Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum’s Message to Students: ‘You, Too, Can Be a Changemaker’

A new field trip offering spotlights local contemporary history, promotes self-efficacy and urges secondary students to imagine a more equitable future

Three young activists are outside at a protest – looking off into the distance. They all appear to be African American. One is holding a bullhorn and has a determined look on her face. Another is holding the bullhorn’s microphone and speaking into it.
In a 2022 Tufts University poll, 76% of young people aged 18-29 believe their age groups has the power to change things. But just 40% feel qualified to participate in politics. Nathan Dumlao

The idealism and creativity of young people have always fueled social movements. But there are barriers to becoming an active participant in our democracy. Students can’t always understand how their own personalities – introverts, bookworms, caretakers, social butterflies, class clowns – might fit into a fight against injustice. They may not be able to see themselves represented in narratives of changemaking in today’s world. And they may not know where to start.

According to museum educators on the floor, teachers want to guide students into the world of activism but don’t always have the tools to guide students into the world of activism and civic engagement beyond calls to write letters to representatives and get registered to vote. This is where the work and mission of the Anacostia Community Museum has an important role to play.

Beginning in 2021 with the launch of an Education Department-driven exhibition, The Utopia Project: Inspiration for Creative Activism, the museum has begun to look more purposefully at moving students from awareness to action. How do we make it easier for students to imagine themselves taking meaningful steps to create a more equitable world (a call to action straight from the museum’s vision)?  One way to address this is for programs to speak directly to student identities.

An African American young person is moving buttons on an interactive quiz board. The person is wearing a backward baseball cap, a blue fleece pull-over, and black pants.
To help connect students to their abilities as a change-makers, students take a short quiz to find their “Activist Animal” type. Anacostia Community Museum. Smithsonian Institution.

The museum’s newest field trip program asks students to take a short quiz (similar to one you might find on a quirky online platform like BuzzFeed) to identify their “activist animal” or personality type. It’s not a scientific assessment, but it’s a fun way to get students to understand that “activists” are not only the people who like being on stage making passionate speeches (that’s the “peacock” type). It takes all personality and skill types to create change. The quiz assigns each student one of four activist animal types and then, in a dialogue-based tour, allows students to think about how to bring their unique skills to a given problem.

Students take a “BuzzFeed-type” quiz to determine their “activist animal” type. This helps them to see how their unique skills and personality might fit into a social movement. Graphic: Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum

Once students have identified their assets, the next trick is to help them see how those skills are helpful in change-making. After taking the quiz, one teen boy placed a “peacock” sticker on his shirt. I asked him if he had ever gotten a crowd of people emotionally energized. He said “Oh yeah! When I go to baseball games, I’m the one who starts the wave!” I was thoroughly impressed. Getting people to follow your lead like that takes a lot of confidence, right? I asked him to imagine what he could accomplish if he used that superpower to make change for a cause he cared about. I saw that “ah-ha” look on his face and at that moment I knew that connecting identity to action was a good strategy.

The program takes place in a tour format within an exhibition called “To Live and Breathe: Women and Environmental Justice in Washington D.C.” which features dozens of inspirational stories about women of color who have deployed smart and visionary ideas to create healthier communities. For many visitors, it’s stunning to see a life-size photo of activist Rhonda Hamilton, who is fighting for better air quality in Southwest D.C., or of farmer Gail Taylor, who helped make healthy food more accessible in our city by changing urban farming laws.

Full-length photo of three women standing on concrete pavement in what appears to be a construction zone in an industrial area. They are facing the camera, posing for a portrait. From left to right: Alicia Camancho is a white woman with dark, long hair.
We’re not teaching ancient history! Featured in "To Live and Breathe: Women and Environmental Activism" in Washington, D.C.: current-day activists (left to right) Alisha Camacho, Rhonda Hamilton, and Kari Fulton founded Near Buzzard Point Resilient Action Committee, NeRAC, to help neighbors organize. Featured in the exhibition, Anacostia Community Museum: original photo of Alisha, Rhonda, and Kari courtesy of The Washington Post.

These living, working activists are advancing these issues of equity in the present day. It’s not ancient history. And for the 83% of D.C. Public School students who are non-white, seeing people who look like them standing up to injustice (and who are not of the 1960s Civil Rights Era) helps make the content really resonate. But it’s still important to be mindful that putting these stories in a museum can put these leading figures on a sort of pedestal.  As educators, we don’t want change-making to seem unreachable to a young person. 

To bridge this gap between the story and the student, we not only have to help them see how their skills can fit in, but we also have to break down the mechanics of change. How, exactly, did these activists change minds, reform policy, or reverse the outcome of a negative trend? If we do that, students can more easily see how they might apply these principles to their own lives and causes.

A large wall-sized photo mural of Tina Pham in prominently visible in a museum exhibit. Tina is a Vietnamese-American woman with black glasses. She is wearing a white button-down shirt and has her hands on her hips. The photo is taken from the waist up.
"To Live and Breathe: Women and Environmental Activism "in Washington, D.C. features activist Tina Pham who helped create the D.C. Safe Nail Salon Project, which advocated for healthier working conditions for nail salon workers exposed to damaging pollutants. Andrea Jones

Organizer, Tina Pham used her “owl” skills to conduct research on nail salon worker conditions:  getting detailed data on the conditions in the salons, understanding the chemicals that have been shown to produce harmful health effects, and reaching out to like-minded activists around the country for support. Her work helped the salon workers to protect themselves better and to get the health care they needed. We ask students “Who is good at researching things and following their own questions down rabbit holes? Have you ever used those superpowers to help someone?”

Connecting those dots can be powerful.

Since its founding in 1967, our museum has been uniquely positioned to do this kind of work. We’ve always centered the stories of community activists, trailblazers, caretakers, and thought-leaders who fought (and are still fighting) for a more just society – most of them Black and Brown folks who have been left out of mainstream narratives. No matter the exhibition, the content in our gallery is often more relevant to the kids we serve than their dusty textbooks are. But what is crucial for us to do as museum educators is to connect those stories to kids' lives in a meaningful way.

Editor's note: Teachers of grades 5-12 can now reserve the free field trip experience, “Activist Animals Unleashed!: Finding Your Role in the Environmental Justice Movement” with the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum (closing January 7, 2024).