The Principle: Social Justice, Strikes, and Standing Up for What Is Right

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re a bit of an arts family. We’re also a family that holds social justice and activism in high regard.

Daniel violaMy oldest three attend the performing arts magnet school, Michael as an instrumental major (cello) and Katie and Nick as vocalists. Michael plays in some small group ensembles as well as the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra. It’s currently tech week for Jekyll and Hyde, and he’s playing in the pit for the Pittsburgh Musical Theater. He’s performed in the past in the pit of Undercroft Opera and in the pit and onstage with the Pittsburgh Savoyards. He has also been a member of the Three Rivers Young People’s Orchestra and the South Hills Junior Orchestra. He attends the City Music Center at Duquesne at Saturdays. Katie Grace sings in Concentio, the all-girls touring choir of the Pittsburgh School for the Choral Arts, as well as their smaller ensemble chamber choir. She’s a member of the Junior Mendelssohn Choir as well as taking part in several choirs and lessons at her school. She just landed a part in the opera workshop as Launce in Three Gentlemen of Verona. Nicholas is also a vocal major, and along with his brother Daniel, will be performing in Stage 62’s production of The Music Man. Nicholas and Daniel were part of a wonderful boys’ choir last year which has since ceased to exist. Daniel has moved on to the Pittsburgh Boys’ Choir but we’re still trying to find something that’s a good fit for Nicholas. Daniel also has started viola lessons this year and is very proud of his performances as a supernumerary with both Undercroft Opera and the Pittsburgh Opera. Nick has been in an Undercroft production as well. The twins’ go to a school that I chose specifically because it has a thriving arts program, and are currently not only loving the art and music curriculum, but also a special guest artist program with the Civic Light Opera. The youngest three all also have the goal of attending the arts magnet school.

I say this not to brag– ok, maybe a little to brag– but to show just how incredibly important the arts are to our family culture.

Michael celloWhen the Musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra went on strike, it hit us hard. Michael especially has had the pleasure of workshops, master classes, sectionals, and playing in a side-by-side concert with members of this amazing world-renowned orchestra. We have attended many concerts at Heinz Hall and some of the children have even had the honor of performing there. We absolutely 100% support the musicians in their strike as they seek to work with management to find an equitable solution.

It’s tricky to explain all of this to the younger children. The older ones get it, and have already walked the picket line with the musicians. Michael had a letter to the editor published. Already, holiday concerts have been moved to other venues so they don’t cross the picket line. The older children are no stranger to activism and attended plenty of rallies and protests when they were small. The Musicians of the PSO strike has made me realize that I’ve been slacking off in exposing the younger children to the idea of social justice. So, what do you do?

  • Listen to some good folk music. I have a soft spot in my heart for Sweet Honey on the Rock, John McCutcheon, and Woody Guthrie, of course. There’s an entire database of social justice and protest music here. A song that explains the idea of collective bargaining is John McCutcheon’s The Principle. You can read the lyrics here or listen to it at this youtube link.  He has another song, Kids on Strike, that is a fun way to explain the concept.

    And what one can’t do, we’ll try as two.
    And when two can’t score, we’ll try again with more,
    And if we all act as one
    You’d be surprised what can be done,
    Then we’re not quite as lonely as we seem.

  • Read a book.
    • Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronan is a favorite here and explains unions, strikes, and collective bargaining with humor.
    • Si Se Puede: Yes We Can tells the story of the Los Angeles janitor strike of 2000.
    • Swimmy by Lio Lionni is a classic favorite that shows a small fish organizing other small fish to fight back against a big fish.
    • The Rag Coat by Lauren Mills shows a community coming together to help a little girl patch her coat so she can attend school. It takes place in coal country, making it a good story to tell here in Pittsburgh.
    • Animal Strike at the Zoo. This book can help explain the concept of a strike in a light-hearted way.
  • Put it in terms they can understand. When discussing the strike with Matthew and Molly, I found I was falling short when I tried to explain the musicians’ predicament. Finally, I came up with an analogy they could understand. “What if,” I said, “I agreed to give you four pieces of candy for every job you did? And you did the job, and I gave you the candy?” They agreed that was a good deal. “Now, what if one day I said ‘You know what? I don’t want to give you four pieces of candy any more. From now on, you only get three pieces of candy for every job.’ Would that be fair?” Candy is something five-year-olds understand. We also watched some videos of the Pittsburgh Orchestra performing so they could see what an amazing resource it is.
  • Turn to musicals. You know me– I think musicals can teach pretty much anything. Listen to (or watch the old DVD of) Newsies. Older children might also enjoy the raw emotion behind The Stars Look Down from Billy Elliot (NOT for younger children).
  • Join in. As I said, the older children have already walked the line with the musicians, and I’m so proud of them. I’m hoping we can all go as a family this weekend. Beyond that? Make signs. Put a lawn sign in front of your house. Write letters. Post on websites. Make your voice heard, and encourage your children to do the same. No one is “too little” if they have a little help.
    Katie PSO strike

I feel very strongly that it is important for our children to see us standing up for what we believe in. This musicians’ strike may not be on your radar right now, but I’m sure there’s a cause you do feel strongly about.

How to you teach your children about social justice?