The Kids Are Alright

Regardless of your position on gun regulation, the work of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the latest victims of yet another act of senseless gun violence, has to be inspiring, if not a little humbling.  They are putting adults to shame, literally and figuratively.  Their eloquence, passion, and even their social media smarts, are creating a moment of reckoning in this country.  The so-called “adults in the room” cannot hold a candle to these students’ capacity to mobilize, empathize, reach across difference, and move a nation to action.

Many seem surprised by this. As an educator who teaches many millennial law students, I am not.  I see my students accomplish amazing things, and am constantly inspired by their intelligence, willingness to roll up their sleeves, and go to work.  Moreover, as a former law student myself (although, admittedly, nearly three decades ago), I saw students work together in the face of resistance, and the stories I have read about the work of the Parkland students and the thousands more who have taken up this fight resonate and are reminiscent of work that has occurred and will continue to occur, carried out by eager and passionate students who won’t take no for an answer and continue to “Call BS” when necessary.

What we are seeing in action is perhaps the greatest student project ever undertaken.  From the outside looking in, it looks like the students are working collaboratively and sharing the spotlight among themselves and with others outside their immediate circle.  They appear incredibly supportive of one another, are pressing ahead in support of a cause larger than themselves though grounded in their personal experiences of tragedy, and are reaching out to others to build bridges across geographies and communities. They are accomplishing slow and steady wins that help to build momentum, sustain their energy, and create confidence to take on the next challenge. In short, they are doing all of the things that a group needs to do in order to produce meaningful change.

In academia, many fear the group project.  But it is how the world functions, and how humans have been operating for millennia.  In fact, our capacity for cooperation is probably what makes us human.

Such group activity can also can have its downsides, and not just in terms of the free rider who benefits from the work of others.  Rather groups can take on a life of their own, and distorted and harmful collective understandings can emerge as a result.  In the wake of the collective tragedies of Nazism and Stalinism, “groupthink” became a source of serious academic study. But on the brink of World War II, Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim wrote about how industrialization and urbanization was impacting our collective capacity for this sort of groupthink as follows: “life among the masses of a large town tends to make people much more subject to suggestion, uncontrolled outbursts of impulses and psychic regressions than those who are organically integrated and held firm in the smaller type of groups.  Thus industrialized mass society tends to produce the most self-contradictory behavior not only in society but also in the personal life of the individual.”

The students of Parkland and the many others who are emerging into the broader spotlight are organizing themselves at the local level, school-by-school and community-by-community, and helping the rest of us see the disastrous and ruinous groupthink that has captured the collective imagination around gun control.  And they are doing it in remarkable ways, sustaining their collective energy in the wake of tragedy.

Recent research into how groups can work effectively, carried out by Google in what it called “Project Aristotle,” identified a series of common components in effective groups, including the following:

  • Dependability: getting things done on time and accurately;
  • Structure and Clarity: having clear goals and clear roles;
  • Meaning: the work is personally important to the team members;
  • Impact: team members think their work matters and will bring about change;
  • Psychological Safety: team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of others.

From the outside looking in, the Parkland students and the many others who have been working for meaningful responses to gun violence who have gained greater attention because of the Parkland tragedy, appear to meet these criteria for successful groups.  They pulled off hundreds of simultaneous rallies across the country in a matter of weeks.  They could not have done so had they not had some structure and clarity to their work, did not see the importance of their work, and did not derive meaning from it.  And it would appear that they are incredibly supportive of each other, both within their own groups and in relation to each other.  For example, during Saturday’s march in Washington, when a student, Samantha Fuentes, who was wounded in Parkland, was addressing the crowd, she paused a moment, turned away from the lectern, and vomited.  Other students rushed to her side, urged her to keep going.  She emerged from being doubled over to proclaim: “I just threw up on international television and it feels great!”

The students leading this campaign should be an inspiration to everyone who wants to bring about change, and can help us understand how we can do it collectively, because it is in such group efforts that real change is possible. I have written about my own experience as a law student working on a case, brought by a law school clinic, that challenged the U.S. government’s treatment of Haitian refugees in the early 1990s, a case which ultimately went to the Supreme Court.  In ways that echo the work of the Parkland students, but by no measure on the same scale or with the same impact, the team effort there, led by students, invoked many of these themes as well, and can help show how law schools can harness the collective capacities law students have for bringing about change.

In an oft-quoted phrase, Margaret Mead said to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  How such groups should actually go about doing that is another question, and the Parkland students and the thousands of others who have been inspired by their work, or who have finally gotten the attention they deserve, may just show us the way.

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One Response

  1. […] If of interest, over at the Best Practices for Legal Education Blog,I have a post up on the ongoing success of the rolling, national, student-led project designed to bring about legislative action on gun control. Please check it out here. […]

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