Getting in good trouble: Teaching and learning about John Lewis and CT Vivian

We lost two great men this weekend, two original builders of beloved community: Congressman John Lewis and Rev CT Vivian. They were friends, fellow activists, fellow servants, and left this earth on the same day. People may be more familiar with John Lewis because of his longtime service in Congress, but each of these men were faithful in their work with Dr. King in the Civil Rights movement and faithful in their work in pursuit of the Beloved Community throughout their lives.

Here are some great resources to use in teaching or in learning about these men, their legacy, and how we can build on their work:

I just saw the documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble which came out earlier this month. It tells Lewis’ personal story and also the broader story of activist work during the Civil Rights Movement. The documentary also switches back and forth from the past to the present. As you are seeing footage of the work that went into getting the Voting Rights Act passed, you next are watching news clips and footage from 2013 and beyond that show acts of voter suppression. For teaching about voting rights alone, this documentary would be great for social work policy classes, US history classes, and political science classes. Beyond the voting rights work and voter suppression concerns of today, another powerful piece of this documentary was seeing the young college students in Nashville undergo training to be prepared for the lunch counter sit ins, and seeing the footage of the sit ins. It brings a good topic for reflection/discussion: What is the work I am called to do? What change am I to be a part of? How am I making myself ready?

It was also really poignant to hear John Lewis’ brothers and sisters talk about him when he was younger, and talk about his preaching to the chickens, his desire for education, his faith. It made me think of his brothers and sisters and parents as “good ancestors” in that they could envision his future work and they supported him how they could so that he could prepare. What is the work that we need to do in order that we can be a good ancestor for racial equity and for justice for all?

You can see this on Amazon Prime, Google Play and other digital platforms on demand. I watched it on Amazon Prime for 6.00.

A few years ago, the March trilogy of graphic novels was published (authored by Lewis, and Andrew Aydin and Nate Powel) to tell the story of key events in the Civil Rights movement. Though alot of times we associate graphic novels with kids, these are beautiful novels. Here is a reading guide developed for university students to accompany the first book and could be adapted for any university discipline or really any community setting:

One of my favorite “modern prophets” is the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Here is a soundbite from him about how we can honor the work of John Lewis via policy action: and here is a longer written piece by Barber along these lines:

Here is a commentary from Sojourners that is a beautiful look at the faith that drove CT Vivian in his civil rights activism: C.T. Vivian Wanted Us to Remember: The Civil Rights Movement Was Deeply Spiritual. In this you can see the power of a faithful grandparent in the shaping of a young child, and a young man who saw God in his work.

Here is a Library of Congress Oral History interview with C.T. Vivian, recorded in 2011 for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is a 4 hour interview but rich with detail. He talks about his childhood in the Depression, and also how his mother and grandmother planned ahead and moved so he could be educated in a desegregated school and eventually go to college. (Talk about some visionary women!) He talks about his early work in sit ins in Illinois, his shift from business when he got the call to ministry, how he and his wife answered that call. It is answering that call to ministry which brings him to his time in Nashville at American Baptist Theological Seminary, where he met other civil rights activists including John Lewis. Both Vivian and Lewis learned from James Lawson, and this is where Vivian began to practice the principles of nonviolent direct action in the sit ins of Nashville and other locations. Some of the most emotional and poignant detail is when he is reflecting on organizing the plans for the 1961 Freedom Rides and the commitment to nonviolent action even when others are acting with violence toward you. He also talks about other events in that era that are less well known (or at least, were less well known to me) and shares how he learned of Dr. King’s assassination and of traveling to Memphis after he got the news. Aside from learning history, and first hand reflections on strategies of non violent direct action, this interview also really illustrates the importance of relationships and being in community with people who have the same vision and commitment as you do. It is powerful.

And finally, along the lines of relationships, see these fierce and faithful men looking at the jailers, convinced in the rightness of the work they were doing:

Reflections of a baby addict: (We have to address disproportionality in child welfare)

I love babies. My children call me a baby addict. I love their coos, their squishy cheeks, their ability to wrap grown people around their tiny fingers…and most of all, I love their potential. So much potential to create, heal, inspire…wrapped up in a blanket and often with a stinky diaper. All kids have it (the potential, and the stinky diaper)…but we have a child welfare system (a system created to protect children) that creates inequity and in this sense goes in opposition to its direct mission.

I worked in child welfare before I had my kids. On a purely personal level, my deep desire is that all kids have someone to love them as much as I love my kids. I don’t have a perfect track record as a mother but I love them with my whole heart. Every kid deserves that kind of love. On a professional level, my deep desire is to address disproportionality in child welfare systems.

Disproportionality means that there is an underrepresentation of some groups, and an overrepresentation of others. What we hear most about in terms of this issue is the overrepresentation of African American and American Indian/Alaskan Native children (they are more likely to be removed from their parents’ homes, more likely to have placements in group care settings than foster homes, etc). That’s my focus here today.

It is important to look at disparity in how we work with families and children, because disparity in approach leads to inequity in outcomes. If you train social workers or other helping professionals, or teach people who want to be these things in the future, I hope the resources at the end of this post help you frame a discussion and class session.

If you are not a social worker or other helping professional, you still have a voice in this and a role to play. Every state has a public child welfare system that should be concerned about this issue. Look on their website and see what they are doing to address disproportionality. Ask them to fully fund resources that work with families and children at the stages of prevention and early intervention. Ask them how they train their employees to be culturally sensitive. If you want to volunteer in child welfare, no matter where you live in the US, you could be a CASA (court appointed special advocate) or serve on the foster care review board (FCRB) for your county.

There are so many ways to make a difference in the life of a child!

Here’s a general collection of resources on this issue:

And an amazing Ted Talk: To Transform Child Welfare, Take Race out of the Equation

And here’s a 13 minute video from C-Span on racial disproportionality in child welfare:

Don’t want to protest? Don’t worry, I have 197 other ideas for you.

Sometimes we want to show our support for a cause, but we don’t know how. Sometimes there are visible ways (like protest marches) of how we could show alliance, but not everyone is able or comfortable in this, and that’s okay. There are lots of other ways, at least 197, that you can show your support for a cause without marching.

In Fall 2020 I will be teaching, for the first time, First Year Seminar. The general theme for FYS at my institution is “ways of knowing”, but it is a course that can be shaped by every professor who teaches it. There are a lot of interesting sessions on any given year, and this year my particular section of the course is called “Yes We Can! The Power of Resistance and Nonviolent Protest”. I developed this theme because this (the study of social movements) is my favorite part to teach about in the community practice class, but I never have as much time as I want to spend on it. So this semester I will be exploring a whole range of non violent protests and other forms of resistance in achieving social change.

When I teach this part of community practice class, one of the resources I have students review and reflect on (in written form) before they come to class is this piece from the Einstein Institute: 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action (available here:

I ask students to review the list and identify any actions that they have done, any that they would do, and any that they most certainly would not do, just to get a sense of the range. I also invite them to ask about any strategies that they have never heard of before, or any that they don’t understand. (In this vein, students often ask about mock funerals and guerilla theatre, so be ready to explain those, at least). This discussion leads us into our discussions on how we show solidarity with people, what does it mean to become an ally, and broader discussions about working for social change while being creative and acting in accordance with your ethics/beliefs. This piece, also from the Einstein Institute, is a good general discussion of what non-violent action is:

This would be good for any macro system level class in social work, education, sociology, etc and could also have a place in social science courses across disciplines. I think it would also be an interesting discussion for churches and other faith groups to consider and discuss, since they are already a collective engaged body and can mobilize other faith groups to action.

What does it mean to say”I am anti-racist” ? Questions from a former student

I have done most of my teaching since the onset of social media. There are several implications of this, but one of the most significant is that I still get to have a relationship with many of my students after they graduate and I am no longer ever in a position to give them a grade for anything. For the students who choose to “friend” or “follow” me, I love this way of maintaining connection.

Last week I got a message from a former student via Facebook. She asked if she could ask me a question. When I responded in the affirmative, she said she had been thinking about the term “anti-racist” and she said it had made her wonder if the use of the term would be or could be counter productive. One of her concerns was that the use of the term “anti” signals intolerance and that the use of the term would be divisive. Her other major concern was that the use of the term sounds like the end goal has been achieved and would, in essence, give people a pass on continually exploring their implicit biases and more subtle ways that we are shaped by racist ideology.

I thought these were great questions. I love it when my students (current or former) ask questions that make me think. Here is part of my response to her: “I would say that saying ‘I am anti-racist’ is acknowledgement of a journey, not a destination. And saying ‘I am anti-racist’ is more active and action oriented than being ‘not a racist’…meaning, in the first scenario someone is taking responsibility for their actions and is intentionally aware of racist structures in our country. While in the second scenario people could honestly say they are not racist in the sense that they may not be actively individually engaging in racist behavior. However, they are not antiracist because they are still complicit in benefitting from the broader systemic and structural racism.”

I also shared some resources with her that I had found helpful: What it means to be anti-racist: and the Talking About Race resources from the National Museum of African American History and Culture and specifically the Being Antiracist link from the museum:

Black Lives Matter: How you can help a student (or anyone) think through the problems with the statement “All lives matter”

I remember the first time I talked about Black Lives Matter in a classroom that someone voiced “but all lives matter”. I feel like I had been coasting along, talking about the BLM movement for a couple of semesters, when one evening (because of course it was a night class at the end of a long day) one of my students said she thought the statement “All lives matter” was a better reflection of her beliefs and perspective, both as a person of faith and as a social worker to be. I was taken off guard, though I shouldn’t have been, because I know social work students (just like social workers) are not uniform in how we interpret and experience the world around us. However, I was taken off guard, and my first response, to buy me some time, was the old professor standby: asking a question to the class as a whole, of “what arguments have you all heard about why this response is or is not an appropriate response to the statement that ‘Black lives matter’?”

We had some discussion and mercifully, the end of class came. I was dissatisfied in my ability to respond to the student in a way that held space for everyone, in a way that was promoting critical thinking, and in a way that was intentionally inclusive for the (small number) of Black students in the room. So, I thought about it and came back to the class the next week with the image below and used this to lead off discussion. (This particular class meets once each week and I make an announcement a few days before the class to let students know what “the plan” for the class is, so they were clued in to the fact we would be picking up this topic again.) The original source of the image below is

I had also used the time between classes to think about my own honest response as to why I find the phrase “all lives matter” problematic. I shared this with the student who raised the issue in the previous class in a private email, because I wanted her to know she had helped me by asking her question, and I also wanted her to know why I was bringing the topic back up again and that it wasn’t “at” her, but that I hoped it would be a learning moment for all of us.

The use of the graphic and me sharing my thoughts in a transparent way were both helpful in “furthering the work” of the conversation. And, though I wish I had had “the best” response in the moment of the original question, coming back to it the following week also modeled for students that it is okay to not have perfect words, but that what is required is willingness to keep thinking and keep growing.

If you are looking for other creative ways to help students think through this same question, I thought this list was helpful as well:

Allies for Justice and living by the Code

I want to make this space useful for a social broad an audience as possible, but truly this entry is probably only of interest to social workers 😊. It has been awhile since I have taught Intro to Social Work, but I read a piece a couple of days ago in The New Social Worker that would be great to include in an Intro course, and it reminded me of some other resources that are important to highlight and spend some time discussing in class.

Introduction to Social Work is where students start to become familiar with our Code of Ethics and our core values. A solid introduction to these standards can help students identify with the profession, and also identify where they may struggle with living out these principles. Asking them to think through an action in the context of whether it is in alignment an ethical standard or core value is good practice, and helps them get a feel for how we should make decisions in social work.

The piece I read most recently is called “Social Workers: Allies for Justice?” ( In this, Dr. Lakeya Cherry discusses the risks of racism (citing current illustrations of COVID-19, Christian Cooper, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd) and grounds her discussion of racist outcomes being the result of racist policies in the context of looking at some of the core values of social work as well as our Code of Ethics. As I mentioned earlier, I love it when there are articles that specifically explore the Code and the timeliness of this one is on point.

The second source I point students to and use in the classroom is the website for the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW). In times when I have taught Intro to Social Work I have used a variety of textbooks. All of them have included a reference to and discussion of the National Association of Social Workers and I think many, if not all, have included a reference to the National Association of Black Social Workers. However, we all know that students sometimes gloss over reading, and I think pulling up the NABSW website in class and discussing some of the links (or assigning students to discuss in small groups) is helpful because it points them to thinking through some issues related to race and our profession. The organization website is here and the information on their history and Code of Ethics is particularly important and a rich focus of discussion. There is also a National Association of Puerto Rican Hispanic Social Workers Showing the reach and focus of different professional organizations is also important because it can help students see themselves as part of a broader professional community.

Between the World and Me

I read Between the World and Me in the summer of 2017. The ladies at church have a monthly book club and I usually end up hosting one of the summer months. Generally, the host picks the book and so I chose Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates for our July book club that year. The membership of book club is kind of fluid, so you never know what to expect at book club in terms of attendance, and I especially didn’t know what (or who) to expect that night. But we had about 8 women who came and had an honest, and sometimes awkward, discussion about the book and—more broadly—about race.

One of the sections we talked about at length that night is on page 33. Here is an excerpt: “It does not matter that the intentions of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions…very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of Black people being left for the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the dream. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of “personal responsibility” in a country authored and sustained by criminal irresponsibility…Good intention is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the dream.”

There is a lot to unpack there! All of the women at the book club that night had, or would soon have, school aged children so we talked about our experiences with our own local schools with respect to how inequities appear and how they are or are not addressed. We also talked about the language of personal responsibility and how that gets embedded into a lot of assumptions/expectations in schools, faith communities, and policies. We also talked about “good intention” and how white people (including us) sometimes have good intention, but often we want our good intention to take the place of any actual work done in the area of racial reconciliation and the pursuit of equity.

The image of a “hall pass through history” is something that sticks with me. When we don’t understand history in all its complexities, it is easier to give pat answers or to assume the whitewashed version is the absolute truth.

I have never assigned this book outright in a class, though it appears on a list of suggested books that students can choose for a book critique assignment. I have used quotes from the book, including the one above, to initiate discussions or to give students something to center their minds on while they are in those few minutes of waiting for class to begin. The passage above is especially good for a beginning discussion of education policy for students in social work, education and related fields. Also it is a good discussion starter in other settings to think about how we generally teach and learn history.

Say their names! Won’t you please say their names?

“Hell you talmbout” is a 2015 protest song by the artist Janelle Monae and other members of her Wondaland group. The first time I heard this I was so overcome I really couldn’t speak. The rhythm of the song and the power of the words held me captive. I played it for my students in my macro practice class that week as a kick off to talking about the need for creative aspects of community organizing, and how you can use different mediums to share your message. If you have never heard the song, stop now and go listen to it on YouTube or better yet buy it on your preferred platform! As you know, or will hear, the main part of the song is a listing of the names of African Americans who died or were killed as a result of racial violence or encounters with law enforcement. There is a refrain of “say her name” or “say his name” throughout the song after names are chanted.

After the song played, we talked about which names were familiar to my students and which names were new to them. This was the fall semester of 2015 and the death of Sandra Bland was fresh on my mind. In the fall semester of 2016 I played the song again for a different group of students in the same course. We added the names of Philando Castile and Terence Crutcher. We have added new names most every fall semester which is a wake up call for some students, and a sobering reminder for others.

As I mentioned earlier, I use the song as part of a discussion of creative aspects of community organizing. You could also use the song and narrative to discuss legislative change that has happened in light of some of the racial violence (for example, the Sandra Bland Act was signed in Texas in 2017 ( You could also use the song and narrative to discuss social and political action around legislation that needs to change, such as “stand your ground” laws ( I am sure there are many other ways you can integrate the song into your teaching; the important thing is the names get said and that we keep working for change.