Written by: Jessie Towne-Cardenas, CALCASA Consultant

Many of us are still processing the insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6th as the electoral college votes were being certified. We hardly had time to celebrate the amazing community organizing successes by Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) organizers in Georgia and all over the country when images of the storming began to appear on the news. It was jarring and outrageous to see the people who laid siege to the capitol  waving confederate and Nazi flags and bearing symbols of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and hate. For some it was shocking – witnesses proclaimed statements like “I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” while for others it was less shocking given the continuing drum beat of rhetoric and ongoing racism in the United States. BIPOC folks and others working in the social justice and anti-violence movements immediately contrasted the difference between the state and police response to a largely white mob, many of whom appeared to be welcome with open arms, in comparison to the Black Lives Matters protests over the last year that were met with extreme suppression

As we are witnessing and grappling with this, so too are young people. Whether or not we are directly talking to the young people we work with or even our own kids or other young people we care about, they are most likely aware of the big events happening around us. Talking to youth at different ages and from different communities requires different approaches. Below are some tips and tools for different age groups but there are also many strategies that remain consistent across the ages (across the lifespan, even):

  1. Take care of yourself by processing your own thoughts and feelings through talking, journaling, or whatever makes you feel centered and grounded.
  2. Start with inquiry by asking what they already know about what’s happening, what is clear and what is confusing, and what else they want to explore.
  3. Allow time for processing through discussion, journaling, or other activities.
  4. Support youth in taking action. Youth are action-oriented, and studies show that taking action relieves stress and anxiety.

Life Kit from NPR and the Antidefamation League (ADL) offer tips on how to address scary and unsettling news with young children. Life Kit from Sesame Club is a podcast from NPR. Life Kit recently ran the podcast What to Say to Kids When the News is Scary that discussed how children take in media, including the things they misunderstand or make up when they don’t understand what they’re hearing or watching. For example, kids may hear about wars in other countries and think they are right outside their city. In addition to the above, the contributors encourage adults to limit their news time to when they are able to listen or watch together in order to talk about what’s happening in the world. It’s also important to talk about why some things are on the news and what’s missing. Many things are on the news because they are out of the ordinary. Finally, in the words of Mr. Rogers, they suggest helping children to “find the helpers.” You just might be one of them!

The ADL offers a collection of ideas on Discussing Political Violence and Extremism with Young People including activities to do with young people. For elementary students, the ADL offers a lesson using the

book The Breaking News by Sarah Lynne Reul. The book follows a family who gets sidetracked by a news story and the reactions of the parents. The book encourages young people to take small and big actions with their families to help with anxious news. The author offers a read aloud of the book and the ADL offers guided questions for kids.

For older youth, the ADL offer the activity Social Justice Poetry. The activity gives examples of social justice poetry and songs. One activity asks participants to listen to two different songs, John Lennon’s “Imagine” and John Legend’s “Glory,” and compare and contrast them. They also have the opportunity to make connections between past and present movements. Other options include doing their own social justice poetry after discussing different movements or events using the following prompts:

  • What does justice look like?
  • If you were living in a world where justice was the norm, how would it feel?
  • How would people talk to each other and treat each other?
  • How would people live?
  • What would people have and not have?

For older youth are collections from Teaching Tolerance and the New York Times. Teaching Tolerance is a nationally recognized resource for educators on social justice, anti-bias, and human rights. Their national advisory board came together to discuss ideas for conversations

Leading Conversations After Crisis. These leaders recognized “yesterday’s events are ones we’ll all likely return to in the days and months to come. The way white rioters were treated by law enforcementthe pervasiveness of antisemitic and racist slogans and symbolsthe obvious entitlement of those attacking the capitol, and the clear backlash against recognizing the rights of Black voters are all facets of white supremacy that will need to be unpacked.” Their discussion highlights included “structured listening, letting students lead, essential questions, and starting with the truth.” They also offer activities including those offered by Facing History which offers ideas that incorporate distance learning and The Learning Network.

The Learning Network offered by the New York Times is for teens age 13 and up (younger or older as is developmentally appropriate), parents, and educators that encourages development of literacy skills, critical thinking about current events, and asks young people to contribute their voice and opinions through daily questions. You can find hundreds of voices of young people responding to the question, “What Are Your Reactions to the Storming of the Capitol by a Pro-Trump Mob?” in the comment section after the article. There are also teaching resources related to timelines, social media influencing, media analysis, maps for context, historical context, and writing prompts.

Finally, be mindful of young people from marginalized communities witnessing these images of hate and feelings of fear, anger, and grief they may feel. Allow them the opportunity to opt out if they need to/want to by having break out groups. Discuss with white youth how and why this is different and work to build empathy in order to encourage anti-racist action.  Alternately, some may be working in communities where there is a varying amount of support for the insurrection. Reach out for support in having these conversations from experts such as the ADL No Place for Hate program in your areas, local organizers, or other trusted colleagues. Dr. Alyssa Hadley-Dunn, founder of Teaching on the Days After: Dialogue & Resources for Educating Toward Justice, gives suggestions and activities for educators about the pedagogy of “the day after” in her training and in Beyond the Spotlight starting with the following:

  1. … not saying you MUST “teach” about what happened on 1/6/2021 (or any “day after” event or injustice). Days After Pedagogy doesn’t mean turning trauma into a standard or a benchmarked lesson. But if you’re going to TALK about it, do so with intention, care, and an explicit commitment to justice and equity.
  2. Do not do this if you are going to cause more harm or trauma. Do not center images of Black suffering and pain as a way to make this a “teachable” moment. White teachers, this means you/us.
  3. And please, remember that this is not about a one-off lesson. Days After Pedagogy only works if you’ve been teaching for justice on Days Before and Days During.

Talking to young people about social justice, equity, human rights, and violence prevention are not one-time conversations. So, if you haven’t started them yet please let these resources help get you started and if you have, keep up the good work!


Jessie Towne-Cardenas is a consultant with CALCASA from Arboreta Group, a women and minority-owned firm focused on strengthening organizations and extending their capacity to do good work for the betterment of communities nationwide through a variety of tailored professional services.