This academic year, Saint Leo University will probe several subjects related to social justice and social problems facing the nation. The university will present the six-part Courageous Conversations Series—a free, virtual discussion of topics included in Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, from different perspectives across multiple disciplines. The first session will focus on race and racism and is set for 7 – 8 p.m. (ET), Thursday, September 17, via Zoom. The public is invited, and it is not necessary to attend all sessions, but everyone is invited to do so.
Examining this narrative of Just Mercy through a variety of lenses will provide a forum to discuss issues of race and racism; the impact of socioeconomic status; ethics and America’s criminal justice system; the structure and role of nonprofit organizations; how religion and spirituality shape perceptions of and interactions with the criminal justice system; as well as juvenile justice; education; and mass incarceration.
The university community created this series in response to a message from Saint Leo President Jeffrey D. Senese, said Dr. Holly Atkins, chair of the undergraduate education program, who is organizing the series. In May, following the death of George Floyd, Senese made several calls to action in his message: “We are all members of this society, and we must connect our work to teach to serve and to make a difference in our communities. I believe we should no longer be comfortable with or unaware of the racial disparities that exist in justice, health care, education, housing, and a myriad of other areas. We can and must make a difference.”
Dr. Ebony Perez, chair of the undergraduate social work program, encouraged faculty in the College of Education and Social Services to join her in initiating subcommittees to further social justice issues.
Courageous Conversations will continue throughout the academic year. The schedule includes:
- September 17, race/racism, facilitator Dr. Eileen O’Brien, associate chair of the Department of Social Sciences and professor of sociology;
- October 15, social work/social justice, facilitators Dr. Ebony Perez, chair of the Department of Undergraduate Social Work and assistant professor of undergraduate social work, and Christina Cazanave, director of field education and instructor of undergraduate social work;
- November 19, criminal justice/ethics, facilitator Charlotte Braziel, instructor of criminal justice;
- January 21, business/nonprofit organizations, facilitator Dr. Pamela Lee, director of the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program and associate professor of management;
- February 18, religion/spirituality, facilitator Dr. Marc Pugliese, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and associate professor of theology and religion; and,
- March 18, education, facilitator Dr. Fern Aefsky, director of graduate studies in education and professor of educational leadership.
“Conversations about important topics should happen in community,” Atkins said. “We see this webinar series as a way for individuals to gather together to learn from and with others—to reflect on social justice, racism, and related topics, from their own perspective and from others’. Ultimately, we hope that the reflections and the conversations lead to action by individuals within their own spheres of influence.”
The book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, which also was made into a popular movie that now is available on cable and online, was selected for the series because it “invites inclusive, multiple perspectives,” Atkins said. “We felt a text with a spiritual perspective would have an advantage as it would fit with our Catholic identity.”
Reading the book is not required, but is recommended, or participants can view the movie. “We believe the text is a spark for the conversations, but this is not a book club,” Atkins said. “We see it as more of a venue and opportunity to have important conversations about race and social justice.”
O’Brien added, “These conversations will be a great place for those who are seeking to gain practice and tools to enter into difficult conversations. They ideally will be a place where participants can get a little more confidence in their conversation skills around these issues, by equipping themselves with more information and ways of approaching the material.”
The first session on September 17 will take a sociology of racism lens on the book, O’Brien said. She will provide a framework and then invite dialogue on the theme of “how ‘bad apples’ and ‘implicit bias’ as individualistic concepts limit us from fully grasping the extent of systemic racism in the way the criminal justice system and other social institutions are built, with a discussion of what effective systemic solutions might look like.”
“Social Justice and the Importance of Advocacy” will be the topic for the October 15 session. Perez said, “2020 has revealed issues of social justice are more present than ever and individuals, communities, and even companies have proclaimed their allegiance to social justice. However, the term ‘social justice’ is broad and in some ways non-specific. So, what do we mean when we say ‘social justice?’ Is a protest the only way to advocate for social justice?”
This Courageous Conversation will also look at the importance of advocacy in the social work practice and beyond.
Perez also delivered a presentation, sponsored by the university’s Honors Program, in September on understanding anti-racism. Dr. Timothy Jussaume, director of the program, asked Perez to speak because understanding anti-racism fits well with the program’s goal of preparing students for “global citizenship.” In introducing the talk, Jussaume said the program will continue to host events that equip students for to respond effectively to racism.
Perez drew several distinctions between what she terms “anti-racist” acts and viewpoints and “nonracist” attitudes.
Nonracist stances only passively reject racist remarks, Perez said. So a person who takes a nonracist posture may not make a racist comment or slur, but would not openly object if, in conversation, a close friend or family member did so, she said, or racist policies might go unchallenged. Only the most violent and extreme acts, such as a shooting massacre at a Black church, would be deemed racist.
By contrast, Perez said those who are pursuing an anti-racist ethic are not only willing to voice disapproval of casual slurs and objectionable language, they are willing to listen carefully and think deeply about how power, and how long-standing policies and even business practices affect the lives of people of color. Her examples included lack of diversity on corporate boards, and far too few teachers of color at work in public schools. These are situations that require correction, she said, even though solutions may not be easy.
Another example she cited of “systemic racism” is apparent in government statistics that show cases of COVID-19 are, by far, more prevalent among Black Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans than among white Americans. The incidence of the disease is more than 2.5 times higher among Black Americans than white, and three times higher among Native Americans and Latinos than whites, she said.
To allow meaningful action and discussion, Perez said, people in general need to resist an urge to avoid difficult topics. “We need to be OK with being uncomfortable,” she said.
Join In The Conversation
The Courageous Conversations Series kicks off September 17 and will be held monthly with the exception of December. All sessions will be 7 – 8 p.m. (ET) via Zoom, https://saintleo.zoom.us/j/94551952591.
For more information, contact Nikki Heister, special programs manager, Department of Public Safety Administration, at firstname.lastname@example.org.