​Creating a More Inclusive Community through Social Justice Activism

As grassroots movement for social equity and justice builds on campus, RWU expands programming for Social Justice Month

Jill Rodrigues '05
Messages painted by students on the Unity Walkway on the Bristol campus
Last fall, Barbershop, a student club for men of color on campus, started Unity Way, an effort that brought together student groups to promote positive relationships throughout the campus community through messages of inclusivity, equity and hope in the center of the Bristol campus.

BRISTOL, R.I. – Passionate and dedicated efforts toward social equity and justice have gained significant momentum across campus over the past few years, mirroring what the nation has seen play out in the media spotlight.

Students have staged highly visible actions like the “die-in” with solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement at the start of the Fall 2015 semester. And there are out-of-sight good deeds such as the ongoing work of Food Recovery Network volunteers who spend their nights packaging uneaten leftovers from the Dining Commons and delivering it to local women’s shelters. Whether it's taking action or adding their voices to support a cause, Roger Williams University students, faculty and staff have responded to the difficult issues arising in the national dialogue with a desire for raising the collective conscience and working toward solutions.

“Students have been very active and demanding in recognition of social justice issues on campus, from the creation of all-gender bathrooms to the student body’s demand for a course on diversity,” said Autumn Quezada-Grant, associate professor of history at RWU. “In many ways, this social justice initiative has not been top-down, but coming from the bottom up. This has been a true grassroots movement through collaboration between students, faculty, staff and administration. We hear them and we are trying to bring their voice forward.”

In response to this, Quezada-Grant and Professor Laura D’Amore launched an initiative in 2012 – Social Justice Week – that brings together student groups and faculty experts for an annual week in October aimed at sparking dialogue and inspiring the campus community around a variety of social justice issues. They held a Social Justice Summit in 2014 during which students, faculty and staff unpacked the term “social justice” and helped stimulate a culture of social activism. And for two years, they led a Social Justice and Diversity Faculty Learning Community, a multidisciplinary professional development that educated faculty members on how to address issues of social justice and diversity and incorporate these topics into their courses.

With momentum continuing to build on campus, Quezada-Grant and D’Amore were inundated with requests from professors and students wanting to participate in this year’s annual programming. Now called Social Justice Month, it’s expanding in its sixth year to an entire month of lectures, interactive workshops, film screenings and other activities that explore questions of identity, racism, elder justice, environmental issues and more. It’s part of the university’s yearlong series, “Talking About Race, Gender and Power,” which aims to engage the community in informed dialogue on the intersection of race, gender and power and to work toward practical solutions.

“In the national spotlight are questions about race, racial justice and patriotism, about transgender rights, about climate change and clean energy – these are questions about marginalization, disenfranchisement, and inequality,” said Quezada-Grant. “We have all these flash points in the national dialogue that polarize us. This makes it even more critical to have these conversations, to understand what the problems are and to think of solutions.”

With many more opportunities to understand the issues, learn how to become an advocate and to connect with allies across campus, Social Justice Month kicks off this week with the Social Justice Involvement Fair where more than 26 student clubs, organizations, academic courses, and workshop leaders will highlight the work they do and how to get involved. Check out the full schedule of events below and join the campus conversation with the hashtag, #ThinkLearnDo.