Shawon Jackson, MBA ’21: Schools Should Teach Young People How to Advance Social Justice

Through his nonprofit, Vocal Justice, this Social Innovation Fellow hopes to reach a rising and transformational generation of Black and Brown youth.

August 27, 2021

| by Elizabeth MacBride
Shawon Jackson. Credit: Javier Flores

During the four-week pilot program for Vocal Justice, Shawon Jackson noticed that one young woman in class, a rising ninth grader, wasn’t engaged and often put her head down on her desk during the one-hour sessions.

Jackson saw others being transformed in the social justice and public speaking program he designed, including one young man who told the story of watching his father being deported. But this young woman — call her Daisy — remained aloof, until, during the last week of the program, her attitude changed significantly. She’d engaged in conversation and paid attention that week, and so Jackson was hopeful as she stepped forward to deliver her final speech.

What happened next blew him away. Fighting back tears, Daisy shared how she cared for her younger brother while her mother navigated hardships, including moving away from their abusive father. But Daisy wasn’t portraying herself as a victim. Instead, she said, the experiences helped her become strong and independent.

That transformation moved Jackson, in turn, to tears. “Daisy stepping to the front of the classroom was Daisy stepping into her power,” he said. “She owned her story, where her struggles helped build her strengths, and then she shared her story with others.”

Daisy hadn’t been picked for Vocal Justice as someone who was already excelling academically. Instead, she and the others were part of a summer school program mostly for young people who were behind academically. Jackson said that he prioritized working with this group, wrongly viewed as “low potential,” because he wanted to reach students who are often overlooked when it comes to leadership development programming.

Vocal Justice, founded by Jackson, is preparing Black and Brown youth to become socially conscious leaders by engaging them in a justice-oriented public speaking program. There will be individual transformations through his school-based program, he says, as participants build their confidence and capacity to communicate about the issues that matter most to them. There will also be systemic change in the education system, as Vocal Justice demonstrates the power of social justice education and youth voice.

The Problem

There is a civic education crisis in the United States. According to the Center for American Progress, no states have experiential learning or local civic problem-solving requirements. In 2016, according to a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only one in four Americans was able to name the three branches of government.

“We mustn’t forget those the education system is failing most.”

Even more, Harvard Professor Meira Levinson found there is a “civic empowerment gap” in the United States: Students in low-income schools, the majority of whom are Black or Brown, are half as likely to study how laws are made and 30% less likely to report having panels and discussions in social studies class.

Democracy depends on people leading change in an ever-evolving system, yet few people, especially Black and Brown people, are equipped to act as agents of change. As a result, the people in power who are making decisions that impact under-resourced communities rarely come from those areas.

Black and Brown youth could be the most powerful advocates for themselves and their communities, Jackson noted, but our current education system fails to inspire or prepare them to speak out. “We need to elevate the powerful perspectives of Black and Brown youth, who have been silenced for too long.”

The Novel Idea

Through identity-building and communications activities, all facilitated through the lens of social justice, Vocal Justice prepares participants to advocate for change using their authentic voices — wherever they choose to lead in life.

The program intentionally begins with a unit on self-awareness, helping students recognize their strengths as civic leaders. One element from the curriculum, for example, is a spoken word piece called “They Say, I Say,” where the “They Say” lines reflect stereotypes about the students’ communities, and the “I Say” lines reflect the students’ true assets and aspirations.

After leading five pilot programs himself, Jackson transitioned to a model that trains and compensates teachers to facilitate the program within their own schools, either as part of an existing class or as an after-school club.

Because Jackson wants to make the biggest impact possible, he is focusing on what he calls undervalued Black and Brown youth — those who are underperforming academically and wrongly viewed as having “low potential.”

“Many nonprofits focus on ‘high-achieving’ students of color,” Jackson said. “While that’s important, we mustn’t forget those the education system is failing most.” In fact, he added, students who are not thriving in the world as it’s set up today have the best ideas on how to change it, precisely because the status quo has failed them.

To measure success in the short term, Vocal Justice will track changes in students’ confidence, critical consciousness (the awareness of social injustice and desire to address it), and communication skills. In the long term, the program will look at changes in students’ civic engagement and academic performance.

Jackson said people sometimes wonder why he is so focused on the art of public speaking. For one, he said, overcoming the fear of public speaking — a particularly common and deep fear — builds confidence. For another, scientific research demonstrates how much storytelling matters for social change. If you want to advance social justice, you must know how to speak authentically and powerfully about the issues that matter most to you. And finally, oral communication is a tangible skill students can use to not only advocate for a new world but also thrive in our existing one. Employers cite oral communication, for example, as the top skill they want from prospective employees.

As of July 2021, Jackson has raised over $375,000 for Vocal Justice. Donors include Camelback Ventures and over 200 individuals.

The Innovator

Jackson’s passion for education and social justice stems from his own life experiences, beginning in his hometown of University Park, Illinois, a predominantly Black suburb about 40 miles south of Chicago. When he was six, Jackson’s parents separated. While he lived with his mother growing up, his father, a postal manager, remained very involved in his life. His parents were committed to ensuring Jackson and his younger brother received a good education.

Jackson excelled in school. His mother, a former retail worker who, like his dad, started college but couldn’t finish, helped him skip a grade to get him out of an underperforming elementary school. Then she heard about a boarding school, the Illinois Math & Science Academy, which Jackson transferred to in 10th grade, accelerating his academic trajectory.

During his junior year of high school, he heard about a program called QuestBridge that helps high-achieving, low-income students get admitted to top-tier colleges on full scholarships.

“You generally have to have a household income below $60,000 to qualify,” he told his mother, not sure how much she made.

“Oh, baby, don’t worry about that,” she said.

QuestBridge matched him with Princeton University, where he learned about the systemic nature of oppression. He found himself in class taking notes about convict leasing, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and other laws and practices that oppressed communities of color. Learning about these injustices led him to rethink the purpose of education.

“Education shouldn’t just be about upward mobility,” Jackson said, “It should reveal insidious injustices and teach us how to correct them.”

Recognizing his own ongoing transformation into a social justice leader through education, he wanted to help others make the same leap.

After working with The DREAM Project, an education nonprofit in the Dominican Republic, and as a consultant at Deloitte for two years, he headed to graduate school to explore his passion for education and social justice, pursuing a dual MPP/MBA between Harvard Kennedy School and Stanford Graduate School of Business. When he wasn’t in class, most of his time was spent building, testing, and refining Vocal Justice.

In spring 2021, Jackson trained and compensated 15 high school educators across 10 states and Washington, D.C., to facilitate the Vocal Justice program. Collectively, they reached over 150 students. In the words of one student, Vocal Justice “teaches kids what it means to be a hero.” A teacher reflected that in his 21 years of teaching, “Vocal Justice has been one of the most powerful and most needed experiences of my career.”

Over time, Jackson hopes to leverage lessons learned from the Vocal Justice program to advance structural change within the education system, pushing for new curriculum standards, student assessments, teacher training programs, and funding allocations that center on social justice education and youth voice.

“I view what we’re doing now as a proof of concept for what education can and should look like,” he says. “We’ll be successful when we’re no longer needed because this type of education has become the norm in every school.”

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