Reflections on Social Justice Projects

with Fifth Graders
“They are all God’s kids like us”

Child Labor:

A group of fifth graders and their teacher were studying the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, which calls Catholics to act for justice. The fifth graders answered that call.

Anne worked with them in researching a tremendous injustice, child labor. They learned of their peers laboring in dangerous conditions of:

  • fireworks factories
  • brick making
  • sweatshops
  • agricultural work
  • carpet making
  • domestic servants
  • child soldiers
  • diamond mining
  • garbage workers

The implications for these children became clear: some of their peers are denied education, family love, adequate nutrition, and other aspects of a healthy childhood. The fifth graders understood the causes of these injustices but they did not accept them. Many expressed anger.

“Kids are dehumanized by this! They are all God’s kids, like us. They deserve good and safe lives too!” one child said.

One of the girls summed up the situation, “Adults are mistreating kids—this is not just kids being mean to each other. Adults are supposed to be protecting and loving children! Because of child labor, these kids are hurt spiritually, mentally and physically!”

There was also sadness, for the fifth graders came to see those suffering as their sisters and brothers. “Humans are sacred. How can people treat a sacred person like dirt?” one boy asked.

They were ready to act. The students worked hard to set up displays for a child labor education fair. Parents, siblings and grandparents attended this.

The displays were wonderfully creative and commanding of people’s attentions:

  • Styrofoam tombstones taught about the tragedy of child soldiers.
  • Papier mache cocoa pods helped show the exhausting process of cocoa production, and participants were offered samples of Fair Trade chocolate, which is produced without child laborers.
  • Posters hung on clotheslines taught how the use of children in domestic labor violates Catholic Social Teaching.
  • Participants could lift a bag with bricks to understand the physical demands put on children who must make bricks.

These and other displays were staffed by knowledgeable fifth graders. Guests (siblings, parents and grandparents) stopped to talk and learn.

After that exhilarating evening, the class did not want to stop there. With the help of several talented volunteers, the fifth graders put on a short theatrical production. It was designed to teach others about child labor. In doing this, the students then learned about theater techniques and practices. This became a powerful tool to reach many other people. After the last performance, a first grader in the audience commented, “Some kids work and only make 37 cents a day!” Younger siblings of the performers began expressing concern over the choices made in family purchases, wanting to avoid products made by children.

The injustice of child labor still exits around the world, but the work of ending it has been enhanced by a group of fifth graders and all those they influence.


Anne worked with another fifth grade group on the issue of hunger. Together they learned that 24,000 people die every single day of hunger-related causes, that twelve million American families experience hunger, 380,000 Minnesotans are at risk of hunger, and that families in their hometown need 1000 pounds of food each day from the local food shelf.

First, they explored the proverb, ‘if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day; if you give him a fishing pole, he eats for a lifetime.’

  • Giving food to the food shelf was like the fish in the proverb. This was good and it was ‘charity.’
  • They learned about organizations like Heifer International, which provide people with tools, skills and livestock. This work is like the fish pole, and this is ‘justice.’

It is important to do both, but they needed others to work with them. The fifth graders put on a presentation Anne wrote, complete with a skit, hunger statistics, a demonstration on the inequality of food distribution in the world, and a hunger rap song written by the students. They presented this program to the rest of their schoolmates, asking them to collect food for the food shelf and money for Heifer International. Each day they collected and weighed canned foods and added up monetary contributions. Then they announced these amounts over the school PA system.

At the end of the drive, they took pride in how well they had met their responsibility towards their peers who are hungry: they raised $381 for justice and 353 pounds of food for charity. And, they had the confidence to konw they could face a large problem and work creatively to contribute to a solution.