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Global Competence Empowers Students to Take Action for Social Justice

Asia Society's International Studies Schools Network held its annual summer institute recently, bringing educators and education leaders from member schools across the U.S. to Austin, Texas, where they heard from students and teachers about thinking globally and acting locally. As many around the country and world plan to rally this Saturday against the forced separation of children from their parents, and the U.S. Supreme Court has voted to uphold President Trump's travel ban, the lessons from Austin about connecting across cultures for the common good resonate even more powerfully. Below, a few observations from the institute.

By guest blogger Tony Jackson 

When I welcomed teachers to Austin at the International Studies Schools Network (ISSN) Summer Institute, I described how the city speaks to its values by providing education that cherishes knowledge and deep intellectual capacity, values skills to not tear down but to build bridges across ethnic and cultural divides, and nurtures the will and courage to take action for the good of the community and the world.

That was reflected in the conversations we had with educators and education leaders from around the country, in our experience visiting the Academy for Global Studies (AGS) at Stephen F. Austin High School, and in the speeches that three AGS alumni gave, beginning with an opening keynote by AGS alumnus and current Duke University student Benny Romero.

Benny, the first in his family to go to college, exemplifies what we believe at Asia Society, and his commitment to global competence and taking action is clear. He spoke of his experiences at AGS, how he learned to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and how his teachers encouraged him and helped him move past his innate shyness to speak out for what he believed in, including at the Texas State Capitol. 

Benny also noted: "My time during high school helped me realize there are critical local and global issues that we are not aware of or care to notice, simply because they may not directly be affecting us." 

arc_of_history.pngOvershadowing all of the rich conversations was the knowledge that, just a few hours away, Latino parents and their children fleeing poverty and violence were confronted with an aptly named "zero tolerance" policy causing them to be forcibly separated. And now, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld President Trump's travel ban, which the president has admitted primarily targets Muslims.

It's easy in times like this to fall into despair given the growing instances where President Trump and his administration seemed compelled to trade human misery for political advantage and equate entire groups of people as "less than" while dubbing himself and his supporters among the "super elites." 

But for me, that highlights the critical importance of global competence and global understanding, and listening to students like Benny, gives me hope. Globally competent youth are capable of bending the arc of history back on track toward a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable future.

The four tenets of global competence are all important, but it's the last one—taking action—that gives students the power to apply what they have learned in a way that makes an impact at a local and global level and approach the world with thoughtfulness, compassion, and resolve.

We had the opportunity to see this in during our visit to AGS, when we met with students and teachers. AGS focuses on global competence through project-based learning, and every single thing the students do is connected to taking action. 

 In one first-year math class, students calculate the surface area and volume of consumer product packaging, and then design and build a new package for that same product using less material or energy, providing their calculations along the way—but they don't stop there. They then write to the manufacturer and pitch their new design. The responses vary in a very "real-world" manner—one manufacturer wrote back an enthusiastic letter that explained in depth why the students' design would not work, another actually built the student prototype and sent it back with the product packaged within, while yet another wrote back to say they "incinerated" everything the students had sent.

AGS also prioritizes finding connections between the world and their local community, and AGS sophomores complete a project called TGPLAN. This mouthful of an acronym stands for "Think Globally, Problem-solve Locally, Act Neighborly," and students collaboratively investigate a problem, speak to professionals to get multiple perspectives, develop and communicate a plan, and find a way to advocate and take action in a way that has a local impact. Students have focused on combatting hunger, on ways to reduce food waste, and on fighting human trafficking and modern slavery, along with myriad other global topics that have a local impact. 

The AGS experience culminates with a senior capstone project that demonstrates each student's grasp on the four domains of global competence. Past projects have included work to save honeybees and raise awareness around their importance, building a sensory garden for AGS students in life skills classes, and empowering women living in low-income government housing.

Just as Benny overcame his fear of the limelight to speak out about issues in the Texas public school system to state lawmakers, students around the country and world can also take action on issues that they are passionate about.

But it's not just up to students, and Benny issued a challenge to the listening educators to do the same: "Students are not the only ones who should be getting uncomfortable. So should you, our educators...Because teachers are the role models raising the future each and every day, so they are the ones that should be leading by example, stepping out of their comfort zone."

This brings to mind the words of Rosa Parks: "It is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome."

So if you are, like me, sometimes struck with despair at the lack of understanding and empathy in our national discourse, and long for zero tolerance of racism rather than the weaponization of indifference, please remember that as educators you have the opportunity to make the greatest difference by preparing all youth to take action and change the world.

Connect with Tony, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter. 

Image created on Pablo.

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