Eagle Rock Students Explore a Half-century of U.S. Social Movements

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This week, we highlight the fourth post in a series that is shining a spotlight on some of the classes here at Eagle Rock School. Today, I’m pleased to tell you about Then and Now: A History of Social Movements, which is a class I am co-teaching with Societies & Cultures instructional specialist, Cedric Josey.

I feel very fortunate to be co-leading this class, where we are exploring how Black lives have mattered to the judicial system and the American public at large. And we are doing this by exploring social movements for justice spanning more than 50 years. In the United States, this question is popularly and painfully analyzed via the image of dead and brutalized bodies in print or on a screen, and eulogized in hashtags in our social media feeds.

(from L to R) Emmet Till, Trayvon Martin, and Ahmaud Arbery

Whether by a private individual or a law enforcement officer, the cases and victims memorialized throughout the ages generally share similar features:

  1. A shocking act of dehumanization.
  2. Outrage boils to the surface as demands for justice.
  3. A nation is conflicted and brought to violence.
  4. Repair is rare.

Often, the state and the law shields the perpetrator from accountability; this was vividly evident in the blatant disregard for the loss of human life demonstrated by the Attorney General of Kentucky in the case of Breonna Taylor — a recent tragedy in a long history of names, known and unknown.

In some way, everyone reading this experienced the largest social movement in our nation’s history — the one that erupted earlier this year when at least 29 million people protested after the world witnessed the public killing of George Floyd by a cruel, callous police officer. (How else do you describe a person who places the weight of their body on your neck — with their knee — until you can no longer breathe?) Everyone, except the more than 225,000 victims of COVID-19. Many (if not most) of those deaths were preventable — they didn’t happen out of nowhere. Neither did #BlackLivesMatter. It is a movement about the living as much as those we have lost.

In Then and Now: A History of Social Movements, students learn and reflect on the individual lives lost — people like Ahmuad Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till. Their names have mobilized a movement alongside the figures and organizations that have thoughtfully ignited decades of moral reckoning in America. These groups include The Black Panther Party  and their “Rainbow Coalition,” The Movement for Black Lives, and the youth organization called The Dream Defenders. Students are uncovering and deconstructing “(in)justice” each week in an effort to build an appreciation for this deeply contested American ideal.

Several weeks ago, we “mapped” the Black Panther Party like geographers and virtually visited the historical sites of their offices, key events, and community survival programs in the cities where they were most active. Through art, archival documents and primary texts from the 1960s to now — as well as video, reflective writing, and research — students are starting to relate to some of the biggest questions of our time.

From their own research and wisdom, students enrolled in Then and Now: A History of Social Movements are developing the voice to contribute to understanding what justice means for themselves, and to an unequal nation, once again revealed in 2020.

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About the Author: Nathaniel Phillipps is a 2020/2021 Public Allies Fellow at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colo. A graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nathaniel received an advanced degree in International Affairs from the Julien J. Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs at The New School, in New York City, N.Y.

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