By Keely Savoie
They are people of faith—Catholics, Quakers, Muslims, Jews—and those who want nothing to do with organized religion. They came together for a course to discuss their shared values of social justice and faith, and to answer the course’s eponymous question, Whose Social Justice Is It Anyway?
In a world where religion and faith are increasingly identified with extremism and bigotry, the course was designed by Dean of Students Marcella Runell Hall to examine the role of faith and spirituality in social justice.
“Religion doesn’t always seem compatible with social justice and activism, but a lot of the social-justice leaders we are most familiar with—Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mother Teresa—came to their work from a position of faith,” said Hall.
“There is great power in understanding the spiritual motivations for social-justice work.”
Marrying academic rigor with a respect for the profundity of personal experience and strongly held ethical beliefs, the class pushes students to examine and analyze the work they feel compelled to do, and the motivations that push them toward it.
“One of the most exciting aspects of this class is that each time we meet, we are creating new knowledge,” said Hall. “A class like this allows students to interrogate contradictions in thinking and analyze possibilities for social change in a way that deepens understanding.”
Each class opens with a presentation from a student, which can take the form of a poem, a video, a reading, or even a personal letter. The presentation informs the direction of the class discussion.
A recent class opened with the reading of a poem from When Angels Speak of Love, a collection by author bell hooks.
The conversation that followed turned to the practice of social justice and the need to bring oneself into the work.
“How do we understand our value in the world without being defined or limited by the work we do?” asked Hall. “How do we define the worthiness of human beings without commodifying the services they perform?”
Rather than prompting students to dig for information they have already learned, Hall pushes them to form new connections and to develop innovative analyses.
The conversations themselves are a manifestation of the idea that community building is a collaborative process and must be undertaken with respect and sensitivity to the needs of the members.
“We each bring our own perspective and experience to the discussion,” said Anne Ryan FP’18, a religion major. “We all contribute to the conversation and then something new emerges.”
The course goes beyond the classroom and into the community. Local social-justice organizations, from church-led meal distribution organizations to Christian community houses, have opened their doors to small groups of students to give them an up-close look at the work they do and how they do it.
“The nature of this class makes it a microcosm of what we all want to do on a larger scale. We have built our own community in the process of learning how to create change in the larger world,” said Ryan. “Our conversations have really advanced my thinking about social justice and how it is practiced.
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