n a society teeming with volatile debates, from gun ownership to the state of U.S. race relations, few places exist where a person can speak freely without fear of judgment or backlash.
Sara Sanders' classroom is one of those places.
Here, inside a big lecture hall, Sanders invites students to "Social Justice and Social Welfare in the United States," a course that encourages students to identify community problems that matter to them—from hunger to homelessness—and set change in motion. To begin, students need a safe space to consider myths and misconceptions that guide their personal values and beliefs.
On the first day of class, students receive a homework assignment unlike any other.
"How many of you have seen something that upset you, but you turned your back on it?" Sanders asks. A few hands go up tentatively.
"Be honest," she prompts.
More hands. "So why do we live in an apathetic society?"
It's because people are less likely to act on an issue they don't think will affect them, Sanders says. And if they aren't exposed or don't personally know anyone affected by that issue, they'll perceive a larger gap between themselves and those suffering. "People think the problem doesn't affect me so why do I need to engage in it?" Sanders adds. "My job is getting students to engage and find solutions. As humans, we need to help each other. We all have a responsibility."
The associate professor in the UI School of Social Work then charges her students with the course's take-away task: "Work on your apathy."
The notion of social justice, in terms of human rights and fair distribution of wealth, opportunity, and privileges, began with ancient and Renaissance philosophies and has evolved with the changing times. At its heart is the concept of equity, where everyone receives access to what they need to succeed. Opportunities simply don't exist across-the-board for everyone, Sanders says, and social justice looks for ways to address inequities in the system.
Class topics range from welfare to marriage rights and Sanders listens to all perspectives without labeling them right or wrong. She encourages students to forgo politically correct answers and speak their truest gut feelings. Once a belief is spoken and owned, it can be objectively examined, and other participants can respond with alternate views. The professor often uses current events to make class conversations relevant, and so an early writing assignment instructs students to discuss the relationship between oppression and racism, dominant culture, social privilege, and the violence that has occurred in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and other cities throughout the U.S. During a discussion of unrest after the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, some students expressed their anger toward law enforcement but also heard from a classmate who said her father worked in the field and she often feared for his safety. In another class period, a student said she didn't think welfare recipients should take on an expense like college tuition; another undergraduate who was herself a welfare recipient responded that such an attitude suggests that she's not deserving of an education.
"You have to be open to the possibility that your view isn't the only view," Sanders says. "If we only encounter people like us, we won't grow. I'm not asking students to change their opinions—I'm asking students to challenge them. Change and challenge are two different words."
"[Professor Sanders] allowed us to think openly and have our own opinions and values. That was pretty empowering."
Tori Dotts, UI senior and social work major
UI senior and social work major Tori Dotts took the course last year. She particularly appreciated the opportunity to contextualize events like Ferguson and understand their complexities. But what she most remembers is the way Sanders led and moderated these conversations.
"The class was wonderful in the sense that Professor Sanders didn't try to steer us into any way of thinking about things," Dotts says. "She really allowed us to think openly and have our own opinions and values. That was pretty empowering."
In addition to class participation and papers, students are required to complete 25 hours of community volunteerism—an opportunity to build compassion in a real way. At the beginning of the semester, leaders of area nonprofits, including the Crisis Center of Johnson County, Shelter House, and the Domestic Violence Intervention Program, visit the class to explain their causes. Guest lecturers also speak on social justice as it pertains to health care, poverty prevention, and at-risk youth work in schools.
Volunteering with a local social service organization can help students fight personal apathy and social injustice, Sanders says. When students directly interact with people using social services, they often discover unexpected similarities, and may consider how uncontrollable, unfortunate circumstances can devastate people and their families. Students who have grown up with a financial safety net can imagine their life without one, when an emergency or unexpected expense can wield far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. Even students already familiar with certain social issues might develop new perspectives from the experience.
Allison Levy, a social work major and senior who took Sanders' course during her sophomore year, says she had personally experienced the effects suicide can have on the loved ones left behind. However, her volunteer experience answering calls to the crisis line at the Crisis Center of Johnson County gave her extensive training on how to deescalate emergency situations and prevent suicide.
Dotts volunteered at Four Oaks' Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) Program, where she spent time with young children with behavioral and conduct disorders, helping with homework and playing games. After her volunteer hours ended, she stayed on as an employee for a few months. Dotts says her time with children taught her how to remain patient and calm in high-stress situations, a skill she now applies to other areas of her life.
Sanders says that society often promotes a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative, which champions the concept that Americans born into difficult circumstances can work hard, persevere, and rise into financial security and success. That narrative is absolutely possible. But Sanders says it's important to recognize that such fairy-tale endings are more accessible for some than others. Even if all elementary school students have the opportunity to complete their work and pay attention in class, children experiencing abuse outside of school will find it harder to concentrate. While all high school students might be offered the chance to apply to college, students who are homeless will still struggle more to find time and space for application essays. And, although any adult can apply for a job, people without money for dress clothing or child care during the interview face added hurdles.
Truly understanding—and developing empathy—for such differences starts with frank, honest self-examination and a nurturing space for that to unfold.
At the semester's end, students pledge to work on social change in some specific way, identify three steps toward that goal, and take note of others' responses to those actions. It's a tall order, but those who take it might be surprised at the attainability of their goals. In a lecture room of 124 students, each person's small change can add up to something greater.