Fourth Annual Social Justice Leadership Conference Returns to Campus
The Fourth Annual Social Justice Leadership Conference (SJLC) took place Saturday, April 21 in the Usdan University Center (Usdan). It was sponsored by the 2014 Class Council, the Office of Student Activities and Leadership Development (SALD), the Wesleyan Student Assembly, and Usdan.
The goal of the SJLC is to act as a venue for different students, student groups, faculty and staff, alumni, and community members to discuss social justice and build leadership abilities. When Associate Director of SALD Elisa Del Valle began working at the University, she wanted to help create a space where a variety of perspectives were able to come together to discuss important issues in social justice.
“When I got here, I realized that there were lots of students in small pockets talking about social justice,” Del Valle said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we just blended [existing conferences and diversity days] into a new Social Justice Leadership Conference?’”
The conference began with an address from Keynote speaker Mark Masselli. Maselli founded Middletown’s Community Health Center (CHC) as a free clinic in 1972 and has built a network of CHCs across Connecticut to help with many other public health initiatives.
“It was inspiring to hear somebody who is like-minded, and someone who translated activism on a very local scale to something broader and something sustainable,” said presenter Mariama Eversley ’14.
Session leaders facilitated 45-minute discussions on social movements, forms of injustice, and methods of leadership. Each of the three time blocks offered a number of forums from which attendees could choose.
“The other forums were a lot more discussion-based [than mine],” said presenter Alyssa Bonneau ’14. “It was interesting to have that type of free-form session, where what you took away from them was dependent on what you contributed.”
The forums during each session block offered a unique take on an issue of social injustice. The first block featured three forums: “Radical Accessibility,” which concentrated on different models of disability and ablest prejudices present on college campuses; “How to be a Good Trans* Ally,” which strategized ways to be more supportive of trans* friends; and “Teacher and Training Accountability,” which featured a panel of speakers from Teach for America and other teaching programs discussing various methods of teacher training and its impact on helping students.
“Education has been the hot topic [at the Conference],” Del Valle said. “There is a lot going on with education in the world, and it’s exciting to see our students talk about those things.”
The second block of sessions featured three new topics. The first, “Educational Markets, Testing and Accountability in Comparative Perspective,” examined and critiqued the perceived importance of testing for school quality and student achievement. Another forum, titled “Religious Impact on 2012 Election,” outlined problems present in the politicization of religion. A third discussion, called “WesDEF Presents: Conflict Resolution within Activism” was facilitated by Eversley and focused on ways for different activist groups on campus to discuss conflict resolution.
“They could use dialogue as a form of activism to address the same issue,” Eversley said. “We thought it would be a good tool for Wesleyan students to strengthen activism on campus and help them to work together.”
Four different sessions presented in the final block. An alumni-hosted forum called “Considering Opportunity–Confronting Racial Segregation in 2012” strategized ways to connect historically isolated groups to better opportunities. Another forum, titled “Self-Care as a Radical Technique in Queer Community Organizing,” featured a discussion and workshop about queer organizing, focusing on ways in which self-care could empower oppressed individuals. The last two sections focused on education: the first, called “Connecticut Education Reform,” featured Patrick Riccards, the CEO of ConnCAN, while Bonneau presented “Failing Schools and Violent Neighborhoods: Intersecting Problems and Solutions,” which featured a case study of Chicago public schools.
“I thought that this would be an interesting angle to look at because it’s something we haven’t really talked about in other forums,” Bonneau said. “On a more personal note, growing up in Chicago, I’ve seen how [violence in schools] is a big issue that people don’t really talk about as much, and it’s a huge social justice problem.”
The Conference ended with a wrap-up and reflection session. Students were encouraged to determine what tools were needed for a person to become a successful ally in advocating for social justice. According to Del Valle, good allies commit to fighting oppression because it affects everyone, even though not every issue they may take on affects them directly.
“For me, the important thing about being an ally is understanding that the work can’t be done by one person alone,” Del Valle said. “So while I believe that one student can make a difference, I’m cognizant that it will take a movement of people to really create change.”
Del Valle hopes to continue hosting the SJLC next year. For her, if even one student discovers a new way to advocate for social justice, the conference was successful. She also believes that the conference is a way for different students to meet and discuss issues.
“[They] have the opportunity to all be in one space, and talk about things they love,” Del Valle said. “Being able to provide a space for students to talk about what they love, [and a space] where they can create social change together is really important.”