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Talking with Kids about Justice with Lisa Van Engen

Writer, teacher, and mother Lisa Van Engen joins us for this conversation on engaging kids in seeking justice. Lisa and Chris talk about how and when to talk with kids about justice, including the reality that many who are impacted don’t have the privilege of deciding ‘when.’ Lisa also shares stories about questions around racism and injustice that her students and children have raised, how they’ve talked together about issues that impact their neighbors and friends, and what kids can do to advocate.

The following is a transcript of Season 3 Episode 3 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Well hello and welcome to another episode of Do Justice. I'm your host Chris Orme, and we're excited to be together again in this space, special guest today is Lisa Van Engen and Lisa is a writer a freelance writer at 

She is an author of a book, an amazing book and the book is titled, And Social Justice for All, Empowering Families, Churches and Schools to Make a Difference in God's World. Lisa is an educator, and her heart is really to encourage all of us to place ourselves within that space of doing justice and what that looks like. Welcome Lisa, thanks for joining us today. 

Lisa: Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to be here. 

Chris: That's awesome. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? That little, little bonus beyond the bio moment that would be great. 

Lisa: Yeah I live with my family in Holland, Michigan, and I have a daughter who's almost 17 and a son who is 14. 

Chris: Awesome. Yeah, that fun age. Right. I mean, yeah, I have I have a 14 and 17 year old too. Yeah, and I always say that to people, fun age with a little wink like, oh hey. [laughter] Excited to have you with us this is going to be an interesting conversation because, yeah, we talk a lot about justice let's do justice podcast and we would consider it like a lot of us who would listen or track with this we're sort of practitioners, like we work in that justice space and so that's vocation. It's kind of what we do, but you're really leading us and directing us into a space where we kind of integrate that with our, with our family life and I think that's super super exciting. But, before we get too deep into it, fun question. 

It, schools out pretty much, it's summertime, you're a teacher and a mom. So what's a teacher in a mom's perspective in the month of June? Like what is, what are you gearing up for, what are you winding down from, what's that space look like? (3:22)

Lisa: Yeah, I think it's an exciting space especially this year it was a really hard school year and on our last week of school with our students we really worked a lot on like having some closure, because last year we didn't have that and just really kind of acknowledging how hard the year had been, and I think that's important with, you know, your own kids too and families is being able to talk about the difficulties that you experienced and what you kind of overcame and accomplished and then just really taking you know some time and space for rest and I think especially this year reflection is, is a good thing to do to to just really kind of wrap your mind around everything that we've experienced. 

Chris: Yeah, like let's dig into that a little bit because I wonder, you know, I've had conversations like I mentioned, I have a 14 year old 17 year old we've had check ins and little temperature checks throughout the year kind of where, where are we, where are we all at you know how are we all doing but, like, what are some of the things that the young people are processing or what you know like what is that closure look like, you know what I mean like it's kind of. I don't pay attention to that enough in my own life, you know right part of the processes and movement from one season or one space to another but what does that look like for those young folks. 

Lisa: Yeah, I mean I think it's different in something that we hadn't always, you know, been as intentional about as school in the past but this year. I think a lot of them were kind of imagining like a long spring along summer and, you know, the classroom I was in had virtual and in person kids so some of them had been home for, you know, nine months, I think, leaving school for the summer they were imagining you know a big long space and were worried about some of them going back to the home situations they didn't feel great about and just really being able to process that that this time it's different. It's just, you know, a summer period, it's a few months and all the things we accomplished and just really being honest say this was a really hard year, and it's going to be something that you know your grandkids are going to ask you about and you're going to be able to tell them what you experienced and all the great things that you were able to do even through those hard times so I think just really being honest with them about that. 

Chris: Yeah, yeah. So, like, on top of just the already present, kind of mountain and valley experience of life in a pandemic. I'm sure for young people, yet difficult to navigate but this year has also been unsettling and brought many issues of injustice into center focus. Has this spotlight on what is broken in our world what is broken, in, in the systems that we live and work, and just are in, has that impacted your work? 

Lisa: Yeah, I think definitely I think it has raised a lot of questions that people might not have asked before which is really good and encouraging. And then I've also seen a lot of resistance, that's maybe more out in the open then would have been in the past. So there's the good and the bad with that, I think, and that's in my writing and even what I've seen with kids in school and with my own kids, You know, my daughter's in high school and, and there's been a lot of conversations and a lot of openness, there that I think wouldn't have been there before. 

Chris: Hmm, yeah. We, we, it's really interesting because, same with my kids I think we had these conversations around, around race that we've never had before, we've had conversations around politics that we've never had before. And you know I'm in Canada, you're down in the US, I mean we you know we have different contexts, but it doesn't mean that we don't have, you know, similar conversations across the border in Canada recently we just had the situation on Kamloops where there was the discovery of the 215 children who were in an unmarked grave at the residential school 

Lisa: Right

Chris: These are. So, you know, we're both in our context, trying to navigate some of these really big topics. Did you talk about these kinds of things with your kids? 

Lisa: Yeah definitely with my own kids, um, you know, being in middle school in high school, they're kind of old enough to really understand and want to understand and had a lot of questions. And honestly, even I was in a second grade classroom this year, and it was just really interesting because they had an enormous amount of questions as well and, um, it was really, I've always known that kids are just really smart and really curious and innovative in their approach to all things social justice but it just really became more real to me this year when you know we were in kind of such a close experience going through really difficult time. How many questions they had and how much they understood, you know, things with nuance that you wouldn't expect an eight year old to understand so definitely talked about it with all ages. 

Chris: Yeah, in that space like when we, when we talk to our kids or when we talk to young people, what like what were the, what kind of questions were they asking? You know, like I said, like the questions of, you know, second grade kid or would probably than the questions with, you know, ninth or 10th grade kid. So yeah like what kind of things were were coming across as like the pressing questions that they wanted to know? 

Lisa: Yeah. You know I think my son and daughter who are older, they did have a lot of questions about race and how to approach classmates who maybe had different feelings and them or maybe being very vocal about those feelings what the best way was to approach those situations, um, they had a lot of questions like that, and umm with the younger kids, you know, maybe their questions are more general but they're still really interested in. I actually had two little boys in my class come up to me and ask. One is Asian and he wanted to know what the difference between slavery and anti Asian hate was right now with the pandemic and I was just like, that's an eight year old they, they have really deep questions as well so they're really wondering, a lot of things as well. 

Chris: Mhm. Yeah, and like how do you, we’ll get into this a little bit later specifically for parents but as as an educator in that space, how do you know how far to go with the explanations? 

Lisa: I mean, I think in a public school setting you have to be a little bit careful and I think we know our context of the students we have the school I work in has a lot of diversity and economic differences and so we know the families we know their backgrounds, I think a lot of it is relationship knowing you know where they're coming from, um, but also just really focusing on like, honest history and what actually happened I think if you are, you know, being honest about things that happened in the past or things that are happening today that you can't really go wrong because you're telling the truth. 

Chris: Yeah that's powerful, like, I'm just I'm just picturing like having those types of interactions with young people. Yeah, yeah like I with the work that I do, I was just speaking at a church just the other day and I'm thinking man some of the questions that come seemingly out of left field like even like you know some of the international development work that I do with World renew right, trying to expand young people and it's like, you know, they get these questions but when we're talking about more yeah just esoteric kind of, 

Lisa: yeah.

Chris: Things like yeah, they tune in the tune in really quickly. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I want to change gears a little bit because there was a significant event in in the US, January six. The you know this insurrection at the Capitol. I think you know like people all around the world are watching it. And I even remember my son who's turning 17 soon like 17, this week actually and he texted me like dad have you seen what's going on and actually I hadn't. What were you doing with your kids in that space and, And maybe, how did you frame a conversation about what was happening? 

Lisa: Yeah, I think, um, I was picking up my daughter from theatre rehearsal and I was listening to MSNBC so it's kind of unfolding and we drove home and continued listening and then when we get home we did turn on the TV and my husband was working from home and we were kind of all together and we felt like it was really important. Even though we didn't really know exactly what was happening or how it would unfold just at their age we felt like it was really important for them to see it in real time. And to know like this is happening this is going to be part of our history, this is a really, you know, big thing that's happening and we want you to understand it and we want you to form your own thoughts about it with us being there to guide you as you're watching it. 

Chris: And I think like you'd mentioned earlier to like what some of the questions I had, I wrote down divergent viewpoints that's okay like how do kids manage divergent viewpoints like your kids were asking you how do I manage a conversation on race when maybe someone sees the issue differently differently than me? How do you equip a young person to, or what do you say to a young person in that space of like, you know I'm trying to navigate a divergent viewpoint. Like what kind of tips or insights do you give them in here, when you're equipping them to have that conversation? 

Lisa: Yeah, I think it's really hard because, even as adults it's difficult for us. 

Chris: Yeah, totally. Clearly.

Lisa: Yeah, so, you know, expecting kids to do it in a good way, is hard and I think it's important to let them know you know this is not going to be perfect and it can be kind of messy. Um, one thing I would encourage parents, um, from a young age, to just start, you know, making sure that you are teaching that you are exposing, and you're encouraging your kids to engage in these topics because I think it builds on it, and itself and they're able to form their own viewpoints and their own ideas at a very young age so that's super important. And I'm, you know, with my kids as they asked those questions. We really encourage them, you know to be respectful and to listen to other viewpoints, but also to be brave enough to draw a line sometimes especially in in, when kids are not, you know, showing compassion to others and and on issues of race, that it's okay to say and speak up, you know that that's not okay and that we need to be allies in that way. 

Chris: Mmm, yeah. I mean it since we're on the topic like you know the the the capital insurrection like, I think, older kids who are in sort of my kids age bracket they were they were able to process it a little easier but for. I wonder for young kids did you have any interaction with like younger children, second grader types who you know, like, what was their take and what were their concerns? You know what were they tapping into when they're watching this all go down? 

Lisa: Yeah, they, we didn't have a lot of conversation with them about that because we were kind of allowing you know parents to pick or choose what they were going to tell them about that but, um, you know I think just about other broader issues, they'll sometimes you know come with good questions and we just really, especially with the political climate in the United States, you have to really kind of, I think emphasize being respectful of others you pointed out, we all have different ideas about how things work but that we need to show respect to our classmates, and their perspectives.

Chris: When parents are listening to this conversation right now. Umm I think, I think a lot of us, even with older kids, we have this instinct that we want to shield our kids. Yeah, we want to shield them from violence, we want to shield them from injustice. And even like in a particularly Christian environment, you know, uh, you know, people of faith like all my grandmother's you know it's just like you know Christopher whatever is pure, whatever is lovely whatever is, you know, like don't don't look at the bad stuff but but yeah we have this this instinct. Umm but from an educational and from a development perspective. How do you know what kids are ready to engage in? 

Lisa: Yeah, I think you have to look at each kid you know some have sensitive gentle spirits that you do need to be careful about, but I also look at it from the perspective of a lot of families don't have the luxury of not talking to their kids about certain issues. And if you are able to make that choice about when to talk with your kids about certain things, you kind of have a certain amount of privilege in that, and that we need to think about, you know, many kids from a young age need to think about race and think about, you know, how they're going to respond to the police, or their families immigration status or, you know, a lot of kids are experiencing homelessness and hunger from a very young age. And so if we want to step into their shoes and show empathy, our kids need to start understanding that from a young age to and you know when they go out into the world and they are at school they're going to come into contact with some of these things very early on, and having, you know support system of parents or family or grandparents neighbors who are, you know, willing to talk with them and guide them through those things is really powerful, and I think will make more and more of a difference as time goes on. 

Chris: Yeah, I guess too, you know, there's there's, in some cases, we’ll have the luxury of being proactive, as, as conversations happen and in other cases, you know will be more reactive, you know, a child or child or children or kids that we have kind of influencer you know like through church or like, something like that. They might actually drive the conversation. Is there a different, you know, is there a different approach and how deep you would go, based on you know if either if you're being approached or if you're sort of going to drive the conversation like does that change the approach to the conversation? I’m thinking for parents mainly here. 

Lisa: Yeah, I mean I think definitely, you know, if kids are asking an honest question you're going to want to answer them honestly if they're old enough to form that question then they understand and can handle the answer. And, yeah, I think, in general, though if we're driving the conversation, I still really encourage people to be open and honest and do that from a young age because I do think it's important and I think some of the places that we're finding ourselves in today maybe partially could have been helped by having those hard, you know crucial conversations that are easy to just kind of turn away or it's not affecting me so I don't really need to understand it, when really we do if we want to make a difference. 

Chris: Hmm. Yeah. I want to get into something, you know, because there's, there's a question like, like kids can't vote. 

Lisa: Right. 

Chris: You know, and I kind of know the answer of where we're going with this but I think it's important for us to talk about it. But, but the kids can't vote why is it important for them or why would you say it's important for them to understand the political system? 

Lisa: Yeah, I mean I think so important because, you know, as we grow or, you know, as you go through school, your curriculum builds on itself right and so as we're teaching kids we should be building on those things in their understanding so that when they are able to vote they understand what they're doing. They understand history. They understand all these things so that we don't, you know, make the same mistakes we made before. And there's so many things we can do to draw kids into that like they are able to march with us, they're able to advocate and to write to Congressman, and serve and all kinds of different ways, but umm just having that knowledge, when you actually are old enough to vote I think makes a huge difference. Hmm. 

Chris: Yeah, I. It's kind of cool I had a conversation with someone. We were talking about you know why is it important for yeah for kids to sort of know the system and what are some of the ways and she broke it down like, you know, for, for a kid to get into the sphere of justice for you know you think a little person trying to navigate these huge issues, broke it down really simply you know she said, You can be aware. You can care. You can pray, and then all of that comes together. And then you do what you can. And that moves us into sort of the advocacy piece right so advocacy is something that you know we talked a lot about here on the podcast, especially in our partnership with the Office of Social Justice Center for public dialogue and World Renew as well I mean we're, we're always on the, you know, on the edge of, of, of advocacy and getting things out to people so that they know how to respond. What are some ways that kids can get into that advocacy rhythm? How can they advocate? 

Lisa: Yeah, I love that, I think, um, you know they do probably need guidance from family, friends, to, to learn and know those systems but it's just been fun with our not fun but umm interesting with our own family like with my husband's work with World Renew and I'm just like the work that we've done in our community. When we're really open and just sharing with our kids what we're doing. They want to come along, they want to be a part of it. They have their own ideas and their own thoughts and then they just kind of take it from there and I think just working in schools I've seen that with kids too. Umm they want to be a part of things, and there's so many things that they can be involved in even as a young person. 

Chris: Could you like, I'd love to hear a story if you have one kind of ready like is there a, Is there like a highlight for you where the Van Engen family advocacy for has been in full effect and, you know, how did you do that as a family? How did you know how is everybody on the same page and what was it around? I'd love to hear that. 

Lisa: Yeah, I mean I think a couple of things in the last couple years we did some Holland did a black life matters protest, or march, and our kids were really excited to do that and some of the organizers had a really great like you get a name tag and you shared who you were marching for and my daughter was really excited to put her basketball coach from middle school and her sons and, you know, I was able to put my students and it was really neat to like make that personal and also our family has done a lot of work with immigration reform, and umm it's just been really encouraging to see how into it the kids get, and how much they understand and how much they recognize those needs in their classmates now. 

Chris: Yeah. That's awesome. I love that, I love. We have a picture of our family at a similar March last year. And it's just, it's kind of become a rallying point for us as a family like it's like it's a touchstone of like, remember like this is important that we need to do this work together as a household value. 

Lisa: Yeah, yes. 

Chris: Awesome. Hey, Lisa, thanks so much for being with us I just real quick, we're coming up to the end of our time here and I just want to give people an opportunity to sort of track with the work that you're doing, where can they find out more about what you do and where can they get the book, get their hands on the book, I would encourage everyone to do that everyone who, you know, with who as a family, you know if you have young kids if you're a Sunday school teacher if you're a teacher. Yeah, just get the book but where can people track with you and and get their hands on that? 

Lisa: Thank you yeah my website is and from there you can kind of get to my social media I do a lot of encouragement on Instagram for families and umm the book can be found at Amazon or at Kriegel Publishing. 

Chris: Awesome. Lisa thanks so much for joining us uh we really appreciate you and uh yeah we’re just we’re cheering you on and looking forward to continuing to following with you and what you’re doing, God bless. 

Lisa: Yeah, thank you so much.


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