Lauren J. Silver: Enlivening Social Justice through Spanning Boundaries

silver_system_PBWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Lauren J. Silver, author of System Kids: Adolescent Mothers and the Politics of Regulation. In the book, Silver considers the daily lives of adolescent mothers as they negotiate the child welfare system to meet the needs of their children and themselves. Often categorized as dependent and delinquent, these young women routinely become wards of the state as they move across the legal and social borders of a fragmented urban bureaucracy. Combining critical policy study and ethnography, and drawing on current scholarship as well as her own experience as a welfare program manager, Silver demonstrates how social welfare “silos” construct the lives of youth as disconnected, reinforcing unforgiving policies and imposing demands on women the system was intended to help.

In today’s post, Silver relates the experiences of the students in her college classroom as they participate in “boundary spanning” activities, developing afterschool programs for elementary and middle school students. 


“Why didn’t we learn about this stuff earlier? I can’t believe I’m in college and this is the first time I’m learning in class about present-day racism, sexism, and homophobia.” These are the types of comments that I often hear from students in the classes I teach on Urban Education, Youth Identities, and Gender & Education. Once, a white young woman, a graduate student, broke down in tears during class as she opened up about her sense of shame. She was outraged about the indignities experienced by poor children of color in urban schools and she felt ashamed that she was previously unaware of these realities. I can see on their faces when it begins to dawn on them that not only have their educations been remiss in preparing them to take action against injustice, but also that they have not even been given the tools to see or acknowledge the inequalities of which they themselves are a part.

I always learn from my students. As the Fall 2014 semester began, I had no idea exactly how much I would learn. I was teaching a new civic engagement course in urban education. System Kids centers on the stories of adolescent mothers in a large urban child welfare system. In the conclusion, I share a concept of “boundary spanning”—a relational way of building knowledge, which crosses disciplinary, methodological, and community borders. I argue that we face a crisis of imagination in child welfare and I suggest unique ways of spanning communities of youth in the public’s care with college communities and social justice campaigns.

I’ve learned that boundary spanning is not only relevant for research but also for teaching. Last semester, in small groups, students designed and implemented storytelling after-school clubs with elementary and middle school students at a charter school and a district school in Camden, NJ. The students were to learn about the children’s stories through writing, poetry, art, drama, dance, or other creative approaches and to present their culminating work to our class. The students were themselves a diverse group of young people—crossing racial, ethnic, class, national origin, and community borders.

I felt trepidation as class began because I did not have control over the clubs. Taking a leap of faith and relinquishing my power, I expected a lot of responsibility from my students. I taught my students about the role of high expectations and about being aware of their assumptions in urban schools. They taught me the same lesson. Some students shared openly their susceptibility to stereotypes about urban kids and their fears about Camden. These students were enlightened as the kids whom they perceived to have the biggest negative attitudes ended up being the most passionate participants.

One particular group created a club that focused on dance. In addition to teaching the children, the club organizers let the children teach them dances from home cultures. Another group asked the children to write scripts and make props, and then they filmed the children performing these skits. I was glowing with pride during their final presentations, as we watched the children perform with eagerness and such joy. One part of the film included a boy with special needs whose two male classmates jumped in spontaneously to help him when he began struggling with a song. My students created these experiences! Through boundary spanning, they constructed productive moments of creative exchange. Had I not trusted their integrity, these meaningful interactions would never have occurred.

My students also learned to trust. They spoke about how they counted on one another, as school environments were unpredictable—there was a shooting outside one of our schools just minutes before my students arrived. On other days, the after-school program did not have enough supplies to complete planned projects. And on still other days, a child would resist and need to be given a different approach in order to join in.

I conclude System Kids with the following statement: “I want this account to be used by others as a tool to promote social justice and healing in ways that I cannot foresee.” I am learning about the power of intentions through my book and also through teaching. When we model trust and passion for children’s justice, these intentions set off a cascading effect.

Lauren J. Silver is assistant professor of childhood studies at Rutgers University-Camden. Her book, System Kids: Adolescent Mothers and the Politics of Regulation, is now available. Read her previous guest post, “Beyond Snapshot Stories: The Power in Youth Representation.”