Ordinary Citizens Catalyzing Change: A ‘People’s History’ of 2013

By Katy Swalwell
This year has been full of examples of people making history. Although newspapers and textbooks often focus on political and military leaders, the real story was with “ordinary people” in the streets who challenged injustice and worked for “good.”

At the Zinn Education Project, our goal is to help teachers introduce these stories from a people’s perspective. Teaching outside of the textbook and the mainstream news helps students see the roles they can play in making the world a better place.

Here are 12 milestone events from 2013 with examples of resources we use to think about and teach the people’s history.

January: Political Representation
A record number of women and people of color took seats in the U.S. Congress. House Democrats became the first caucus without a majority of white men, Senator Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay senator, and Representative Tulsi Gabbard and Senator Mazie Hirono became the first Buddhist and Hindu members. In municipal elections, Seattle’s Kshama Sawant, the city’s first elected Socialist since 1916, won a City Council seat and the first biracial family will be residents of Gracie Mansion with the victory of New York City Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio. Popular lessons on the Zinn Education Project website about expanding representation in government include role plays about the Seneca Falls Convention, examining issues of race and class in the fight for women’s rights, and the Constitutional Convention, including poor farmers, workers, and enslaved African Americans.

February (and all year long): Climate Change
Several domestic and international reports (National Research Council, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, International Energy Agency, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Council) warned of drastic climate changes demanding our immediate attention. The Zinn Education Project’s “If We Knew Our History” column “The Poison We Never Talk About in School,” emphasized that burning coal produces more climate-altering carbon dioxide than any other single source, yet is rarely mentioned in textbooks. Such dire warnings should not cause despair—there are many lessons from historical struggles like the abolition movement to give us hope and strategies for changing course.

March: 10th Anniversary of the Iraq War
Though it received little national attention, March 19, 2013 marked the 10th anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Low estimates for those killed hover around 110,000; others estimate closer to 1 million. Bill Bigelow offered ideas for how not to teach about the Iraq War as well as an article on the 30th anniversary of another invasion, the “lovely little war” in Grenada.

April: Marriage Equality
The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government must recognize marriages between homosexuals (United States v. Windsor) and upheld gay marriage in California  (Hollingsworth v. Perry). By the end of 2013, six more states had expanded marriage equality. The New York Collective of Radical Educators offers a guide for teachers called Beyond Tolerance: A Resource Guide for Addressing LGTBQI Issues in Schools. New Day Films’ documentary It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School and its sequel are also incredible resources for teachers addressing LGBTQ issues with young children.

May: Resistance to Standardized Testing
After months of test boycotts and related protests in Seattle, teachers, students, and parents won a historic victory in their campaign against math and reading standardized assessments. Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian recounts their experiences here. Teachers can address these issues with a Rethinking Schools role play on the origins of standardized testing in the modern high school as well as an activity about how schools challenge and reinforce social class distinctions.

June: Edward Snowden Releases NSA Documents
The Guardian began to publish documents related to the U.S. government’s surveillance practices disclosed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. With the 2013 conviction of Chelsea Manning for releasing classified documents to Wikileaks, whistleblowers were in the news. Democracy Now! covers the story, Americans Who Tell the Truth has portraits of Manning and Snowden, and the Zinn Education Project hosts “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” a teaching guide about Daniel Ellsberg, the Vietnam War, and the Pentagon Papers.

July: A People’s History Under Attack
The Associated Press revealed that former Indiana Governor and current Purdue University president Mitch Daniels tried to ban any text by Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, from public schools and teacher education programs. Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that he wrote: “Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?” Zinn Education Project co-director Bill Bigelow helped bring this story to national attention with his article “Indiana’s Anti-Howard Zinn Witch-Hunt.” Ironically, the Green Feather Movement began in Indiana 60 years ago to protest the banning of Robin Hood books from schools.

August: 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington
For the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the corporate media focused on Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. As labor activist Bill Fletcher Jr. noted in his article, Claiming and Teaching the 1963 March on Washington, “there is one constituency that can legitimately claim the legacy of the march—one that has been eclipsed in both history as well as in much of the lead-up to the August 2013 commemorations: black labor.” Teacher/author Linda Christensen examined how events before 1963 help us better understand the Civil Rights Movement and modern inequality in her article “Burning Tulsa: The Legacy of Black Dispossession.”

September: Immigration Reform
The promising outlook for immigration reform this fall disintegrated as Congress headed for a shut-down. In the final weeks of 2013, however, fasting protesters and immigrant rights advocates generated renewed hope for legislation. The Zinn Education Project’s resources about 1912’s Bread and Roses Strike provide an important historical context for modern debates about immigration and labor like the Campaign for Fair Food or recent strikes against low wages in the fast food industry.

October: NFL Mascot Controversy
Team owner Dan Snyder faced increased pressure to retire the racist “Redskins” name. As part of the “Change the Mascot” campaign, Oneida Nation representative and CEO Ray Halbritter led 1,000 people in protests outside of the Vikings’ stadium. Check out the coverage on DemocracyNow!, Debbie Reese’s essay “President Obama, Mascots, Children’s Literature, and American Indians,” sports historian Dave Zirin’s blog post in The Nation, and D.C. teacher Julian Hipkins’ StoryCorps interview about the controversy.

November: Drone Strikes
United States drone attacks continue with the killing of Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud despite high numbers of civilian deaths. The Zinn Education Project provides lessons that help students examine the definition of terrorism and the historical roots of the “War on Terror.”

December: The Death of Nelson Mandela
When South Africa’s Nelson Mandela passed away, many eulogized him as a non-violent democratic hero and focused on his remarkable reconciliation efforts after legal apartheid ended. Op-ed columnist Bob Herbert noted, “When giants like Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King are stripped of their revolutionary essence and remade as sentimental stick figures to be gushed over by all and sundry, the atrocities that sparked their fury and led to their commitment can be overlooked, left safely behind, even imagined never to have occurred.” DemocracyNow! covers Mandela’s life and “Strangers in Their Own Country” has classroom lessons on South Africa’s apartheid history.


Though it did not make national news, the Zinn Education Project celebrated its fifth anniversary in 2013 with more than 34,000 registered teachers. These educators reach more than a million students every year. For more information or to show your support for this work, please visit our website.


—-Katy Swalwell is an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of Educating Activist Allies: Social Justice Pedagogy with the Suburban and Urban Elite (Routledge, 2013) and a research fellow at the Zinn Education Project.

This article first published at GOOD magazine.

Image Descriptions:
  • Retro fist image via Shutterstock
  • January image of Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative council member-elect of Seattle
  • March image of Marines in Saddam’s Palace via Wikimedia Commons
  • May image of Jesse Hagopian at Garfield High School teacher rally
  • July image of Howard Zinn at NCSS 2008 by Steve Puppe
  • August image of March on Washington via the Walter P. Reuther Library
  • October image via Dawn of Nations/U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs
  • November image of Edward Snowden by Robert Shetterly, Americans Who Tell the Truth
  • December image of Mandela burning pass book, 1960.