A Time for Upstanders


As adults, we can help our students and our children to develop the confidence to use their devices, and their voices, to counter racism, sexism, anti semitism, and any other -ism that represents hate and intolerance.

Words by Beth R. Holland

In 2010, I had the opportunity to collaborate with a fantastic social studies teacher. He used the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum from the Choices Program at Brown University, and had spent the year asking his middle school students to consider the role of bystanders and upstanders (those who actively take a stand). From the Civil Rights Movement to Apartheid to the Holocaust to the Rwandan Genocide, he asked his students to critically analyze and examine the role of bystanders and upstanders in history.

It is hard to imagine now, but in 2010, Facebook and Twitter were just gaining mainstream popularity. Most of my students had started to explore social media, so parents and colleagues looked at me as the “tech person” to help them understand it. With all of this in mind, the social studies teacher and I decided to join forces. We asked our students a seemingly straightforward question as they began their study of the Holocaust: if the social media of today had existed in the 1930s, would the Holocaust have happened?

Within a closed social networking environment, the students then assumed the role of either a rescuer or a survivor and created social media profiles of these personas based on primary source research and the curation of digital artifacts. For several weeks, they interacted with each other in their assumed role and responded to reflection prompts. We wanted our students to not only build content knowledge, research skills, and social media savviness, but also to engage in deeper empathy as they studied and responded from the perspective of their chosen historical figure. At the end of the experience, I returned to the original driving question: would the holocaust have happened given the power of social media and technology?

Much to my surprise, the class did not agree on an answer. Though one group felt that social media would expose the injustice and create an opportunity to more quickly rally international support to both stop Hitler’s regime and save more people, others argued the opposite. First, they cited the tendency for individuals to be bystanders rather than upstanders. They used evidence from the Civil Rights Era of the small minority of protesters who were white and reminded us of how long laws existed before anyone stood up against them. Then, they saw social media as a platform for propaganda. The students had studied the role of rhetoric in Hitler’s rise to power and in the oppression of opposing views. Instead of seeing technology as a force to stop the spread of such messaging, they worried that it could serve as an amplifier or accelerant for spreading hate. Finally, my students spoke of fear. Even though people might have access to technology and the power to do what was right, my students asserted that some individuals may be too afraid to be an upstander because of the potential backlash.

Fast forward to this past week. In the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, and Trump’s response, Merk CEO, Kenneth Frazier, became the first Upstander in the business world and resigned from the White House Business council. However, in the first article that I read about his resignation, a NY Times reporter asked another CEO – who wanted to remain anonymous – why he had not also stepped down. “I was afraid of the backlash” stated that unidentified person. At the time of the interview, Trump had already lashed out at Frazier via Twitter.

For months, the media has been talking about the spread of fake news, propaganda, and hate via social media. And at no other time  in my adult life, can I recall such public scrutiny of bystanders and upstanders – especially with regards to members of the federal government and business leaders. When the social studies teacher and I created that project over seven years ago, President Obama was in his first term. He had run on a campaign of hope and change to make the country more equitable and empowering for all citizens. In that political context, we had intended for this lesson to help our students recognize that the technology of their generation could allow them to be upstanders, that it would magnify their voice in the face of injustice, and that it would empower them to prevent history from repeating itself. At that time, we had no idea that all of us might one day find ourselves living the simulated experience.

For the past few months, I have been watching events unfold. I have seen friends become advocates and upstanders: volunteering, marching, contacting their representatives, and speaking out via social media channels. Several weeks ago, I wrote about technology as a social justice issue. That lack of access, literacy, and capacity with technology threatens to exclude students from society and prevent them from developing their global identity. However, in light of the events not only in the past week but also the last several years, I realize that literacy and capacity may be just the beginning.

All of us possess the tools to be upstanders – whether through our voices, our pens, or our phones – and those tools afford us the opportunity as well as the obligation speak out against injustice and to stand up for those who may be afraid to stand up for themselves.

As adults, we can help our students and our children to develop the confidence to use their devices, and their voices, to counter racism, sexism, anti semitism, and any other -ism that represents hate and intolerance.

Seven years ago, I challenged my students to consider the ramifications of media, to understand how technology could amplify their voice and give them ubiquitous opportunity to live as upstanders. Today, I want to use my own voice, and my own platform, to share that lesson again. With social media and technology, we all have the power to be upstanders. Now we just need to use it.

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