Teaching Intersectionality: STFU

The Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) was a resistance movement founded in 1934 to address the issues created by the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which was a part of the New Deal. This act, aimed to increase prices of food, backfired by having landlords remove tenants from their lands and keeping the subsidies, given by the government, for themselves. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union protested against these acts by organising themselves, writing protest letters and going on strike. The union consisted of as well black as white people, of as well women as men. By discussing this union in the classroom, class, race and gender are being discussed, making the Southern Tenant Farmers Union a prime example of an intersectional topic.

The goal for this lesson was for the students to be able to explain the threat that the STFU was for the established order; indicate the lessons we can learn from past activist groups with regard to resilience; understand how change is initiated by ordinary people rather than divine beings.

The Southern Tenants Farmer Union fit in a bigger unit about the Great Depression and the New Deal. At the beginning of the three lessons about the STFU, the students thought about resistance. Thus, students wrote words they associated with resistance. These were often individual and negative connotations, for example arguing or disagreeing (green words). Thereafter, students read an essay from Alex Gino about resistance. Students wrote down new words they associated with resistance and this time the overall understanding indicated community and togetherness (purple words).

Students’ responses to “Resistance”
Excerpt from an essay by Alex Gino in the book “How I resist”

During the second part of the lesson, students looked at different sources about the STFU and their ways of resisting; an account by a historian, an oral history account, a photo and music pieces. Student wrote down why they thought the STFU was significant, hereby making use of the framework created by Christine Counsell. Thus, students thought about what made the STFU special and important to remember, their answers was often related to remarkable, considering that the union was inter-gender and interracial, which was very uncommon in the Southern states of the US during the 1930’s.

Historical Significance

The second lesson dealt with the voilent reactions from the society on the STFU, since the organisation was interracial, inter-gender, and representing the poor. However, despite the reactionary forces, the union continued to stand up for the rights of the tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Therefore this lesson was based around the concept of resilience. The students watched 15 minutes of this video and noted down moments in which members of the STFU showed resilience. At the end of the lesson, students filled out an exit ticket in which they elaborated on their thinking about the union, based on the following structure:

Exit ticket lesson #2: 3 things I learned, 2 things I can apply, 1 question I still have

I gathered the thinking of the students and used it in the third lesson. As preparation for this third lesson, students read an excerpt from an article written by Jason Manthorn in the journal Agricultural History, which I adapted for classroom usage. This article problematised the glorification of the union by focussing on the pushback from society because of the interracial and inter-gender character of the organisation. This created a great link with the term intersectionality. Therefore, I asked the students to think about whether or not the STFU was an intersectional organisation, hereby briefly explaining the concept intersectionality.

Discussing intersectionality

Furthermore, the article, written by Manthorn, also criticised the fact that the union was known as to be interracial, since the leadership of the union were white while the majority of the members were black. After reading this thought-provoking article on STFU, students looked at their own thinking from the previous lesson and indicated whether or not their thinking had changed. I copied students’ writing on the exit ticket in a word document, to make sure everyone’s voice was included. I got this idea from a blog post by Ursula Wolf-Rocca, in which she elaborated on the power of “publicising” students voices: “The act of “publishing” students’ words also validates and promotes the otherwise-often-left-out ideas of quiet and minority students, a way for teachers to say, “Your ideas matter.” 

Excerpts from students’ thinking from previous lesson based on the exit ticket.

What we should remember the Southern Tenant Farmers Union for:

– The length the landowners went through to end the union, despite threats the union continued, the unwillingness of the government to help
– Both black and white decided it was best to face the problem together
– The union was a failure, however it encouraged inter-racial and inter-gender collaboration

The aim of the article was to criticise the common focus on the successful individual rather than on the struggle of the community. This was a difficult message for students to understand, but their thinking became a bit more nuanced with regard to to level of racial integration within the STFU. Finally, the students created a visual representation that would reflect a way to remember the STFU, considering the different viewpoints about this organisation.

Examples from students’ way of representation the STFU

Excerpts from students stating what we can learn from the STFU after revising their thinking based on the article by Jason Manthorn.

What we can learn:

– Being able to collaborate with others, how to organize events with others or protest
– People put their personal views away in order to achieve the same goal they were all aiming for
– The future benefit is more important than your present
– To keep fighting for what is right
– Not giving up easily and when something is challenging still find a way to get through it in order to achieve your goal.
– Try to work as a group to achieve goals
– When people put away things that makes them different and come together to each other that then they realize that they are actually the same.
– Failure does not mean that for a new generation it is ‘the end”

The topic of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union is very interesting because it deals with many factors of one’s identity, namely class, race and gender. My students did not encounter the words intersectional before, therefore the discussion about intersectionality maintained rather shallow. Nevertheless, this made me realise that I should be more explicit and clear with concepts like “intersectionality” so students can use these in different topics and see the connections throughout time and between different places.

The entire presentation used for this lesson can be found here.

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