captive killer whales performingAs we near July 4 here in the U.S., our thoughts often turn to freedom (when we’re not thinking about fireworks, BBQs, and summer fun). We’re grateful for the freedom we have. What we often don’t consider, though, are the ways in which we relinquish our freedom, and the ways in which we’re complicit in taking away the freedom of others.

One of our humane education activities, Free at Last?, uses visuals of everyday things around us to help students explore freedom and oppression. Although this activity is designed for students in middle grades, the concept can be expanded to older students and adults, as well. These are conversations we can be having in our classrooms, workplaces, and anywhere we gather.

The idea is to use images such as:

  • an animal at the zoo
  • a carriage horse
  • a television set
  • an SUV
  • a mall
  • a person on a motorcycle
  • an airplane
  • a July 4 picnic
  • Shamu the whale
  • grocery shelves full of different brands of the same product
  • a smartphone
  • a fur coat
  • a soccer ball
  • coffee
  • a piece of diamond jewelry
  • bottled water
  • protesters
  • soda
  • child soldiers
  • a mother with children
  • a father with children

and to consider ways that image shows freedom, and ways that it doesn’t. The conversation gets especially interesting when we dig deeper into the reality behind many of these images (such as that a smartphone might feel freeing to many in its portability, access and diversity, but it also ties us to 24/7 communication and distractions, and hides the oppression of people and animals, and the destruction of the planet).

Exploring these images leads to reflecting on important questions about freedom and oppression, such as:

  • What is freedom?
  • Who should have freedom? (Include nonhuman animals in this circle of concern.)
  • What boundaries should there be regarding freedom?
  • What is oppression?
  • Who gets oppressed? Why? (Include nonhuman animals in this circle of concern.)
  • Can things affect our level of freedom? (iPhones, SUVs, fashion, access to food, access to education, etc.)
  • What else can affect our freedom, and how much control do we have over what affects our freedom?
  • How might we oppress others?
  • How can we make choices that don’t oppress others?

Many of the everyday and traditional activities we engage in — eating burgers & hotdogs, setting off fireworks, driving around — cause harm to ourselves and others, and we’re often not even aware, because it’s such a “normal” part of mainstream culture. We don’t think, for example, about the cruelty and suffering those animals on our plates endured, or how the fireworks were probably made using child slavery and contain toxic chemicals that disperse into the environment and are scary and detrimental to wildlife (and our animal companions).

Diving deeper into issues like freedom and oppression, and how we contribute to both, helps us more closely align our actions with our values and to work toward creating a just, compassionate, healthy world for all.

Download the complete activity.

Check out our Resource Center for other useful resources about freedom and oppression.