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Participants given tools to fight for social justice in virtual townhall

July 21, 2020

Covering everything from the history of protest and racism in America to how to get involved and sustain a cause, a Social Justice Workshop & Townhall Virtual Series aims to create change agents.

And that’s exactly what it’s doing, organizers say.

“We’re excited about it,” said Jocelyn Santana, director of Social Justice Education for Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “With everything that’s been happening in society in terms of the George Floyd situation and civil unrest, we’re trying to make sure we are providing students and staff and faculty with the tools necessary to be able to navigate and have the resources and the knowledge to take action.”

A collaborative effort between ADEI, Undocumented Student Support and the Center for Black Studies, the four-part series began July 8 and continues with “Organizing with a Purpose” from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on July 22.

“How to be an Ally/Accomplice” will take place from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on July 29. Each virtual program features expert panels of student leaders and community members dedicated to social justice.

“Knowledge is Power,” the first in the series, focused on the historical aspect of racism and why history matters today. That was followed by “Know Your Rights,” an exploration of laws that affect predominantly vulnerable populations, legal terminology and bystander training intervention practices.

The topics are extremely relevant today, Santana said.

“We want to make sure we’re being not just responsive or just in tune to what’s happening in society, but being proactive,” she said.

Drawing anywhere from 100 to 200 people, the series has been a success so far, said Jane Pappas, assistant director of Social Justice Education. Those who participate are encouraged to ask questions and have an open dialogue with panelists.

“We’re really trying to use this as a space for folks to engage in these conversations,” Pappas said. “We want people to get what they want and need out of it, to be ready to dive into doing the work.”

The townhall format makes the series a collective effort, said Sandy Lopez, coordinator for Undocumented Student Support. And that effort reminds her of an Audre Lorde quote in her office: “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

Those who participate can enhance their critical thinking and analytical skills necessary to understand both oppression and oppressive systems, she said.

“My hope is this series will strengthen their ability to develop their sense of agency as well as their capacity to interrupt and change oppressive systems or policies at the individual, collective and institutional levels,” she said.

Moderator for several of the programs, Mark Schuller, a professor for Anthropology and the Center for Nonprofit and NGO Studies, said being involved is an obligation.

“As Catherine Pugh said, ‘There is no such thing as a ‘white ally.’ We’re not ‘helping’ people of color to clean up the mess we created. Ending racism is all of our responsibility,” Schuller said. “The work we have before us as a campus community, as a society, and as a generation is clear as it is urgent. But it won’t happen in a day. This four-part series is only a first step, but it is an important first step.”

Schuller also is involved in POWER , People’s Organizing WeekEnd Retreat, a collective of social justice oriented staff, faculty and administrators organizing since 2017 and planning to host a series of conversations this fall. The purpose of POWER is to empower student activists, who have previous experience planning and/or participating in activities centered on the tenets of social justice, and enhance their tool kits for the purpose of community organizing.

Programs like POWER and the social justice series offer necessary tools for the NIU community to critically engage the current moment.

“It’s an on-ramp to activism, needed to sustain change over the long haul,” Schuller said of the series. “NIU is an integral part of the community, and both part of the problem and part of the solution to institutional racism.”