The Center for Civic Engagement and Leadership at Marist College offers a range of programs that promote civic participation and engaged learning. Through various Community Based Learning (C BL) courses, students are enabled to connect their academic interests to their wider interests. Dr. Justin Sean Myers, the Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology & Social Work at Marist College, takes us through his experience teaching a CBL course, SOC 341: Social Change, during the Spring 2017 semester.
Dr. Myers is teaching Social Change, which is a course that is principally taken by Social Work majors and Sociology minors, with students typically being juniors and seniors. He says that in this course, they use a sociological lens to investigate the major actors, institutions, and forces shaping social change in the United States during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In particular, they analyze different theories conceptualizing the rise and fall of social movements, the mobilizing grievances of social movements, the social context in which movements develop, as well as why people join or don’t join social movements. Overall, they look at the various factors as to why movements win or fail, along with how movements organize, their tactics and strategies, what their grievances are, and what alternative worlds they want to create and why. In terms of movements, this course focuses on civil rights, black power, food justice, environmental justice, black lives matter, climate justice, and Dreamers, among others.
This Social Change course incorporates CBL in one primary way. Students are required to engage in a semester long social change project. For this project, they have to engage either on-campus or off-campus, and work towards addressing an injustice for a particular community. In the past, students have worked on social media campaigns to stomp out stigma around mental health, raised awareness about LGBTQ issues, and started a fossil fuel divestment campaign on campus. Dr. Myers incorporates CBL into his class because learning about how social change has happened is one thing, but trying to create social change today, in the here and now, is another thing entirely. The sociology courses he teaches are embedded in a Social Work Program where there is an explicit professional ethos committed to creating a world founded on social, economic, and environmental justices. Such an orientation pushes teachers and students to go beyond book learning and isolated intellectual endeavors towards political engagement to create a more just and sustainable world. Given this professional orientation, it is quite easy to link the teaching of social movements and social change with the doing of social movements and social change. A common phrase among the social work community is that we are creating “social change agents,” and that is exactly what Dr. Myers’ course works towards.
Dr. Justin Myers thinks that taking a CBL class has a significant impact on students in several ways. First, it pushes students to step outside of the classroom and the textbook to do more than just absorb the concepts and theories they are discussing; they critically apply them toward current social problems in our society. Second, by applying what they are learning in class to the outside world, they have to interact with the course material in a qualitatively different way than if they were just asked to write a paper on a social movement. By taking what they have learned and utilizing it to create a social change project on-campus or off-campus, they obtain a level of ownership and mastery of course material that is impossible through merely reading the material. Third, students learn that failure and adversity is part of social change, a learning experience, and that to be committed to social justice entails a long-term perspective where there will be wins and losses, amazing days and depressing days, there will be days of laughter and days of rage. That social change requires the capacity to engage in self-care and have a strong support team to carry you and support you, otherwise one would burn out early and often and give up on creating a better world.
What Dr. Myers enjoys most about CBL is the exciting research projects that students come up with all on their own, issues on-campus and off-campus that he does not always know exist. For him, CBL projects become a great way for students to express their agency and power in addressing inequities and in educating the surrounding community as well as him with regards to what injustices the millennial generation sees as important and wants to combat. Additionally, Dr. Myers particularly enjoys the end of the year presentations in which students share their semester-long projects to the rest of the class and engage in extremely robust Q&A sessions with each other about their projects, what worked, what didn’t, and why the issues they are combating matter. Dr. Myers holds that it is quite an energetic and amazing experience to be a part of.
One takeaway Dr. Myers hopes that the students walk away from his course with is that being an engaged citizen committed to the fight for social justice entails more than just electoral politics or contributing money to a cause you support. Citizenship requires direct participation in social movements that will take on concentrated power, shake up the existing state of things, and push people to grapple with fundamental questions of justice, ethics, and rights. The second takeaway is that what is taught about previous social movements and their ‘leaders’ is really only a partial view on those movements and people, and that what the students are often taught about them suits the dominant cultural, political, and economic structures and institutions. For instance, students learn about MLK through his “I Have a Dream” speech rather than his “Beyond Vietnam” speech that was highly critical of the US’s role in militarism, imperialism, and oppression of people of color domestically and internationally. They do not learn that Rosa Parks had a long history of working for civil rights and women’s rights prior to her refusing to give up her seat on the bus. She did not just emerge as a “hero”; she became one over a long history of activism. When people think of the Black Panther Party, they have the image of angry Black people with guns. Students aren’t told that the Black Panther Party created a highly successful breakfast program for black youth, worked on community health projects for sickle cell anemia, and ran candidates for political office in Oakland on a highly progressive platform. The whitewashed and caricatured images people have of social movements and their so-called leaders suits the dominant power structure because it both stigmatizes oppositional movements that are outlandish or scary or lifts them up to such an iconic level that everybody basically waits for superman to arrive before they get involved in activism themselves.
Third, Dr. Myers wants students to walk away with the knowledge and experience that they can indeed create change in their lives and their community and that while this work may perpetually be an uphill battle, that they must fight the good fight and that they shouldn’t be complacent and fatalistic. The future is not determined. The future remains an open question. The question is whether people are actively fighting to shape this future or whether they are willing to let others determine it for them.
Social change according to Dr. Myers means many things, but as an individual who considers himself to be a public sociologist who works with social movements engaged in creating a more just and sustainable food system, it means being invested in working with others towards a world that places social justice, economic justice, environmental justice, and food justice at the center of life and the center of politics. This entails joining in the hard fight for universal basic income, universal healthcare, public campaign financing, and a public banking system. There is a need to democratize the political and economic systems today so that the economy and politics works for everybody, particularly those who are marginalized and oppressed, rather than the elite and the privileged. Everybody deserves clean air, clean water, clean food, housing, and healthcare. These are basic human rights that are simply necessary for every human being. Social change means working to create this type of world. Additionally, as a feminist, Dr. Myers asserts that social change means working towards a world where care, interdependency, and reciprocity are dominant cultural values rather than competition, individualism, and profit. This means valuing social reproduction and the reproduction of people over and above the reproduction of money. Social change here means fighting for paid parental leave policies, universal child care policies, flex time, and a shorter work week overall so workers can spend more time with the people they love and care for rather than in jobs that demand so much of them and give back so little.
Writing about Social Change and overall being a part of the Marist College Center for Civic Engagement and Leadership Facebook CCEL Campaign for the past semester has been really interesting. It has enabled me to be both a learner and an informer. I hope that the FaceBook CCEL Campaign will encourage students to couple their academic interests with increased awareness of different social issues, aspire to restructure and redefine inclusive social change and transformation, and thus be motors for making a better world.