On Walking Out, Protesting and Making Change

Today, high school students from around the country are planning to walk out of their classrooms at 10:00, in remembrance of the students and staff killed in the Parkland shooting and to demand stricter gun control laws—unless they are having yet another snow day, as is the case where we live (the second in a row; the third in a week).

In my own home, we’ve been talking about this action, mostly because my son goes to a public high school where local students have organized a walkout. We’ve also talked about it as it relates to my position on the local school board. Although information about the walkout has been provided to the board, the board decided not to take any action at all, in favor or opposed, since the matter was being handled well by administrators.

I’ve also found myself discussing the walkout around town, when I’ve met with friends and acquaintances. It’s interesting to note those adults who are eager to protest themselves. How they wish they could walk out too, and do something—and, for many of them, relive the protests of their youth and young adulthood.

I find myself reflecting on this issue in a variety of ways. I’m all in favor of students walking out of class today—as long as it’s voluntary and the protest is organized by students and not adults or teachers—in order to try to make clear their distress and their demands related to school shootings.   I’m in favor of such actions because most of those students don’t have any other way of raising their concerns in a meaningful way.   Most of them cannot vote, and they have no power over those who make the rules and laws.

For adults, I think action should be less about walkout and more about sustained action. While I’m not opposed to protest (I occasionally participate in them myself), I’m discouraged when the protests of adults don’t lead to anything beyond the act of protest—as if adults somehow fool themselves into thinking that all they need to do is protest. How surprised they are when no response of consequence immediately takes place and then they slip back into their normal lives.

My approach to such matters, and my consternation at those who think their occasional organized protests should do the trick to set the world aright, has a lot to do with a very particular day when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School.

During my last year, there was some organized complaining around the University about the lack of diversity among the faculty. Students from the various schools at Harvard decided to stage a walkout.

The walkout just happened to take place during my once per week seminar—with the Dean. Should I participate in the walkout? Or not?

After a fair amount of internal debate, I went to class. And, much of that class turned out to be an amazing learning experience that has stayed with me.

The Dean was annoyed at the protest. He shared with us his frustration at the simplistic and unproductive walkout. Didn’t students understand that the lack of diversity among faculty wasn’t a simple matter of just hiring people? Didn’t students understand that diverse professors and teachers were offered jobs on a regular basis, but turned those offers down because they didn’t want to move to the Boston area, where racial difficulties were well known? Didn’t those students also know how hard it was to diversify a faculty when the number of minority Ph.D. candidates was low and that, in turn, had much to do with the paucity of opportunities for minorities, especially when so many were stuck attending poor, ill-equipped, urban public schools? And so on. If you want to make a difference, he challenged us, go teach in a poor, urban public school and actually make a difference in lives of real people. If you want to make a difference, find ways of easing racial conflict and division.

Harvard students, he clearly laid out to us, were smart enough to understand the complexities of the problems of the world and to do their part in making changes, instead of expecting changes to be made only by others.

That message attached itself somewhere in my brain, and it has stayed there.

While I didn’t go on to teach in a poor, urban public school, I have set out to participate in community and to be an active person in making a difference.

I don’t just attend protests. I get involved in the doing, bit by little bit. It can be frustrating, to be sure, but it’s how change happens.

Today, school children will walk out of class for 17 minutes, to remember and to raise their voices. I hope it’s just the beginning of their work, work that must be done to make our schools and our communities safer.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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