Promoting Social Justice in the Classroom

A group of high school students study together in a library.

Educators have a unique opportunity to promote social justice in the classroom. For many students, classroom exposure to equity and fairness is their first introduction to these issues. Lessons learned during this formative period can have lifelong effects.

The Importance of Social Justice Awareness

Young people have to be taught to see and understand injustice. These lessons can begin as soon as children enter school and be reinforced with increasingly sophisticated examinations as they progress and mature into young adults.

Empirical evidence suggests that social justice education has beneficial, long-term effects. For example, a study from Pennsylvania State University in 2016 looked at a high school social justice course’s impact on Black students after they entered adulthood. The findings “revealed an emphasis on civic and career identity exploration, feeling agentic and self-assured, and reconsidering privilege.”

Educators who teach and model social justice gain firsthand knowledge of the benefits of incorporating social justice issues into the classroom. Many report witnessing transformations in their own students as they became more aware of social justice issues and ultimately embraced their own causes.

Steps Educators Can Take to Promote Social Justice

Educators can promote social justice in the classroom by increasing students’ awareness of social justice issues. Educators can do this through a number of channels:

  • Incorporating social media into classroom discussions. Social media platforms are where many students encounter and engage in social justice issues, from bullying to racial discrimination. For age-appropriate students, exploring these experiences can provide relatable examples of social injustice.
  • Exposing students to activists. Educators can boost students’ exposure to activists through books, movies, YouTube videos, or any other media. The featured activists can be current or historic figures. Highlighting musicians, actors, and other celebrities who are activists or have taken up social justice issues can also be a good jumping-off point for discussions. For younger students, a wealth of social justice-themed books have been written for children. For example, Angela Johnson’s A Sweet Smell of Roses, which tells the story of two young Black girls who participate in a freedom march with Martin Luther King Jr., is appropriate for children from kindergarten to third grade. For older students, a documentary film such as Ava DuVernay’s 13th (recommended for ages 16 and over), which explores mass incarceration and racial bias in America, could inform a discussion about discrimination and unjust policies.
  • Bringing in guest speakers. Local community activists can provide an engaging environment for students and help them connect major issues with local and personal concerns.

Educators can also integrate projects, exercises, and teaching methods that are conducive to social justice engagement. Project-based learning activities that allow groups of students to focus on a particular cause or issue expose students to their peers’ viewpoints. The exposure personalizes the learning experience and provides perspective on different lives and challenges.

Educators can use current media coverage of issues such as immigration, racial injustices, health care equity, climate justice, mass incarceration, income disparities, gun violence, or voting rights to teach students about critical thinking, diverse perspectives, and separating fact from opinion. Such exercises help students recognize injustice and provide a platform and a means for students to express their feelings about injustice.

Lessons can be tailored for different age groups. For example, a discussion with young children about homelessness can focus on empathy and very basic causal factors, while a high school class can address fairness and tackle more complex issues of income inequality, mental illness and disabilities, racial disparities, or public policy.

Benefits of Encouraging Student Activism

Students who learn to recognize injustice are more likely to become informed and engaged and ultimately turn their knowledge into action. Educators can begin promoting activism with discussions about the ways that people promote social justice:

  • Advocating for social justice in their schools and workplaces
  • Contacting government officials
  • Donating money
  • Educating themselves about social justice issues
  • Engaging in conversations with friends and family members about social justice issues
  • Leading fundraising efforts
  • Making choices to support or avoid businesses based on their ethical behavior
  • Organizing group events
  • Participating in rallies, meetings, and protests
  • Pointing out social injustices and standing up for others

It should be emphasized that social activism isn’t an undertaking exclusive to adults. Students at all grade levels can find inspiration in young activists who have made huge contributions through social justice advocacy. Examples may include survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who have led a youth movement aimed at gun control policies; Greta Thunberg, who became a household name at only 16 years old for her climate change protests; or Marley Dias, an activist who launched #1000BlackGirlBooks, a book drive highlighting literature featuring black female protagonists, when she was just 11 years old.

By raising awareness of social justice issues and providing concrete examples of the difference social justice advocates can make, educators help students become adults who resist unjust, discriminatory behavior.

Promoting Social Justice Through Education

Educators with a passion for social justice and desire to change the world can pursue that opportunity by training to become educational leaders. Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program provides a learning environment committed to addressing real-world problems through public service. Allowing educators to balance their work and school lives, the program is suited to public and independent school teachers looking to advance their careers, be forces of change, and promote equity in education and their communities.

How to Be a Transformational Leader in Education

Social Justice in Education: The Role Educational Leaders Play

Teaching the Whole Child: Strategies for Holistic Education


GLAAD, Accelerating Acceptance 2018

GLAAD, Accelerating Acceptance 2019

National Education Association, “Why Social Justice in School Matters”

Resilient Educator, “Teaching Social Justice in Theory and Practice”

Sage Journals, “‘Minds Were Forced Wide Open’: Black Adolescents’ Identity Exploration in a Transformative Social Justice Class”

Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, Pathways Magazine

The Atlantic, “The Long-Term Effects of Social-Justice Education on Black Students”

The Edvocate, “Teaching Social Justice in Your Classroom”