This piece was originally published on the Childism Institute's website, May 2021.
“Imagine a world where mistrust, power-over dynamics, domination, and oppression no longer exist because children have never experienced them” – Teresa Graham Brett
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” – Audre Lorde
Activism has become predictable. Its current capacity for true systemic change may also be questionable. Marches and protests happen, then everyone goes home, and the status quo carries on as usual. Micah White, the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, who wrote the book “The End of Protest,” shares how recent years have seen the largest protests and marches in human history even though these mass mobilizations no longer truly change society. Activism is at a crossroads: innovation or irrelevance.
Innovation in activism begins with a new clarity of sight: seeing activism clearly, seeing the past clearly, seeing ourselves clearly, seeing the roots of oppression clearly, and seeing our interdependence clearly. It starts in the imagination; with a vision or a dream like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream” or John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” We can re-imagine the possibilities of transformation and practice by seeing beyond what is to what could be.
To imagine the future of activism, it will help to first correctly see activism clearly as not all activism is done by “activists.” In their seminal academic article, Sarah O’Shaugnessy and Emily Kennedy introduce the term “relational activism” for how we approach our personal and private lives that directly affect social change. Relational activism captures the behind-the-scenes, private sphere, community-building work of activism and highlights the importance of community, networks, and communication in contributing to long-term social change. Relational activism values public and private sphere actions equally while honoring the moments of social justice that happen within daily routines and in daily relations with others. For activism to be innovative and to generate a sustainable lifestyle, it needs to live within everyday moments of relationship, especially in building equal power relationships across social identity differences.
Activism also can innovate by embracing elements of playfulness to re-imagine what’s possible. The process can then match the goal of social justice. The science of human development reveals that there are gains and losses, strengths and challenges, across the lifespan. No age holds superiority or inferiority. One of the strengths of the developmental stage of childhood is the capacity of children to imagine and play. Children engage in learning through the imagination, through creation, through play. From the very instant of birth, says Joseph Chilton Pearce author of the book Magical Child, the human child has only one concern: to learn all that there is to learn about the world which becomes a playground for the imagination. As Albert Einstein said, “play is the highest form of research.” Play may also have great utility in the realm of innovation in activism and in sustaining a commitment to activism across a lifespan. As George Bernard Shaw put it, “we don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.”
It is also important to see the past clearly. There are some iconic images of social progress such as Martin Luther King Jr. leading the March on Washington, Rosa Parks seated determinedly on that bus, or Nelson Mandela being released from prison to then become president. The thing these all have in common is that they falsely highlight that social progress is being driven solely by adults. Since adults typically have the power to “tell” history, this telling of history typically forgets to acknowledge that at the forefront of every social movement there have been children. You can imagine The Little Rock Nine walking into Central High School to challenge segregation, the teens of Parkland fighting for gun control, or Greta Thunberg leading the Fridays for Future movement to urge adults in power to truly “love their children” and take action on climate.
Children not only need to be given credit for their contributions to social progress, they also need to be included in the rewards of progress. The radical concept of childism, the empowerment of children, is central and intersectional to all other social movements as social (in) justice begins with childhood. The empowerment of children and the full involvement of children in creating society would inspire a transformed world, a world beyond the collective imagination of adults.
To access this transformed world, we need to begin transforming ourselves. We need to see ourselves clearly. As Audre Lorde wisely stated, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In the process of finding our authentic self and deep personal “why” for activism, some new tools will emerge. The contemplative practices of mindfulness, embodiment, and soulfulness all support the reconnection to authenticity and vitality for individuals to be in touch with themselves and their interdependent nature. And we can utilize practical wisdom, Aristotle’s phronesis, in order to discern our way through the messy dilemmas of the everyday balance of action and reflection needed in social justice work.
The work of “dismantling the master’s house” may truly begin in expanding the elasticity of our collective imaginations of what is possible. It may require a greater appreciation for visions, dreams, and “slow” time set aside for imagining a world transformed. A transformation of childhood can truly transform the world and transform the limits of our imagination of what is possible.
As an activist, there is a desire to see clearly the roots of injustice and oppression so that efforts to create change actually transform the systems of oppression and not just the symptoms of oppression. It is known that the nature of oppression is non-hierarchical and intersectional but less known is how oppression is foundational, in childhood. Since the oppression of children is the earliest, most normalized, and rationalized form of oppression; it provides the foundation for other forms of oppression because the first relationships in childhood root initial experiences with the common elements of oppression. These common elements are: (1) a false notion of superiority across an identity difference becoming seen as an inherent belief that one identity group is superior to another, and (2) this belief being enforced as justification for the superior group to normalize its power and control over the other to maintain its superiority.
These common elements of oppression are core to adultism, the structural supremacy of adults over children, and underlie oppression in any form. Adultism sets an invisible infrastructure for other socially constructed power-over divides across social identity to find deep hold. Oppression then becomes internalized and normalized during a formative time of life, and can only be transformed at the roots with the unlearning of adultism and the empowering of children.
Potentially, the most promising aspect of childism is that it can allow us see our interdependence clearly. Oppression is not only foundational in childhood, but it is notably the one oppression that all adults have common experience with - although there are differences in how adverse each childhood is, everyone experiences adultism in some form during childhood. For example, despite increasing awareness of the commonality of “adverse childhood experiences,” the overall experience of childhood involves a lack of control and domination of children by parents, teachers, and a larger institutional and societal culture of adultism. Since all adults were once children and still carry their childhoods within them, the convergence of adulthood and childhood can be comprehended in the mind and the profound interconnection of adult and inner child felt in the body. The earliest experience of being in the womb is a lived experience of the profound interconnection and interdependence of human nature. This is important to remember in pursuits of solidarity and partnership in social justice. It is our true nature. It is our original sense of inter-being that acknowledges that all of our liberation is bound together.
This shared experience presents an opportunity like no other for interest convergence, a concept developed in Critical Race Theory that posits that there will only be social justice progress when it is perceived to be in the mutual interests of both the privileged and the oppressed. Unlearning adultism and children becoming empowered may provide the simplest convergence of mutual interest across a social identity power divide. It so plainly illuminates how deeply our liberation is bound up with one another and how adults and children are equal partners in the pursuit of social justice and the imagining of a transformed world. Adults cannot be truly liberated until children are liberated and children will not be fully liberated until adults are also liberated; until we all reclaim our humanity as people beyond the socially constructed adult-child divide.
It is time to place our individual stories of childhood within a larger story. As Teresa Graham Brett says, we can then begin to “imagine a world where mistrust, power-over dynamics, domination, and oppression no longer exist because children have never experienced them.” We can begin to create a new story of childhood that creates lasting social justice and a world transformed beyond our wildest imaginations.
Brett, T. (2011). Parenting for Social Change. Published by Social Change Press, Learning Enterprises, LLC, Tucson Arizona. ISBN: 978-0-9829515-0-7
O’Shaugnessy, S., and Kennedy, E. (2010). Relational Activism: Re-imagining Women’s Environmental Work as Cultural Change. The Canadian Journal of Sociology. 35(4) DOI: 10.29173/cjs7507
Pearce, J, C. (1992). Magical Child. Published by the Penguin Group. Copyright Joseph Chilton Pearce, 1977.
White, M. (2016) The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution. Penguin Random House Knopf Canada