From board books about decolonized history to subscription boxes that dismantle bias, there is a new wave of resources and experiences aimed at educating toddlers on concepts of gender, race and class.
The demand for social justice education and programming is rising, with an innovative group of entrepreneurs and creators filling the gap. But is it possible for the youngest of children to understand social justice? And how can parents start having those conversations?
“The conversations are getting better, there are a lot more resources to support parents,” says Kaleb Robertson, one half of Fay and Fluffy, the Toronto drag performance artists and early educators, who are soon launching a national TV show.
“Some parents feel forced to talk about racism and gender when they don’t perceive it to affect them, but it’s in our communities and our cities so it’s important to be having those conversations.”
JP Kane and Kaleb Robertson launched Fay and Fluffy’s Storytime, one of Toronto’s pioneering drag story hours, to offer the community exposure to drag, and support gender-variant kids.
“The impact went so far beyond what we could have imagined,” says Robertson.
When the pandemic hit, they offered their storytime online, with Kane performing 70 readings over the academic year. After nearly five years of performances and a new TV show in the works, they are reflecting on their work and its impact on helping families talk about social justice, and creating space for kids to be their authentic selves.
It is possible to teach toddlers about social justice, says Morva McDonald, Head of School at Giddens School in Seattle, whose research is based in social justice teacher education.
“We enter the work with someone who is three as the little “j” for justice. We support students to wonder about: How do I gain empathy, how do I keep an open perspective, and how do I listen in a meaningful way?”
McDonald says we must be aware of what she calls our “positionality” — how our identity influences our outlook on the world, as we guide our kids in creating equitable spaces. McDonald mentions how kids may not be able to understand homelessness, but they do understand the concept of home, and underlying unfairness.
“We want some kind of simple solution, but it’s the slow, steady work of questioning that is really the aim,” says McDonald. “It’s about the questions you ask kids and the questions you have them ask themselves about bias and the world around them.”
Eloise Tan, founder of a free parent support group called Mama Stay Woke, shares that outlook. The equity educator and mother of two started the group in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood, which drew a committed group of new parents to have difficult conversations around social justice issues and equity.
And, like many in the field, she says those conversations are far more important than any product or book.
“We are being sold this idea that we can buy our way out of this guilt,” says Tan. “You don’t need those things to be versed in social justice. You don’t need to buy a certain book. Your bookshelf may be stocked with the right books, but you just need to have those conversations with your kid.”
Tan says many parents who attended the group hoped to embed values of social justice in their child and learn from other parents. Discussions at Mama Stay Woke included how to respond to misgendering a child, or how to talk to children about residential schools.
Meanwhile, for parents searching for tools to educate children on social justice while stuck at home, Nicole Stamp and Ashley Baylen launched the ByUs box, a subscription box toolkit that helps families raise anti-racist and inclusive children.
“We’re guided by the classic revolutionary slogan, ‘Nothing about us, without us!’ ” says Toronto-based Stamp, who wrote and directed for TVOKids. “So we always work with curators, creators, educational consultants and artists from each featured community, to make sure that the materials portray each group in an authentic, respectful and positive way.”
Each box — there’s the Black Box, the Gender Box, the LGBT2SQ+ box, and an Indigenous box next year — includes books, a toy and a learning guides for different ages with kid-friendly explanations of equity topics and ways to take action. There’s also a book club for parents.
Tools like the ByUs box are vicarious learning opportunities, according to Kang Lee, a developmental psychologist and Canada Research Chair in applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto.
“Bias is reduced through vicarious kinds of learning, not instructional learning. The worst thing you can do is try to teach bias reduction through instructional learning, like civics classes. They do not work,” says Lee, whose study identified implicit racial bias in babies as young as six months. He says vicarious learning is positive exposure through activities like books, music and widening your social circle.
And reaching new audiences is key. John Francisco, founder of Philadelphia music studio Mister John’s Music, grew up in Macon, Ga., the city where Otis Redding and Little Richard originated. His often sold-out baby music classes use popular songs from artists like Beyoncé to engage parents and toddlers and teach larger lessons about identity.
Francisco released weekly classes on YouTube and is retrofitting a bus to launch a national tour in 2021 to reach areas where his classes aren’t normally accessible.
“I like to imagine that the desire for inclusive programming that centres on personhood and how the arts can join us as a community,” Francisco said, “regardless of where we’re coming from, is something that would be welcome in most places.”
Back in Toronto, Robertson, a.k.a. Fluffy, says the duo’s shows have been rapturously received across small-town Ontario.
“What we do is completely 100 per cent great for kids. Our language is perfect for those age groups. Our outfits are sparkly, our hair is big and our glitter is abundant.”
And the message, Robertson says, is worth reinforcing.
This content was originally published here.