Zaheer Ali Shares Expertise on Successfully Teaching & Programming Social Justice

  • Academics
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Zaheer Ali Shares Expertise on Successfully Teaching & Programming Social Justice

Zaheer Ali presented Lawrenceville’s Hutchins Institute for Social Justice as a case study for teaching and programming social justice in secondary education last month at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) annual conference. Established in 2021, the Hutchins Institute for Social Justice is an innovation in secondary education advancing social justice through scholarship, programming, and experiential learning.

As the Hutchins Institute’s inaugural executive director, Ali is responsible for designing, developing, and directing its programming. His NAIS talk, he said, was “an opportunity to showcase the work that we've done and also offer some takeaways, helpful guiding questions, and suggestions for other schools that are interested in doing this kind of work, or who are already doing so.”

At the Hutchins Institute, Ali explained, “We are not teaching kids what to think. We are not teaching kids what issues to identify with. We're teaching them the history of social justice, but more importantly, we're teaching them how to apply their study of history as a way to encounter the world, as a way of analyzing the world, and as a way of understanding the world for the purpose of deciding who they want to be.”

For those interested in replicating the success of the Hutchins Institute, it is key, he said, to frame the work of social justice as an academic enterprise grounded in the school’s mission. “I can’t emphasize that more strongly, especially given the climate where social justice work is highly politicized and has been a source of great division in our country and in our schools, and against a backlash nationally in terms of how social justice is to be taught in high schools,” Ali said. “In order to effectively respond to the ways social justice has been politicized, it must be situated, framed, and actually executed first and foremost as an academic study.”

Initiatives should be organized into three areas. “Social justice as a subject of study answers the question, what is social justice? Social justice as a method of analysis is how we encounter the world through a social justice lens. Social justice as an ethics of practice is how we apply our social justice studies in the ways we show up in the world.” Ali explained. Schools interested in doing this kind of work must make an institutional investment, he said, which can come in the form of a dedicated budget, a central location in terms of place, department status, and protected time to do the necessary work.

While resources determine scale, they should not limit creativity. “Is there a social justice class you might introduce? A unit you can add to a class you already have? What are your existing diversity programs and how might you imagine or reimagine those programs so they lend themselves to this approach to social justice?” Ali asked workshop attendees. It’s also important to identify collaborative partners and identify programs that possibly overlap or are adjacent to the work that is already being done within the school’s mission. “Those are all things that you have to do regardless of how much resources you have. And if you have resources and you don't do those things, you are setting yourself up for a really challenging implementation, and probably failure,” he said.

Ali was pleased with the turnout for his session, which included his Lawrenceville colleagues Doug Davis (Assistant Dean of Students), Marquis Scott (Assistant Head of School), and Jason VonWachenfeldt (Assistant Dean of Faculty).

“There were people who came up to me from other schools who said how much they appreciated what I shared,” he said. “At least a couple of people wanted to get in touch with me to learn more about the work that we're doing, to possibly invite me to present at their school on the work that we're doing.”

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