Academia responds with options as students react to societal changes with a desire to actively engage.

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It’s a new year, but the political and social unrest left in the wake of events in Charlottesville, Ferguson, Charleston, Dallas, St. Paul, Baltimore, Baton Rouge and Alexandria continues to leave an air of uncertainty for Americans working to promote social justice. At the same time, themes of diversity, equity and inclusion are becoming more commonplace – from politics to entertainment and even Super Bowl commercials.

According to director TJ Martin, it’s no accident his award-winning documentary “LA 92” about the riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King decision illustrates the cyclical nature of violent civil unrest. Twenty-five years after the riots, Martin says “you come out [of the film] recognizing that we’ve been having this conversation for a very long time, and nothing is solved.”

“LA 92” has been shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination in 2018. If he wins it will be the second Oscar for Martin, who graduated from Western Washington University’s Fairhaven College, and his co-director Dan Lindsay. The duo threads issues of class and racial inequity through nearly all of their work. They earned their first Oscar for “Undefeated,” which featured an underdog team of all-black football players and their white coach in North Memphis – a less violent but similar view of disparity in race and class in our society. Their Honey Maid ad campaign redefines “wholesome families” to include interracial and gay couples and their children.

Vernon Johnson
Vernon Johnson

Scholars contend it’s become everyone’s work – regardless of chosen profession or educational concentration – to address poverty, the death penalty, environmental rights (racism), sexism, labor laws, civil rights and access to health care and education. Vernon Damani Johnson, Director of the Ralph Munro Institute for Civic Education and Professor of Political Science at Western Washington University, explains public universities are reinforcing that premise by incorporating social justice into courses across more majors and disciplines.

“In political science, we’ve reorganized our major around tracks of study like ‘power, citizenship and civic engagement and justice, inequality and identity.’ If you look around campus, you find the Law, Diversity and Social Justice program at Fairhaven College and the Education and Social Justice program offered jointly by Fairhaven and Woodring colleges,” Johnson says. “What used to be PEHR (Physical Education Health Recreation) is now Health and Human Development with a community health program. All the rubrics have changed so fast, it’s hard to keep up. There is a concentration within almost all of our colleges where they are addressing social issues.”

Johnson says the university is evolving not just to meet societal needs for this type of education across disciplines, but the interest of students to actively engage in this work. His leadership role with the campus Diversity Equity and Inclusion Task Force as well as in the community allows him to connect with students and graduates who are incorporating social justice into their work.

Newton Breiter
Newton Breiter

One such connection is with Newton Breiter, a development manager with Lake Union Partners in Seattle who graduated from WWU with a bachelor’s in landscape design and went on to a master of landscape architecture at University of Oregon and a commercial real estate certificate at the University of Washington. Breiter spoke at the Munro seminar this fall and presented his work on Seattle’s MidTown Center, which is a partnership with Africatown Community Land Trust, Capitol Hill Housing, and Forterra (an environmental sustainability nonprofit.) The partnership achieves citywide goals for both affordable housing and social equity by addressing the displacement of the African American community in Seattle’s Central District.

“We [Lake Union Partners] work in our backyard and take our role in the community very seriously,” Breiter says. “There is a sense of pride and responsibility in this work. For me, there’s a focus on sustainable design – both in how we impact the urban landscape and in implementing strategies to ensure housing affordability through a sustainable business plan. I have always been attracted to urban infill development and social equity as part of the work.”

Deborah Juarez
Deborah Juarez

Fellow Fairhaven College grad and Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez has built a career focused on legal advocacy and economic development for the most marginalized communities in the state of Washington. As a member of the Blackfeet Nation, she became the first citizen of an indigenous nation elected to the council in the city’s history and was the first in her family to attend college. Her work includes capital projects in North Seattle, pedestrian and bike access, and better transportation access.

For the average person just going to work every day, concerned about what’s happening in our society and wanting to get involved in social justice, Johnson said it doesn’t take much to make a change. “Look around your community and see where you can pitch in,” Johnson urges. “It’s not as hard as it might seem. You might just have to decide to show up someplace and meet people.”

Western Washington University offers a variety of courses in social justice including a Law, Diversity and Social Justice minor and Education and Social Justice minor. For more information, visit www.wwu.edu.