Making Essential Connections

By Kim Korona

At first glance, some people might wonder how we can possibly cover so many different topics in humane education.  While diverse and broad in scope, the content and skills that we teach are grounded in commonality. At its core, humane education is about reflecting on the type of person we want to be in the world. It challenges us to ask what we value and how can we apply our answers through our actions, choices, attitudes, and behaviors toward all living beings and our natural world on a personal and systemic level.  

When we teach through a comprehensive lens, it enables us to understand the essential connections between our values, societal systems, and specific topics. When we teach and explore through that perspective, we can identify the root cause of an issue, create positive change and solutions that take everyone’s needs into consideration, and create a healthy world that supports us all. 

This concept may sound overwhelming and abstract, but concrete examples of what it looks like in practice are readily available. We will review three key strategies for providing effective comprehensive humane education youth programs that demonstrate essential connections. While developing a program around any one of these strategies, it is important to remember that the essence is framed in fostering empathy and reverence, encouraging critical thinking, and promoting youth empowerment.  

The first strategy is a focus on activities that cultivate prosocial behaviors. For example, if you want to teach your students about kindness, consider starting with the basics and simply discussing what kindness means. Once kindness is defined, provide activities that invite youth to consider ways to act kindly and promote kindness toward people and animals. Within these activity discussions, our treatment of the natural world will be inevitably included because people and animals depend on the health of the environment for their own well-being. 

In our Justice for All: Educating Youth for Social Responsibility K – 5 educational resource guide, we designed a unit called Kindness Near and Far. In this curriculum, we encourage students to think about what it means to be kind every day in the relationships they have with the people and animals who share our global world. They are challenged to look at various situations from the point of view of other people and other species, they consider how they can behave in ways that protect the natural world for local wildlife and marine animals, and they participate in role-plays of scenarios that offer them the opportunity to show kindness within the context of these different situations. We want them to act out kindness toward people and animals in the classroom because practice increases our ability to act out those desired behaviors in our real lives.  

The second strategy is to analyze how particular systems are implemented and the consequences of those systems. For example, in our Strategies for Change program, we delve into the way that industries operate. Youth compare and contrast the practices of different companies and learn that some companies act in socially responsible ways to balance their profit with the treatment and well-being of people, animals, and the natural world, while others invest in making as much profit as possible at the expense of someone else’s well-being. Then, we investigate hidden forms of exploitation such as oppressive child labor, mass breeding of dogs in puppy mills, the confinement of farm animals in large-scale animal agriculture, and the extraction of natural resources at an unprecedented rate. Youth contemplate how they apply specific strategies for change—direct action, lobbying, and spreading awareness about each of these topics—that can transform these systems to become more compassionate, equitable, and regenerative.      

The third strategy is to look at a specific topic, issue, or industry and consider its direct impact on people, other animals, and the planet. For example, if we look at the fashion industry, we can examine it from multiple angles: the resources utilized to create various fabrics and materials, the treatment of workers who make clothing, the treatment of animals who are killed or held captive for certain products, the ways in which we dispose of clothing, policies around the importing and exporting of goods, and the advertising that attaches values and worth to specific brands, which can influence people’s self-esteem and purchasing choices. 

There is a lot to unpack from this one industry within our society, and while teaching about a product’s life cycle, students consider how people, animals, and the natural world are affected along each step of the process. Then we invite students to deliberate on who they think is responsible for these consequences, in what way they are accountable, what changes need to occur to develop a new system, and what actions can be taken to effectively create, encourage, and influence the development of clothing in a way that respects people, animals, and our environment.  

We all too often see our world in a fragmented way, taking into consideration only what matters most to us. But when we make essential connections between any topic at hand and our treatment of all living beings and the Earth in our pedagogical practice, it creates a new framework within which to live. We then give youth the tools that enable them to recognize the importance of taking everyone’s needs and feelings into consideration when examining issues, developing opinions, shaping attitudes, making decisions, and taking action, which will inevitably lead to a more inclusive and just world for all.

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