How to Talk About the Election

In my 18 years as an educator, there have been two moments where I have struggled for the right words: 09/11/01 and 11/09/16. On September 11, 2001, the world was stunned as two planes flew into the World Trade Center. I was on my way to school. I listened to the radio as the first building was smoking from an attack and as the second plane was hit; I was in shock as one of those buildings collapsed while I was minutes from being at school. I was in disbelief by the time I arrived.

I barely remember what I said to my students, but in some form or another, I shared that acts of terrorism are not the work of rational people, nor are those who commit acts of terrorism the representatives of an entire group. While these terrorists were committing acts of hate against the U.S., it would be unfair of us to blame the whole of the Muslim religion for the acts of very few people. My co-teacher and I then opened a forum for students to express their feelings, a nonjudgmental space for young people to share what was happening for them.

I find myself in a similar place now after this week’s election of Donald Trump. The morning after what was purported to be a landslide in the other direction, half the nation was in shock about how the election turned out. And while many people who voted for Clinton felt the sting of loss, many who voted for Trump felt joy, relief, a reason to have hope. It was a hard pill to swallow in places where teachers were at a loss for words, and where children were in tears out of fears of deportation. For just as many Americans who feel joy, the present moment also is a frightening time where some very real fears were raised on the political campaign.

As I reflected on the outcome of the election, and as I glued myself to social media (as I imagine many did), I paid attention to posts from both sides of the political divide. Some posts included messages of love and healing; some focused on the reasons Clinton was an unsuccessful candidate from the start; some touted Trump as the winner and shared that losers of the election should just get over it; some blamed coastal elites while others blamed Midwestern uneducated white people. And while all these responses were predictable to some degree, I was most fascinated by those whose politics or backgrounds didn’t fall along traditional demographics or party lines.

For example, Asra Q Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and “silent Trump supporter,” wrote an Op-Ed piece for The Washington Post about why she chose to vote for Trump after voting for Obama twice. In the same vein, Trae Crowder, known more widely on YouTube as “The Liberal Redneck,” is a fierce advocate for values most widely held on the left of the political spectrum; he staunchly opposed Trump, despite being from a state that typically votes for Republicans.

This election seems stark in its outcomes, but when examining perspectives under the latticework of its seemingly clear and divided surface, you find the conclusions are harder to draw. In short, it’s going to be difficult to point fingers at one group as the source of blame for an entire populous.

As teachers, we have a greater responsibility at the moment. While it’s convenient to hurl invectives at those who support the hate messages of a tumultuous campaign, it’s damaging to all who inhabit this nation if we treat the outcome of this election as a part that explains the whole. Our schools are founded on mission statements of inclusion. Now, more than ever, we need to exercise that value: what it means to be an inclusive space that supports all our students and helps them feel valued, loved, heard.

Rather than take the actions of the few to represent the entirety of this nation, at times like these, it is important to raise questions as opposed to draw immediate conclusions. When hate speech and action does occur, we must educate our students rather than shut down the conversation. We need to have the courage to ask people “why” as opposed to make specific accusations that only serve to perpetuate damaging stereotypes of all groups (liberal, conservative, dominant, non-dominant, powerful, marginalized). When possible, engaging in dialogues, in opportunities to hear how people are thinking about this election, will allow for deeper understanding to occur. Creating safe spaces in our classrooms and schools for students to express themselves is of the highest importance, and validating the feelings that arise (joy, fear, sadness, resolve) provides our students the solace that even if they feel alone, they are not.

It is a powerful time to be an educator. May you take this opportunity to empower your students to engage in deep inquiry, reflection, and dialogue so they can work towards a more comprehensive and complex understanding of our nation, and create better future for all.

unnamed-1Lori Cohen: Lori Cohen is the Dean of Faculty at the Bay School of San Francisco. Prior to her current position, Lori taught Humanities, Literature, and Religion/Philosophy at Bay for many years. Lori also coordinates Teacher Development seminars, in-house professional development, for Bay faculty and has begun a Teaching Fellows program that will be entering its third year. This will be Lori’s fourth year as a co-facilitator/teacher leader in Teaching Foundations, a program that brings her joy and professional rejuvenation.