June 5, 2017

Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement in New Zealand

The best teachers are those that are still students at heart, and high school teacher Roydon Agent (Study of the U.S. Institutes for Secondary Educators 2007, International Visitor Leadership Program 2009) is the consummate example of that maxim. Roydon teaches at Alfriston College, a school in a socio-economically depressed area of Auckland that is predominantly Maori (New Zealand’s indigenous population) and Pacific Islander.  Through his experience in the classroom, he has long seen how civil rights and equal treatment under the law can be either key drivers of or impediments to economic mobility.

With the desire to deepen his understanding of civil rights issues, Roydon took part in the Study of the U.S. Institute (SUSI) for Secondary Educators at the University of Illinois Chicago in 2007. While there, he learned about the American Civil Rights Movement and was exposed to counter-narrative renderings of American history. This led him to rethink his teaching approach, and take his students deep into first person accounts of history to hear the voices and experiences of the unassuming, everyday heroes involved in grassroots activism.

He reshaped his history program to include teaching the American Civil Rights Movement as well as other subjects like the Vietnam War, making connections between these events in the United States and the experience of his students in New Zealand.  Since making these changes, Roydon has seen both a marked increase in the number of students taking history at Alfriston College and increased interest in the subject matter.

Then in 2009, two years after his participation in SUSI, Roydon returned to the United States as part of U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).  He visited Memphis, Tennessee; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Washington, D.C. to further deepen his understanding of the American Civil Rights Movement and apply his new knowledge to improve his teaching of history and civil rights in New Zealand.

Since his two exchange program experiences, he has become deeply committed to sharing his U.S. experience with others at home.  Roydon wrote a curriculum textbook for senior high school history students entitled Public Image Private Shame, which is the “go to” book for New Zealand students studying African-American Civil Rights in the United States.  He also writes a quarterly article entitled “Counter-Narrative” that is designed to highlight different interpretations of history and is distributed to New Zealand history teachers nationwide through the New Zealand History Teacher Association. 

In 2016, with the support of the U.S Embassy, Roydon organized a series of student days and educator workshops in Auckland and Christchurch where Dr. Clarence Lusane and Dr. Stan Howard, two prominent African American professors, spoke on current civil rights issues in the United States.  Roydon is currently collaborating with other SUSI and Fulbright alumni to launch a nationwide education program around the history of the American Civil Rights Movement and its parallels in New Zealand.

Roydon has worked tirelessly with students in New Zealand, in particular Maori and Pacific Islander students, to introduce them to African American history, civic participation and civil rights in the United States, the U.S. political process, and freedom of expression.  He draws on the American Civil Rights Movement as a lens to discuss New Zealand’s experience with its minority Maori and Pacific Island students.  He notes, “the opportunity to study as a SUSI scholar in the USA in 2007 has had a huge impact on my life and teaching. In fact, I would say it was one of the most transformational experiences of my life.”

He went on to say, “I was exposed to an alternative counter narrative of African American history that has had a powerful and positive influence on the way I teach this subject in the classroom. It also gave me access to some of the great figures of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Hearing their stories and being exposed to recent scholarship and new trends of interpretation has made me a more relevant and effective teacher.”

Finally, he notes, “The really great thing for me is that the real beneficiaries of my scholarship are my students.  For that, I'll be forever grateful.”

Roydon is a model alumnus.  Having taken part of U.S. Department of State-funded exchange programs, he returned to New Zealand and set about sharing his experience with others by drawing links and parallels between the U.S. and New Zealand—demonstrating the similarities even while highlighting our differences. 

Each month, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ (ECA) Alumni Affairs Division, which supports alumni as they build on their exchange experiences, recognizes one outstanding alumnus or alumna. Roydon Agent is this month’s outstanding alumnus, and his work will be recognized throughout May on the International Exchange Alumni website, ECA’s official website which serves more than one million Department-sponsored exchange alumni worldwide.