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Director's Corner: Social Justice and the Gifted Child

By Joy Lawson Davis, EdD.

As a tenth grader in high school, I led a walkout. A year or so earlier, my parents had moved our family to a very small racially segregated rural area school with very limited resources. My early years as a gifted student were spent in a very progressive urban area school in the northeast. When I arrived at the small school in the country, I was immediately on edge for several reasons. First, I had never attended a racially segregated school; second, the resources were very limited — no auditorium, no gymnasium, no art classes (an area at which I excelled along with academics); and finally, there was limited access to high level and advanced classes. For those reasons and because I believe I was born to speak out, I easily found myself (at the age of 14) to be a vocal advocate for positive change in the district.

The walkout that I orchestrated with the help of one of my teachers was designed to get students to attend the local school board meeting while school was taking place. The issue at hand was the need for a gymnasium. The school that I attended in New Jersey always had two gyms. The lack of a gymnasium in the school placed the students at a disadvantage in physical fitness and sports competitions. And for me, it was completely unacceptable to attend a school with no gymnasium. As a Black high school there were so many limitations that affected our experience as students. The advantage, however, was having teachers who cared deeply about our futures and were willing to go the extra mile for us. The French teacher who backed our protest was one such teacher.

The walkout was just the beginning of my social and moral advocacy efforts on behalf of others. Deep in my spirit, even as a youngster, I felt the drive and the need to help and to serve others. My gift with language positioned me to speak up when others felt less capable. My social instincts and courage compelled me to stand up when others were afraid to. After some controversy and argument from school leaders, the walkout was deemed a success. Due to my emotional sensitivity and strength that belied my age, I was able to lead a very quiet, yet forceful group of students out of the school, down the road to the courthouse where the meeting was held. I spoke boldly and convincingly to School Board and within two years, our little high school had a brand new gymnasium. It was important, I learned later that the School Board heard the students. Our voice made a difference in the outcome.

The impact of the walkout in my community paled in comparison to the protest led by 16-year-old Barbara Johns of Farmville, Virginia. Johns led an entire school to the Superintendent’s office to protest inadequate resources in her school. Her courageous leadership took the Farmville case all of the way to the court system. The Farmville case is well known as a precedent case to the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education. Johns was the niece of famous civil rights leader, Vernon Johns. Until the protest, most saw her as quiet and soft spoken. As with many gifted children, the emotional intensity is not always seen on the outside until an incident provokes their action. The resource list below includes a powerful video with interviews of Johns’ classmates and her sister, all of whom participated and followed Johns out of school on the day that the students went on strike in 1951.

The involvement of youth around the world in affecting change in their communities

As I read and teach about social justice and the important role of youth around the world in initiating, instigating, and actualizing change for the good of their communities and society at large, I recognize that parents and educators are often ill-equipped to work with these strong-willed individuals. These youngsters are those whom Dabrowski describes as having emotional intensities and overexcitabilities, they are prone to speak out when injustice is present, more inclined than their peers to respond to hypocrisy and the suffering of others. Emotional overexcitability is manifested through a great depth of emotions expressed by having intense feelings for the treatment of others, compassion, adult-like response and critiquing, and a strong sense of responsibility to ‘do something’ to make a difference. A brief review of civil rights history unveils a number of situations that can be used in contemporary classrooms and homes when the subject of social justice and moral dimensions of relationships come to the attention of our gifted youth of today. Snapshots of a few stories appear below:

The story of Hector Pieterson

Hector Pieterson has been honored by the South African community of Johannesburg with a museum that documents the role of youth in the anti-apartheid movement. Young Hector was the first and youngest person to lose his life during the protest marches during which the youth of the community marched out of their schools to protest the government’s ban on the use of their native languages in schools and textbook material. During Apartheid, all students were required to learn and speak in English, giving up their native languages as they entered school each day. One can only imagine how challenging and emotionally devastating not being able to use their language in their own country must have been for the school children of South Africa. Hector was 12 years old when he lost his life on June 16, 1976. During a visit to South Africa a few years ago, I visited the Hector Pieterson Museum. When I entered the museum, the first picture that I encountered was a life-size photo of young Hector being carried to the hospital by a young man, with his sister running alongside him. Hector’s sacrifice during the anti-apartheid movement was only one of many young people during that tragic period in South Africa’s history.

Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai

Last year, the youngest person to receive the coveted Nobel Peace Prize was 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai. Malala is a young scholar and servant leader from Pakistan who was very outspoken in her desire that the country provide opportunities for young people in her country to have access to education that would enrich their lives and that of their communities. Malala began her initiatives at the tender age of 11, speaking out against her government and often, rebels who held communities hostage and denied them the most basic of freedoms, including the right to an education. In 2013, Malala took her plea in a speech to the United Nations. Since receiving the award, Malala has been an ambassador for freedom and equity in education worldwide.

Children’s Crusade during the Civil Rights Movement

One of the largest and most impressive gatherings of citizens during the Civil Rights movement was that of Black children in Birmingham Alabama. Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, current President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County was one of those children. At the age of 12, young Freeman’s parents were community organizers and responsible for working with others to gather together hundreds of children for a demonstration of support for the civil rights actions taking place in Alabama and across the nation. The Children’s Crusade took place in May of 1963. In an interview many years later, Dr. Hrabowski noted that their participation in the march was “for a higher purpose… civil rights for all Americans.” As a gifted child, Freeman was often around when his family had community meetings at their home to discuss plans and resolutions to enable the Black citizens of Alabama to be treated fairly and have the same access to rights and property as other Americans. It was in his home and the community that the sensitive young scholar, leader, and soon to be award-winning college president was nurtured and supported in his efforts to advocate for others.

These few stories are just a few of the many examples of how young people have engaged in social justice movements around the world for the past sixty years. Their involvement has drawn attention to deep concerns, enabled them to advocate for and champion causes of interest to their people, the nation and the world. Their courageous leadership has enabled them to leave a legacy and proof that the emotional intensities, sense of justice and equity, and the ability to create resolutions can be effective and have long-term results for humankind. In a society that is sitting on the verge of change, it is important that parents, educators, and civic leaders engage gifted children and youth in the often difficult conversations, listen to their concerns and viewpoints, and trust that their capacity for solutions is equal to or in many cases, exceeds that of adults who are often left with making critical decisions for our communities. Gifted youth from all backgrounds and experiences have great capacity to change the course of this nation and the world. When they are given the opportunity, they will do just that.


Children’s March 50 years later: Civil Rights Movement’s Young Foot Soldiers Recall their Stories.

Davis, J.L. (Spring, 2015). Talking about Race in middle and high school classrooms. Teaching for High Potential. A publication of the National Association for Gifted Children.

Malala Yousafzai joins ranks Youngest Nobel Prize Winners: Discovery News

National Public Radio: Interview with Brittany Ferrell, Co-Founder of the Millenial Movement, Ferguson,MO. Uploaded from

Piechowski, M.(2006). “Mellow Out”, they say. If I Only Could: Intensities and Sensitivities of the Young and Bright.Madison, WI: Yunasa Books.


Joy Lawson Davis, EdD, is an Associate Professor of Education and Chair, Dept of Education at Virginia Union University. She is also serving a three year term on the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) Board of Directors. Previously Dr. Davis worked at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. Dr. Davis is the author of Bright, Talented & Black: A Guide for Families of African American Gifted Learners and a sought-out speaker and consultant in educating culturally diverse gifted learners and serving their families. Dr. Davis has been a teacher, district director of Gifted Services and spent five years as a state specialist in K-12 Gifted Programs in Virginia. She holds two degrees in gifted education from the College of William and Mary. Davis is also developer of two unique facebook pages devoted to recognizing and celebrating diversity WeAreGifted2 and Celebrating Black Genius.

1 Comment

Thank you so much for this article!

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