George Floyd was killed by police a few miles from Dr. Valerie Chepp’s house.
And as her students went out into the streets to protest this past summer, she completely redesigned her senior capstone course for the fall.
Chepp is the social justice program director for Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and through the program, she felt like she had the opportunity to address the questions student activists were asking themselves while equipping them with applicable skills for their community organizing.
“It was quite powerful for students to really be experiencing in a much more first-hand account some of the activist tactics that we talk about in class that they studied,” Chepp says. “Past activists used these tactics but now [our students] are those activists.”
Founded in 1999, Hamline’s social justice program is one of the older programs of its kind. But social justice studies programs appear to be a burgeoning interdisciplinary field, and in the wake of increased Black Lives Matter protests, scholars see a high demand for social justice teaching and research.
Social justice-focused programs go by many names, so it’s unclear how many are out there. The field is “overlapping” and “ill-defined,” wrote Dr. Michael Loadenthal, executive director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, in an email to Diverse. But he’s noticed an upward trend.
“While membership varies monthly as memberships end, renew, lapse and begin in predictable, seasonable patterns, our membership has been on the increase for more than three years, and in general is skewing younger and more diverse as time goes on,” he says.
Chepp also believes social justice programs are growing, based on how often she’s asked for guidance from colleagues on how to run these kinds of programs at their schools.
Those calls come from a recognition that “students really want to gain skills and knowledge in that way of thinking, in that ability to critically analyze their social world through a justice lens and learn how to change the world around them, so it is more just and equitable,” she says.
At Berea College, Dr. Meta Mendel-Reyes, associate professor of peace and social justice studies, also attributes the speedy growth of her program to increased student demand. Peace and social justice studies became a minor about a decade ago, and, in 2016, the program started to offer a major, a shift on the heels of the election of President Donald J. Trump.
“Kids are looking for something,” she says. “It’s different. I’ve been a professor for 20 years, and since 2016, you get a sense of students wanting to make a change.”
Mendel-Reyes has seen a surge of student activism since, and this summer showed “they’re not stopping.”
One thing that struck her about the Black Lives Matter movement is “just how young the leadership is,” she says. “It really feels to me like a generation saying, ‘This is our cause.’”
She finds students turning to the peace and justice program for the same reasons she decided to embrace it as her career path. Earning her Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, she spent time as a labor organizer with farm workers in California and sought to unite her community work and her teaching.
“I feel like I learned as much through being an activist as I did with my academics. … They both go together,” she says.
For her, the expansion of the program felt consistent with the institution’s values. Berea College students primarily hail from low-income families with an average annual income of less than $30,000, according to the college’s website and the school charges no tuition. It also has a particular focus on Appalachian students and African American students as the first interracial college in the South.
“The mission is usually a few words in the front of the catalogue that no one really pays attention to, but, in our case, we really take it very seriously,” she says.
For some schools, like West Virginia University, rather than offering a social justice major or minor, they’re working on baking social justice concepts into policy and programming across departments.
Dr. Maria del Guadalupe “Lupe” Davidson said her position was created for that purpose. She serves as associate dean for social justice, faculty development and innovation in the college of arts and sciences and is a professor of gender and women’s studies.
She says the college is prioritizing hiring faculty focused on “community-based participatory research,” and, in the aftermath of last summer’s protests, it offers racial justice grants to scholars. The college is also home to a social justice think tank, focused on crafting a social justice vision statement, an assessment template for job candidates’ diversity statements and a blueprint for how to evaluate scholars for their community engagement, social justice research and committee work, as well as their teaching and service.
“Social justice is not the work of just one area,” Davidson says. “Oftentimes you look at places like women and gender studies, African American studies, ethnic studies and you kind of expect the work to happen in those places. I think with this model, we’re saying that everyone is responsible for the work of justice, equity and diversity. It’s everyone’s job.”
Social justice’s trajectory in academia
Scholars expressed varying levels of optimism, or a lack thereof, about the trajectory of social justice programming on campuses.
Academia is “slow to make changes,” says Mendel-Reyes, but nonetheless students are driving that change, especially in light of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Ultimately, it’s students who are going to make these programs.”
Dr. Caroline Heldman, chair of the critical theory and social justice department at Occidental College, doesn’t believe these kinds of programs will spread. She also chairs the gender, women, and sexuality studies minor, and, as far as she knows, her school is the only higher education institution with a department in critical theory and social justice and she hasn’t seen similar options develop elsewhere.
“Departments are typically organized around fields and there’s no such field as social justice,” she says. “Truly interdisciplinary programs are very rare on college campuses,” even though “interdisciplinarity by definition is going to provide a lot more lenses through which to view a topic or an issue. … Viewing social justice from the lenses of sociology and anthropology and political science and maybe economics and critical theory, it’s going to give you a much more rounded, comprehensive approach to social justice than if you’re, for example, simply looking at it through the lens of political science.”
Perhaps in contrast, Chepp believes social justice programs will continue to be launched and expanded, but she also thinks that can have drawbacks universities need to consider.
Especially under the budgetary pressures of COVID-19, she doesn’t want to see social justice programs edge out disciplines that “have decades-long histories of being a body of knowledge in [and] of themselves,” like African American studies or women and gender studies.
University leaders should be asking themselves, “Is that somehow problematic that we fold all these into social justice? What gets lost when that happens? Are the decisions budgetary or student-centered or devoted to learning?”
“Ideally we would want to retain these really rich histories and approaches to reclaiming knowledge, reclaiming history, building knowledge in all these different interdisciplines in ethnic studies,” she says. “But the trend in higher ed has been to erode these programs.”
Universities have to be “thoughtful and strategic” about what both social justice studies and these individual fields uniquely bring to the table.
But nonetheless, she’s encouraged to see academia investing in social justice education because of how “important and valuable” it is to students.
Students are “on fire,” she says. “They are so hungry for this.”
This article originally appeared in the April 15, 2021 edition of Diverse. Read it here.