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Social Justice Series Invites Essential Dialogue and Action

Kelly Slonaker

This winter, Canterbury launched a six-week Social Justice Series that brought students, faculty, staff, and members of the local community together for seminars and educational events. The series kicked off on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day with the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge, which was facilitated by the D’Amour Center for Faith, Service & Justice and modeled after a program developed several years ago by diversity educator Dr. Eddie Moore Jr. Students and faculty were able to participate virtually in the challenge, which created dedicated time and space for members of our community to listen, learn, and reflect; to deepen their understanding of racial equity; and to inspire actions that will fulfill Dr. King’s vision for a more just and equitable world. 

Eleven seminars were offered throughout the six weeks that covered a broad range of social justice topics, each of them inviting open and honest discussion and encouraging continued engagement. Director of the D’Amour Center Tracy Garcia-LaVigne noted, “The Social Justice Series has grown into an increasingly collaborative approach, creating space for the community to come together to engage in dialogue and further education on a wide range of social justice topics. Participation was active and engaged throughout the entire six-week series, flowing over into classroom discussions and spaces in between.” 

The series began on Tuesday, January 26, with the seminar “The Impact of Systemic Racism on Public Health and Health Care: How a History of Medical Injustice Has Impacted 2020-21,” hosted by Head of School Rachel Stone. The seminar was "bookended" by a discussion of the 1932-1972 Tuskegee Study and exploration of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans and included a review of data to illustrate the present-day disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. The second seminar of that week, “An Investigation: How Capturing History Requires More Than a Conversation,” was hosted by English Department Chair Lindsay Mulhern and History Department member, Stephen Hewston. Students analyzed some of the imagery that came out of the January 6, 2021, insurrection on the Capitol and its significance in a historical context.     

The following week’s sessions included an interactive seminar where students were invited to create “vision boards” by cutting out words and pictures from magazines to create visual representations of the ways they wish to contribute to a more just and equitable world. Students also attended a seminar hosted by the Canterbury Gender-Sexuality Alliance titled “Part of the Team: How Transgender Athletes Find Their Place in High School, Collegiate, and Elite Sports.” Students were able to learn and discuss issues that members of the LGBTQ+ community face when participating in team sports that are strictly divided by gender and considered how to make sports and teams more welcoming.

Week three’s seminars began with an interactive panel discussion hosted by Women of Canterbury; its student members invited women on campus to share threads of their stories, strengths, and aspirations as they navigate the 21st century. Faculty members on the panel included Assistant Dean of Students Ej Soifersmith; Director of Health Services Colleen Cook, RN ’02; science teacher Cammy Roffe; Director of Theater Sarah Armstrong; Director of the D’Amour Center for Faith, Service & Justice Tracy Garcia-LaVigne; Chair of the Visual and Performing Arts Department Kim Tester; science teacher Bryce Wallis; Associate Director of Admission Gillian Ritter; Director of Campus Ministry Devon McCormick; and English teacher Dr. Julia Clarke. The second seminar of the week, “Defining the Cultural Self,” was hosted by the International Student Association. Students were asked to contemplate their own cultural identities and identify where they have access to privileges or encounter barriers within their communities. Students also reflected on how cultural stereotypes are carried and perpetuated as one moves between cultures.

In week four of the series, Spanish teacher Julio Omaña, Jesuit Volunteer Corps guest speakers Mary LaVigne ‘16 and Anthony Mejia, theology teacher Amy Omaña, and Abby Omaña ’20, led a session on “Issues in Immigration at the U.S. Border with Mexico.” During the interactive seminar, participants learned more about the multiple layers of issues at the border through the shared stories of the Omañas' service engagement with border agencies. The family discussed experiences and takeaways from their personal pilgrimages to the border, followed by an exploration of the mission and work of several organizations engaged in immigration and refugee services. Mary and Anthony spoke about their respective work as a Compañera/Advocate with Taller de Jose and a Legal Administrative Assistant at Erie Neighborhood House in Chicago. Students were encouraged to ask questions and share their findings with each other. The second seminar of the week was hosted by the Sustainability Club. “Environmental and Social Justice of Climate Change” examined what “climate change” really means, the science and evidence behind it, how it disproportionately affects developing countries and people of color, and what our individual and collective roles are in climate change and working towards a just solution. 

The following week’s seminars included “Student-Led Conversations on Identity and Inclusion” hosted by the Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Student Leadership team and “B Corporations: Buying with Purpose” hosted by the Business Club. In “Student-Led Conversations on Identity and Inclusion,” student leaders involved in equity and inclusion conversations around campus facilitated DEI-based exercises and activities that they learned at the National Student Diversity Leadership Conference held in December 2020 and other equity forums. “B Corporations: Buying with Purpose” explored the questions, “how can you become a more informed buyer and use your dollar to benefit the world?” and “what kinds of companies give back?” Participants learned more about type B Corporations, which are business models that use the power of the marketplace and their sales to help solve social and environmental problems. 

The Social Justice Series will continue after the March break with another interactive panel, this time hosted by Canterbury’s Interfaith Council: “Exploring Differences and Similarities: An Interfaith Panel.” Canterbury’s Director of Campus Ministry Devon McCormick will be joined by her friends and colleagues, Imam Gazi Aga and Rabbi Marcelo Kormis, who serve as Chaplains at Sacred Heart University and lead their own religious communities. Together, they will discuss the similarities and relationships between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism and answer questions from students, faculty, and staff. 

The Social Justice Series has invited new perspectives, opened up powerful discussions, and emphasized the importance of pursuing action and change to promote equity and justice, on and off the hilltop. Though the series is coming to its conclusion, it kicks off numerous other workshops, presentations, and service opportunities throughout the year that will address social justice topics. “The series programming will continue after the Saints Six-Week Stretch and into the future with regularly scheduled offerings,” Tracy LaVigne shared. “Holding the space for meaningful dialogue is essential in building greater awareness of the complexity of social issues.”