On Saturday, Feb. 23, the fifth annual Social Justice Leadership Conference took place at 41 Wyllys Ave. First organized by Associate Director of Student Activities and Leadership Development Elisa Cardona and the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) in 2008, the conference is a community-based initiative that brings students, staff, faculty, and Middletown residents together to lead sessions on social justice and improve their leadership skills.
Event coordination was based out of the Office of Student Activities and Leadership Development (SALD). The planning committee was comprised of students and Dean Marina Melendez.
“We chose the theme ‘Building Bridges: Connecting Communities Across Difference’ because most people agreed that the idea of allyship was something that we should focus on,” said SALD Leadership Intern Winston Soh ’14.
The sessions focused on leadership skills that could be applied to any social movement. One hundred individuals, mostly students, registered for the conference.
“I think if there’s a way to get even more students, faculty, and staff to attend, that would be great,” said participant Catherine MacLean ’14. “This is such a unique opportunity that Wesleyan and SALD provide, and it would be great to see more people participate.”
The conference began with an 11 a.m. brunch, during which keynote speaker and former Medical Director of the Davison Health Center P. Davis Smith spoke about the role he played in establishing a sexual health clinic that was non-discriminatory to gender identity. After leaving the University, Smith went on to start a practice that focused on serving transgendered patients.
“We thought that as someone that people personally knew and could relate to, [Smith] was great for the conference,” Soh said.
Syed Ali ’13, a participant at the conference, commented on Smith’s speech.
“The keynote speaker, P. Davis Smith, had a powerful message,” Ali said. “The application of allyship in his career was intriguing and inspirational. Smith’s message resonated in terms of quotidian life, practical steps, and social entrepreneurship.”
The rest of the day consisted of three 50-minute block sessions, during which a different presenter spoke at each session. A variety of student group members spoke during session blocks one and two. These included Dwight Greene Intern for Community Engagement and Discussion Christian Hosam ’15, Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) Intern Rachel Verner ’15, Queer Resource Center (QRC) Intern Kathryn Thompson ’15, Wesleyan Diversity Education Facilitators (WesDEF), President of Economie Dance Kehan Zhou ’15, and a representative from Wesleyan Students for Disability Rights.
Topics ranged from how to construct racial bridges through literature to Zhou’s presentation on how to use dance to fight for social justice.
The third block included a performance by Rebecca Wyzan ’15 from MIX and two talks by Office of Residential Life Area Coordinator Daniel LaBonte and Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and University Jewish Chaplain Rabbi David Leipziger-Teva.
The conference also included a “Reflection and Wrap-Up” session toward the end of the day.
“My favorite event was the closing session,” Ali said. “For the very last activity, we all stood in a circle and threw around a colorful ball of yarn. Every person named an action they would take in light of the conference. It was reassuring to see that not only had the conference been a learning experience for so many, but that it could potentially result in tangible changes. At the end, we had a beautiful web of yarn connecting all of us—a physical representation of our community.”