Skip To Main Content

Empowering Tomorrow’s Social and Environmental Justice Warriors

Empowering Tomorrow’s Social and Environmental Justice Warriors
Heather Panahi, Social Studies faculty

Today, humanity is facing a myriad of challenges—political, environmental and social—and for many of us, the list of things in need of changing can be overwhelmingly long. Many of us feel compelled to be changemakers, but aren’t sure how or where to start. Others of us want to make a difference, but believe our actions alone will do little to change anything. Over the last 25 years, I have seen my students grapple with wanting to do that difficult but important work, but feeling that they lack the tools and efficacy to make an actual impact. One of the wonderful things about social justice work, though, is that it is contagious. Sometimes all it takes is a spark of inspiration to push us into action. When a young person sees others out there making a difference in their own communities, that alone can be the catalyst needed to launch him/her/them into a life of advocacy and activism. And our students are itching to do it.

I had this realization following the murder of George Floyd in the spring of 2020. Neck-deep in the COVID-19 pandemic and living their lives almost entirely via Zoom and other social media platforms, my students expressed a deep desire to be out there on the frontlines standing up and demanding positive change, but they had few outlets to do so. Moreover, many felt that no one would heed their actions because they were young. I remember one student saying to me, “I sometimes feel like the whole world needs fixing. I want to be the one to do it, but I don’t even know how to use the tools in my toolbox. And even if I did, would anyone care?”

The STANDUP Speaker series (an acronym for Speak up, Take charge, Ask questions, Never settle, Demand better, Use your voice, Promote goodness) was created with the intention of introducing students in my Comparative Politics class to people from and within our own communities, who are doing their part to advocate for positive change, so that our neighborhoods, our state and our world, are more inclusive, safe and equitable. Since its founding in the fall of 2020, the series has heard from two state legislators; a former state elector; a counselor and gender specialist who works with trans-teens; three female entrepreneurs; three philanthropists; two environmental activists; an HIV/AIDS researcher, a licensed social worker who uses alternative therapies like horses and boxing to help patients cope with PTSD; survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking who are working to support others affected by these issues; two Boston-area comedians; a U.S. Foreign Service officer; and the deputy director of a local non-profit created to support small business development in under-resourced communities and/or communities of color.  

Though the speakers hail from many different backgrounds, the messages are often the same: there is no direct path to being an upstander; social justice takes on many forms; and everyone —EVERYONE — has the power to make a difference right now, wherever they are in their lives. What makes our STANDUP Speaker Series especially impactful, though, is that many of the guests we invite back are Dana Hall alums and/or Dana Hall parents. Dana Hall has a long history of cultivating empathy and agency in our students. Whether they are 16, 36 or 76, Dana students are the embodiment of "Amor Caritas." More than that, they have been taught the invaluable skills of advocacy and action. I am of the belief that the world is a more hopeful, peaceful and kind one because Dana Hall is in it. STANDUP not only reminds today’s students of this, but also gives each child the opportunity to see herself/themself reflected in the experiences of these social justice warriors. I’ve no doubt that this generation—like those who came before them—will stand up when the time is right.