Enacting Social Justice in the Music Classroom: Ideas to Consider

Juliet Hess, Michigan State University

As a scholar and music educator, I frequently speak about equity and social justice with teachers and researchers. My work focuses on anti-oppression education with a particular emphasis on anti-racism. As a former elementary and middle school teacher, I continually considered ways to enact an anti-racist curriculum that centered social justice issues in a program that included choir, band, and general music. At the time, I didn’t have a car, which excluded me from any professional development with other music teachers at a time when I desperately wanted to know how other music teachers enacted social justice work in their classes. When I took a leave from teaching to do my doctorate, that question drove my research. For my dissertation, I found four teachers who prioritized anti-racist work in their classrooms and observed each of them over an 8-week period, conducting interviews at the beginning, middle, and conclusion of the observations. I learned a great deal from these teachers about what it means to center social justice in elementary and middle school music. In my current role as a music teacher educator, I am often asked questions about enacting social justice and equity work in the classroom. In this article, I address some of the questions I am asked most frequently in the hopes that my responses may illuminate a path toward engaging in anti-oppressive work in the classroom.


Before getting into the questions I am asked about social justice work, I want to define what I mean by social justice and equity. To define social justice, I draw on Lise Vaugeois’ (2009) definition. She defines social justice as “the work of undoing structures that produce raced and gendered oppressions and systemic poverty as well as the work of challenging discourses that rationalize these structures” (p. 3). I would add to her definition oppressions based on any facet of identity. Vaugeois names race, class, and gender for our consideration. It is also important, however, to consider oppressions rooted in sexuality, disability, religion, age, national status, and beyond. 

To define equity, I position equity in relation to equality. Equality operating in a classroom might mean that all students receive the same resources and treatment. Enacting equity, however, requires that students get what they need, which means that some students may receive more resources than others, depending upon degrees of privilege. The goal of engaging equity is to level the playing field and address the privileges and oppressions that different students experience. Rather than equality being the goal for the distribution of resources, meaningful equality is actually the desired outcome of an unequal (or equitable) allocating of resources.

Centering Social Justice and Equity in Music Class

I now turn to consider some of the questions I am frequently asked about engaging in social justice work in music education. First, I am often asked how social justice can be brought into a music classroom. We sometimes have a habit in music education of viewing music class as apolitical. As Freire (2000/1970) asserts, teaching is a political act. Education is always already political. I think that therefore the question of bringing social justice into the music class is somewhat of a misnomer. Rather, issues of equity and inequity are always present. The key is being able to recognize these issues in our classrooms. There are a couple of ways that we can center issues of equity in music class:

  1. Most importantly, it is crucial to recognize that the students in our classrooms have differential degrees of privilege and access to resources. All of us have identities that place us in both dominant and oppressed groups simultaneously. For example, I am a White, Jewish, middle-class, cisgender woman with an invisible disability. For race and class, I am in the dominant group. My other identities place me in minoritized groups. While “woman” is not the dominant gender category, the fact that I identify as cisgender—my gender identity matches my birth sex—assigns me significant privilege in comparison with trans colleagues. Practically for the music classroom, issues of identity are often connected to socioeconomics, which are connected in other ways to race and disability. In a diverse classroom, it is our responsibility as teachers to understand that some of the students have access to private lessons while others do not. Some students have access to instruments. For other students, that is not a possibility. Other students are counting on that free or reduced lunch in ways that some of their classmates will never comprehend. When considering issues of race and ongoing events of police brutality, it is important to recognize that these events are not distant. Rather, they are lived realities for students who walk home without their hoods in the cold because they’re scared that the violence continually enacted on people who look like they do is waiting around the next corner. All of these students come to our classes. Recognizing that equal treatment of all students is actually not fair or just treatment is a crucial first step. Instead, students with differential degrees of privilege and oppression have different needs. Modeling that recognition actually promotes the work of social justice for the students in our classrooms. Moreover, centering equity work in the classroom when the student population is predominantly White is just as important, if not more important than engaging this work in more diverse spaces. Enacting social justice work with students who have racial privilege creates a space for them to learn about their privilege in the context of considering oppressions and traumas that others have experienced.
  2. We also need to recognize that all music is situated in a sociohistorical sociopolitical context. We don’t need to “bring it in” to music class. It is already present. Centering the context of discussions about music brings issues of global consciousness right into the classroom. To complicate the issue, however, as music teachers, we must recognize that the hierarchy of musics reflects the so-called hierarchy of civilizations. Some musics (e.g. Western classical music) are privileged above others and that relates directly to which populations are considered important. That doesn’t, however, mean to avoid classical music with students. It does mean that when you focus on classical music, you can take the opportunity to explore with the students why that music has come to be the dominant music in music education.

Teaching through a Critical Framework

Second, I am also frequently asked about topics to cover when enacting social justice and equity work in the classroom. Here, I believe it’s more a function of operating within a critical framework than picking particular topics. Issues of justice are present in every music. Within the context of the music, it is possible to have discussions with young children about colonialism, about enslavement, about oppression, marginalization, and beyond, as many musics have those issues embedded in them. Consistently mobilizing an anti-oppressive framework in the classroom allows us to respond when issues come up that are incongruous with social justice work. Amanda, a first-year teacher in my doctoral study, for example, worked to make the context of enslavement felt as she was teaching the musics of enslaved Africans forced to work in the Americas. In the third-grade class discussion, one of the students declared that if he had lived at that time, he wouldn’t have owned slaves. Rather than allowing this student to avoid complicity, Amanda quickly pointed to the economic hardship he would have faced if all of the other plantations enslaved people for labor and he paid for labor. Because Amanda was operating through a critical framework, she was able to challenge that student in the moment. Operating through an anti-oppressive framework provides a way to filter any classroom discussion through a critical orientation.

There are also inclusions and exclusions in any music and looking at musics, particularly for exclusions, can be a very valuable exercise. Lise Vaugeois (2009) created what she calls “musical life histories”—a way to explore and consider the histories and practices of different musics. Vaugeois calls on us, for example, to not only consider who participates in a musical practice, but who doesn’t participate. Who is present and who is absent. She asks about venues used and regulating practices for the music. We are called upon to consider which instruments are used and which are not and who is in the audience (and who is not) for each particular music. Questions like these immediately unearth the justice issues imbedded in any musical practice. Exploring these questions with students allows them to critically interrogate the histories and habits of different musical practices.

It is also important to recognize that we teach people. As such, issues will enter the classroom that do not relate in particular to the subject matter. There are moments in class when the events of the world both personally and more globally need to be the topic for the day. When that occurs, focusing on the issues critically and thinking about injustice and oppression at the center of the discussion can be very the most important thing we can do on a given day.

Enacting Equity through Music

Third, I am often also asked about music activities that may lend themselves well to social justice. I would again reiterate that any music connects to equity and the activity of contextualizing all musics helps situate them in relation to the past and the present. Taking the time away from performance-based music activities to place the music in a context helps students understand that everything they encounter is socially situated. The other possibility is actually creating music in a way that has students speak to the conditions that affect them, as activist-musicians suggested in my book (Hess, 2019). Music can provide a powerful way to “name the world” (Freire, 2000/1970). Students all have issues that concern them and allowing them the space to create music that addresses the issues they care about and that affect them potentially becomes very powerful.

When working with issues of equity, as I noted, maintaining a critical orientation is crucial. Much social justice work that takes place has to do with conversations. The activities that I have seen not work as well are those activities in which the teacher as facilitator did not approach the issues from a critical framework. A more liberal framework might allow the conversations to venture into shades of salvationism or charity, as could have easily happened in Amanda’s classroom in the example above.

How Young is Too Young…

Fourth, I regularly am asked how young is too young to address issues of social justice. I am also asked how you decide if there are issues that are inappropriate for the classroom. Age is certainly a factor when enacting social justice work. By the same token, young children can have experiences of oppression in ways that their teacher never has. It is possible to talk about very serious and important issues with young children, but it is also important to keep a balance. Many of these issues are issues of trauma, so as teachers/facilitators if we don’t keep that in mind, we risk retraumatizing or traumatizing and we need to be prepared that the possibility is there. To not acknowledge these issues, however, is to underserve our population and that non-recognition is also a trauma. It is a delicate balance. Music itself provides a way to address these issues without making them overwhelming. As music educators, we have the opportunity to go back and forth between the music and the context, balancing discussions of traumatic and oppressive experiences with music-making.


Ultimately, teaching critically is doing the work toward a more just world. When we do equity work as music educators, we understand that the world is profoundly unequal. In the classroom, we may have a slim possibility of doing work that levels the playing field within our classroom space. Modeling equity work for the next generation, however, could potentially have profound effects. When children and youth learn through music about equity and about the humanity of others, they may aim to reflect these values in their own lives. Engaging in social justice work and anti-racism models a different possible future for students—a future which would better serve all individuals and groups if it comes to be.


Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (2nd ed.). Routledge. 

Freire, P. (2000/1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed: 30th anniversary edition (M. Bergman Ramos, Trans.). Continuum. 

Hess, J. (2013). Radical musicking: Challenging dominant paradigms in elementary music education [Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto]. Toronto. https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/43593

Hess, J. (2019). Music education for social change: Constructing an activist music education. Routledge. 

Vaugeois, L. (2009). Music as a practice of social justice. In E. Gould, J. Countryman, C. Morton, & L. Stewart Rose (Eds.), Exploring social justice: How music education might matter (pp. 2-22). Canadian Music Educators’ Association. 

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