By Jeannie Russell
HEART has been collaborating with a number of public libraries in the Bronx to provide community-building programs for youth during public school holidays and after-school hours. An important step in strengthening our young people’s commitment to taking positive actions in their communities is helping them see their local neighborhoods as diverse, living systems in which all participants should have a meaningful voice. Humane education offers this inclusive perspective on the ‘urban habitat’ by valuing the needs and contributions of non-human animals in our communities and recognizing their essential place in our lives. Giving voice to the needs of our non-human animal neighbors, alongside the people we live among, also works as a teaching tool to break down the barriers of ‘othering’ – the process of perceiving or portraying someone or something as fundamentally different or alien. This point of view underlies and justifies racism and all the other forms of social discrimination used to divide and weaken communities. Building humane education into social justice and community service models fosters attitudes and actions that empathetically frame our relationship to the needs of others. By recognizing, identifying with, and acting from others’ perspectives, together, we can discover meaningful responses.
To introduce the program, we showed a series of photos that illustrated problems or suffering of people that the students may have seen in their neighborhood: a homeless family, a frail and isolated senior, a bullied child. We brainstormed and identified the problems and then asked the students to imagine how they would feel if that was them – to put themselves in the ‘shoes’ of the other and talk about how it feels to be marginalized and have basic needs unmet. Students then offered statements – speaking up for their neighbors in need – about these feelings and shared messages they would send if they were in that situation.
We then viewed a set of photos of our non-human neighbors in need: an abandoned dog, a captive circus elephant, and a pig constrained in abusive factory farm conditions. We challenged the students to imagine the feelings of these different kinds of neighbors, to speak in their voices about the suffering that they experience, and to then brainstorm ways that we can act to address their needs. Speaking in the voice of non-human animals requires expanding our understanding of all that we share with them and exploring the different ways that animals express feelings, bond with family, and interact with other species when creating a living community. It also means acknowledging the ways that people often regard other animals only in terms of their use to us and recognizing that these patterns of exploitation mirror forms of injustice within our own human community. Following this discussion, the students spoke out for each of these animals in need and shared their ideas about what the animals would ask of their human neighbors if they could speak to us directly.
Next, the groups looked at photos that illustrated the differential impact of environmental problems on marginalized peoples and animals in communities of color and lower income – like the one in which our library program is located – identifying higher asthma rates due to air pollution, the impact of toxic and unusable local waterways, and concentrated industrial pollution’s effect on nearby wildlife. In addition, students identified the heightened threats that climate change will bring to areas with fewer resources. For those communities, it will be far more difficult to recover from increasing storms, heat waves, and other predicted environmental disruptions as the planet rapidly warms.
Group members chose a problem that they most identified with, or a person or animal that they felt most needed a strong voice, and created signs they could wear to express their feelings and connection to their neighbors in need. They were excited to know that through our blogs and posts they could also be part of the social justice media revolution, which has helped to spread messages of inclusion and positive action to a worldwide audience.
Thank you for taking the time to hear and respect these young activists’ words!