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College of Education > News and Publications > 2020: 04-06 news > Social Justice Collaborative tackling today’s tough topics

Social Justice Collaborative tackling today’s tough topics

Penn State faculty members Ashley Patterson and Efraín Marimón, along with Seria Chatters, an adjunct associate professor and director of equity and inclusivity for the State College Area School District (SCASD), and three of the district’s teachers, recently formed what has become known as the Social Justice Collaborative.

Three people in the College of Education with one very similar passion have banded together to help as much of society as possible when it comes to social justice.

Penn State faculty members Ashley Patterson and Efraín Marimón, along with Seria Chatters, an adjunct associate professor and director of equity and inclusivity for the State College Area School District (SCASD), and three of the district’s teachers, recently formed what has become known as the Social Justice Collaborative. It’s a joint effort to create immersive courses and programs about social justice at Penn State and within SCASD.

Social Justice class
Photo: Lily Tian LareginaStudents in the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship course complete an in-class exercise.

“Each of our unique paths brought us for some reason or another to really holding tightly to a social justice-orientated lens for the world and that’s what connects us,” said Patterson, who noted that pieces of the collaborative started coming together in fall 2018. “Part of that is we see the necessity of unity within our diversity, whereas I think in some collaboratives people can start to feel threatened by people having skills that they don’t.

“In the collaborative, each of us celebrates the unique skills the others have. Because we all know we are willing to contribute our skills for the greater good, we can take the ego out of it,” she said.

Patterson, Marimón and Chatters are dedicated and devoted to shifting people from apathy to empathy. The simple definition of social justice is to preserve human dignity for all, particularly those who suffer from systematic disadvantage.

As uncomplicated as that might sound, the road to social justice has been, and still is, constructed of rugged terrain.

Marimón, assistant professor of education and director of the Restorative Justice Initiative and Social Justice Fellowship within the College, strives to see “real” social change.

“And that work is hard,” Marimón said. “I want to see a community that operates fairly, one that’s not focused on incarceration, one that’s focused on humanity … healing … one that’s compassionate, that extends empathy. I want to re-imagine the community that operates with those values. And I know that’s somewhat abstract, but the work is not.”

For the collective, the work entails teaching a Principles of Social Justice (CI185) class as part of a new Social Justice in Education minor in the College of Education, as well as three social justice courses at the middle- and high-school levels within SCASD and the Social Justice Summer Institute as part of a high-school peer advocates program.

Ashley Patterson 2
Photo: Lily Tian LareginaAshley Patterson hands out materials in the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship course.

The new minor in the College will consist of six courses, and six of the 18 credits must be courses that take a student outside of the traditional classroom setting, such as the D.C. Social Justice class, the Philadelphia Urban Education Seminar, the Ecuador Immersion Project or the new Maymester program in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The collaborative also includes SCASD teachers Jackie Saylor, Lori McGarry and Virginia Squier, who instruct classes at the high school and within the school’s Delta Program titled Bridging Divides and Diversity and Social Justice. Patterson said the SCASD administration has expressed interest in adding more sections of the courses. Additionally, Nicole Webster, associate professor of agriculture and extension education and, like Patterson a qualitative researcher, helps secure funding for student trips and other activities under the collaboration umbrella.

Squier accompanied students on a trip she labeled as “life-changing” to Alabama to visit the cities of Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, where they learned about activism.

“For me, the trip was incredibly powerful,” Squier said. “To see, finally, the places about which I had read and seen movies. History was brought to life for me in a way I had never experienced before. What made it even more powerful was the ability to share it with my students ... to have them learn about the history, and then see where it took place.”

The trip can have many more helpful implications, Squier said. “I want my students to learn how to conduct a deep dive on a topic – to understand the historical, cultural and institutional structures that, in this case, allowed racism to grow and fester in this country, and then learn how to identify an issue they care about,” she said.

“I want them to be able to examine that issue deeply, learning the structural supports the issue has, and learn how to engage as an activist on the topic. If I could, I would have administrators and staff also take this trip, so they can be as profoundly moved as I was and as my students were.”

Students who participate in the Social Justice Summer Institute either have completed or are still working on a variety of projects, including:

  • A podcast on the Bridging Divides journey to Alabama;
  • A podcast on bullying in SCASD middle schools;
  • An original short story about coming out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community;
  • A design of professional development for SCASD faculty to raise awareness of equity issues around the observance of religious holidays; and
  • Interviews with students of color in SCASD middle and high schools to inform deliberative conversations around race in school and community forums and with the school Board of Directors, among many others.

Those topics touch on a number of ongoing societal issues and Marimón believes that students should be involved in solving these complex problems.

“We need students to engage in order to have an active citizenry. We’re going to have to confront unpleasant things, disturbing parts of our past — and our current situations. That’s a necessary, important part of our work,” Marimón said.

Efrain Marimon 1
Photo: Lily Tian LareginaFaculty member Efraín Marimón says it’s hard work to achieve social change.

“We need to teach students to be critical of that, to be active in that. Yes, I’m hoping they are more conscious, aware individuals who will work to build a more equitable society — one that values human dignity and restorative justice.”

Chatters, in her role as director of equity and inclusivity within SCASD, is able to gauge younger students’ true feelings because she has heard them, particularly on the bus coming back from the Alabama trip last fall.

“You could hear students chit-chatting with each other and one of the major things was ‘I don’t understand why we haven’t been taught this before. I don’t understand why we did not know this stuff before. Why are we just learning this now?’” Chatters said.

Hearing conversations when students thought no one was listening enabled Chatters to realize how engaged the students are. “A lot of times they are talking about their environment and things they are seeing, or the news. It’s interesting how they’ve turned into more analytical consumers of the news and information around it,” she said.

Some of the community projects in which SCASD students took part were modeled on work that Patterson and Marimón had done with the D.C. Social Justice Project, Patterson said.

“We took a lot of elements from that course in designing the Civic Action Plan component as a part of this class. We don’t believe that work can be called ‘social justice’ if it doesn’t have an action component to it,” Patterson said.

 “It is incredibly important for students who are burgeoning activists and advocates to start local and to think about a range of things they can have a direct impact on.”

SeriaShia Chatters
Seria Chatters

What has materialized among all of the students involved, Patterson said, is good, fruitful, thoughtful discussion.

“You have to also think about the ways you are contributing to and benefiting from a system that oppresses others. That’s uncomfortable,” Patterson said.

“It’s uncomfortable for adults to do, so certainly it’s uncomfortable for students to do … that process of getting students to a point where they understand that you can’t just say ‘well, I’m a good person because I’m progressive.’ How do your actions affect other people?

“I think that’s been a little bit more of a challenge,” Patterson said, “because we’re asking people to think about things they consider to be very normal in a way that makes the normal strange, as it were.

“It’s a challenging process when it feels comfortable to be able to say ‘I’m liberal so I am not a part of the problem.’”

By Jim Carlson (May 2020)