get from voice to changes?
  10. How can we find allies?

But the questions can also be used for a backward look at choices civic agents have made at points in the past. The YPP Action Frame’s inquiry process can be used to ask: How were people in the past able to design successful civic-political participation?  What we can learn from critical choices in our history? How can we use what we learn to shape to present choice-making?

How can the Ten Questions of the YPP Action Frame help us understand the choices of past civic actors? We take one example from Eyes on the Prize: Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (1987), an episode from the acclaimed documentary series that focuses on Nashville’s lunch counter sit-ins in the early civil rights movement. In the Nashville story, a group of ordinary citizens, led by eight black college students, raised their voices against the injustices that were taken for granted in the segregated South. The students leaders–—some of whom have become well recognized civic leaders today, including Congressman John Lewis—did not wait for established civil rights organizations to take on the fight. Instead, the students prepared themselves for nonviolent protests and organized a relentless campaign that was ultimately successful in desegregating lunch counters in Nashville.

As educators, we immediately generate a flurry of questions, seeking to understand the profound legacies of these ordinary citizens: Who were they? Why did they care about segregation? What choices did they make? What were the consequences of their choices? The challenges?  How did they face them?  What counted as success? and so on. The YPP Action Frame’s Ten Questions can help streamline some of the more complicated issues. What is more, the ten questions help to articulate why we see those choices as successful. In the YPP Action frame, three key values––equity, efficacy, and self-protection––have been chosen as the criteria to judge the success or shortcomings of civic action. (See the related posts: What the Principles Get You and What We Value: Equity, Efficacy, and Self-Protection.)  


II. What Can We Imagine?  

Equitable, efficacious, and self-protective civic-political agency––if that is the ideal, what would it look like in actual practice? The short answer is political friendship. Rooted in the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, the idea of political friendship was further developed by Danielle Allen in Talking to Strangers (2004) as the reigning ideal for civic agency. Political friendship is a virtue, which is to say, a praiseworthy capacity. Specifically, it is the capacity to hit a midway point between domination and acquiescence in one’s interactions with others—to be neither domineering nor obsequious. Political friendship requires ordinary habits like proving oneself trustworthy to one another, sharing vulnerabilities, and generating reciprocity. Through the development of these habits, individuals can broaden their understanding of self-interest, recognizing that some equitable notions of self-interest are preferable to rivalrous variants. Political friendship is an essential capacity for coordinating divergent self-interests among individuals who are strangers to one another. Further, although political friendship is not as emotionally charged as the type of friendship we experience with family or close friends, it still offers contexts for people to release and acknowledge the grievances and frustrations caused by political injustices, and then to work together to redress them. Political friendship is a timeless key disposition for those working towards democratic social change. The ten questions of the YPP Action frame walk one through a process of reflection necessary to undertake civic agency in the digital sphere in ways that accord with the standards of political friendship.

Yet the YPP Action framework has an even broader reach. The ten questions support the work of crafting a healthy civic-political life, regardless of whether digital technology is involved­­. The questions can therefore be used to help us see the decisions of historical civic actors. History reveals that activating political friendship is not always easy, but it is achievable. The Civil Rights Movement, and the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins in particular, showed how many individuals with different backgrounds––many strangers to one another to begin with––could come together and collaborate to pave the path to a more equitable society. In this post, we read this particular historical moment portrayed in Eyes on the Prize: Ain’t Scared of Your Jails  using the YPP Action Frame (The entire episode runs about 22 minutes but we recommend an 18 minute excerpt). The left column in Table 1 details our short answers to each of the ten reflection prompts. For this exercise, we changed the subject from I/me/we to they/them. This change prompts us to exercise historical imagination, putting ourselves in the activists’ shoes. The transcript for the video is available here.

1. Why did it matter to them?  (Equity)

Colored Lunch Room

Leo Lillard and Diane Nash, two student activists, take on this question directly in the opening minutes of the film. Both talked about their own motivations for participation––they are different yet they are moving towards a shared goal. Lillard explains that he began to question the logic of segregation when he was at a department store as a young boy when he asked his mother about the reasons for colored and white water fountains. A young Leo asked his mom, “Why can’t I go there [the white fountain]?” Diane Nash moved to Nashville from Chicago for college with high aspirations of expanding her personal growth. Instead, the rigid rules of segregation limited her opportunities. Before long, she “felt stifled and shut in very unfairly… being allowed to do basic kinds of things like eating at restaurants in the ten cent stores” deeply disturbed her.

2. How much should they share?  (Self-protection)

The question about what to share principle was originally developed to highlight vulnerabilities in a digital context. The Nashville context may not provoke this question in a literal sense. Still, considering that this principle addresses a certain form of self-exposure or sacrifice (or risk) that the participants decide to undertake, we can tweak the question and ask––“How much of a sacrifice should I make?”

Student activists made huge sacrifices by exposing themselves to violence and accepting jail time over paying fines. These sacrifices challenged the accepted cultural norms of their communities in which African Americans were expected to accept the status quo as a means of survival. Their choices were the result of thoughtful calculation and commitment to the principals of non-violent direct action.

3. How do they make it about more than themselves?   (Equity)

The inclusion of both black and white activists reinforced that the campaign was about more than access to lunch counters; indeed it was about equity and democracy for all people regardless of their skin color. In the video, a reporter asks Congressman and Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, “I take it, then, that you are advocating Negroes in New York to stay out of these national chain stores?” He responds, “Oh no, that's not true. I’m advocating that American citizens interested in democracy stay out of chain stores.” Rev. Powell’s remark was a public dismissal of the unjust racial privilege in American citizenship. This account encouraged people to pivot from I, and move towards we to make society more equitable and inclusive, regardless of skin color.


4. Where did they start? (Efficacy)

In a case of wondering where to start, the students began by turning to an experienced mentor, Rev. James Forman, who led training in nonviolent resistance. Those workshops were based on Gandhi’s principles of Satyagraha (non-violent civil disobedience). Forman’s workshops provided not just practical training, but an education and a chance for those interested in challenging Jim Crow to gather and meet one another. Ultimately, the student lunch-counter protest gained traction for the greater movement.

5. How could they make it easy and engaging? (Efficacy)

Challenging Jim Crow was never going to be easy. Students and other activists literally put their lives and bodies at risk in the name of democracy. Despite the risks, student protesters stood in solidarity, having each other’s back (for example, look at the smiles on the students behind the bar in the video). Though such mutual support did not make participation easier or more enjoyable, at least it may have mitigated, quite considerably, anxieties and fears that otherwise might have consumed the student protesters’ zeal and courage. Activists also created a range of ways for people to get involved, ranging from participating in protests to supporting the Easter shopping boycott. Given the huge buying power of blacks in Nashville, this boycott was a fairly effective strategy.   

workshop for nonviolent strategies

6. How did they get wisdom from crowds?  (Equity & Self-protection)

The key to success for Nashville activism was the solidarity and collective sacrifice contributed by numerous ordinary citizens. Non-violent direct action is designed to activate crowds of “bystanders,” compelling them to choose sides. For example, the lunch-counter sit-in became successful due to crowds who willingly took up one row after another and were unafraid of getting arrested (Nash: “And no matter what they did and how many they arrested, there was still a lunch counter full of students there”).  Also, in the excerpt we can see how the strategy encouraged others in cities throughout the country to develop their own local campaigns targeting chains that were the sites of demonstrations in Nashville. Also, the aforementioned Easter shopping boycott also came into fruition, thanks to the crowds.  To make the boycott more impactful, the protesters quite proactively persuaded some individuals who were trying to breach it.  Lillard noted, “Sending educating committees downtown to convince them [people didn’t participate in the boycott] that that was not the thing to do.” That tactic was instrumental in generating a cohesive, critical, and burden sharing public body for a shared vision.

Collective power

7. How did they handle the downside of crowds?  (Equity & Self-protection)

The student protesters and their allies encountered physical attacks, verbal threats, and bombing. One tactic that student leaders used to cope with hostile mobs was to capture such downsides of crowds on film, which they used to expose the brutality behind segregation and white supremacy. For example, the strategies lured those resisting desegregation to the lunch counters where several whites physically attacked the protesters. While it is not explicitly shown in the film, the media was directly brought into the campaign by activists who reached out to members of the press to encourage them to cover the protests. Activists timed their sit-ins to make it easy for the press to fly film of the demonstrations to New York and have it developed in time to air on the evening news. 

collective power 2

8. Are you pursuing voice or influence or both?  (Efficacy) 

Raising voices was the key. Let us recall the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell’s response (see point 3), “Oh no, that’s not true [that I am representing Negroes in New York]. I’m advocating for American citizens interested in democracy.” By raising his voice in this way, Powell claimed an equal share of citizenship for all Americans, regardless of skin color.

In addition, the activists in Nashville created images of confrontations through direct actions that were shared broadly by established media along with reporting on the campaign that informed the clarity of the students’ goals. In turn, the press coverage brought the story of segregation into ordinary people’s homes where individuals begin to talk about the injustice of the Jim Crow system, many for the first time.

9. How did they get from voice to change?  & 10 How did they find allies?  (Efficacy)

In the case of Nashville, the last two questions are directly related. By finding allies, in this case, an unusual one—the Mayor—the student activists identified a lever of power (point 9) that helped them to end segregation at the lunch counters. Nash challenged the major, saying, "First of all, Mayor West, do you feel that it’s wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of his race or color?" That question induced the major’s candid answer: “I could not agree that it was morally right for someone to sell them merchandise and refuse them service.”  Subsequently, this revelation was a turning point for desegregation in Nashville.

Declare Desegregation

Sourced from: "Eyes on the Prize: Ain't Scared of Your Jails" (for more details, please see the Eyes on the Prize Study Guide developed by Facing History and Ourselves).

III. What Is Next?

Above we interpreted the documentary, Eyes on the Prize, by treating the ten reflection questions of the YPP Action Frame as discussion prompts. This is one of many examples of how teachers can use the questions for explorations in their classrooms. Some questions may be easier and more straightforward to answer than others. For instance, “Why does it matter to me? Why did it matter to them?” In contrast, the second question, “How much should I share?” may seem tricky at first glance because it appears to concern the challenges of a digital environment. On second thought, though, one realizes that the question also relates to the pre-digital age. The question, “How much should I share?” points to a critical moment of coming out as an activist; it is about recognizing who we really are and defining the terms on which we will take a public stance on the issues that matters to us. In the Nashville case, we slightly altered this question to bring in the topic of sacrifice: “How much sacrifice should I share?” One might find other workable alterations. The historical and contextual differences between the 1960s and today mean that some questions should be adjusted to suit the context, but the YPP Action Frame is sufficiently flexible to survive such translations across historical periods.

In particular, what survives the contextual translation is the concern for equity, efficacy, and self-protection. Take a look at the left column in Table 1. The three values surface multiple times throughout the ten questions. Equity is represented by questions 1, 3, 6, and 7; efficacy by questions 4, 5, 8, 9, and 10; and self-protection by questions 2, 6, and 7. Teachers can call this out and direct discussions around the significance of those values, how each value is realized at specific points in the development of civic agency, and about what can be learned from that. Taking a step back, teachers and students can try to put the little pieces together to form the big picture. This zoom-in-and-out exercise helps students read historical moments very closely from multiple perspectives––helping them read various forms of sacrifice and commitment, as well as the solidarity, trust, and reciprocity, which ordinary citizens have contributed to change-making. These exercises give students an opportunity to understand that those virtues––which coalesce in political friendships­­––are necessary to make our society more just and equitable, even if they are also difficult to come by. 

Finally, our contemporary civic-political landscape is quite different from the 1960s. Think about the digital activism captured in many hashtag movements, including #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter. The latter two are the most used hashtags in Twitter history for social causes (Pew, 2016). Teachers can also use the YPP Action Frame to juxtapose today’s stories with those from the past; for example, Facing Ferguson: New Literacy in a Digital Age, a newly developed Facing History resource unit, can pair with the Nashville story for the past-and-present inquiry. Even with a simple compare-and-contrast, weighty questions soon follow: Compared to civic agency in the past, how is the project of civic agency still the same? What has changed? And how can we educators and learners increase the potential for political friendships to form in our society?   



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