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Lesson 6: Building Alliances

Rationale: The purpose of this lesson is for students to explore what it means to be an ally, and to use historical examples of ally behavior as a bridge to their own lives. Students begin by examining excerpts from a 1952 amicus brief filed in support of Brown v. Board of Education and reading about a little known civil rights activist from the Jewish community. Students then brainstorm different types of ally behavior and identify specific ways in which they can be allies in their school and communities.

  • Students will learn about historical examples of ally behavior.
  • Students will learn what it means to be an ally and identify different levels of ally behavior.
  • Students will reflect on ways that they can be an ally and develop plans for taking action in their school and communities.

National Standards


Handouts/Supporting Documents: 1952 Amicus Brief, A Selected List of Allies Throughout History (optional), Esther Swirk Brown: Civil Rights Activist, Pyramid of Alliance

Materials: chart paper, markers, LCD or overhead projector (optional)

Time: Two class periods or 1 hour 30 minutes

Techniques and Skills: brainstorming, cooperative group work, critical thinking, examining primary documents, forming opinions, historical understanding, large and small group discussion, reading skills, social action

Key Words: alliance, ally, amicus brief, desegregation, discrimination, integration, NAACP, risk, segregation, social action


Part I

1. Write the following quote on the board:
"That which is unequal in fact cannot be equal in law and, therefore, segregation and equality cannot co-exist in public education."

Ask students to guess who might have written these words and in what context. After some speculation, inform students that the statement comes from a 1952 amicus brief for the Brown v. Board of Education case. Ask students if they know what an amicus brief is and encourage them to reason the meaning based on other words they may know that come from the same root as amicus (amiable, amicable, amigo, etc.) Inform students that amicus comes from the Latin for friend. An amicus brief is a statement of support submitted to the court by a person or organization-a "friend of the court"-that is not a party to the case in question.

Project or distribute the cover page to the original 1952 amicus brief and ask students to identify the "friends of the court" in this particular instance. Ask students if they are surprised to learn that these six groups-including two Jewish and one Japanese organization-made such a strong statement of support. Ask why these organizations, none of which were black civil rights groups, may have spoken out. Share the following statement from the brief, which sums up its rationale:

"The present case…present[s] an issue with which all six organizations are deeply concerned because such segregation deprives millions of persons of rights that are freely enjoyed by others and adversely affects the entire democratic structure of our society."

2. Tell students that the organizations who filed the brief acted as allies. Draw a circle on the board and write the word "ally" in the center. Ask students to brainstorm all of the associations they have with this word and record them on spokes radiating from the circle (e.g., supporter, advocate, one who takes risks to help others). Ask students to identify allies they know (from history, current events or their own lives) who took risks to support others when it was not required of them. Record these names on the chart. (A Selected List of Allies Throughout History is included as an optional handout and students can be assigned people from this list to investigate further for homework or as a research project).

3. Inform students that they will be reading about a little known ally from the civil rights movement. Distribute copies of Esther Swirk Brown: Civil Rights Activist and have students read it either silently or together as a class. Discuss the following questions:
  • In what ways did Esther Swirk Brown act as an ally?
  • Why do you think she risked her safety to support others?
  • What personal experiences might have caused Brown to empathize with the victims of prejudice?
  • Can you imagine yourself doing the things that Esther Swirk Brown did? Why or why not?
  • In general, what might motivate a person to be an ally?
  • What might discourage or prevent someone from becoming an ally? What is the cost of not acting - to the target? To the bystander? To society?
Part II

4. Ask students if they have ever acted as any ally and allow them to share their experiences. Ask if those who did not share can imagine themselves being an ally to others. Suggest that being an ally doesn't necessarily mean fighting bigotry in a very large-scale and public manner as Esther Swirk Brown did. Being an ally also includes smaller and less risky acts that demonstrate our support for others. Draw a large triangle on a piece of chart paper and label it the "Pyramid of Alliance." Draw two horizontal lines to divide the triangle into three sections and label them-from bottom to top-low, moderate, and high level of alliance. In the top section, write a couple of the actions that Esther Swirk Brown took (e.g., challenging institutional segregation, organizing a lawsuit) and identify these as high levels of alliance. Ask students to describe one or two actions that demonstrate a moderate level of alliance (e.g. attending a rally or march, joining a human rights club or group) and low level of alliance (e.g., interrupting a racist joke, reading multicultural literature). Record their examples on the chart. Once students understand the concept, divide them into small groups of about four. Provide each group with the Pyramid of Alliance handout and ask them to brainstorm additional examples for each level. Encourage students to focus on actual needs in their own school or community, and to list actions that they can realistically envision themselves or their peers taking.

5. As each group finishes, have them post their pyramids around the room and share one or two actions from each category with the whole class. Note that the categories are somewhat fluid and overlapping-what some individuals see as a low level of alliance may seem like a moderate or high level of alliance to others, depending on the individual and the circumstances. Confronting someone about a prejudiced comment, for example, may involve different levels of risk and courage in different situations. More important than debating what items belong in which categories, though, is to identify concrete actions that students can actually see themselves taking based on real problems that they have identified. Highlight these problems and actions, and challenge students to put them into practice. For most students, this will involve behaviors such as using more respectful language, not laughing at a joke, and showing kindness to targets of bullying. Some students may be motivated to do more, however, such as starting or joining a group, doing volunteer work, or organizing a social action project. Whatever level of commitment students are willing to make, help to identify and structure time for follow-up and planning so that students' ideas are actually implemented.


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