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Saint Mary’s University Arts: Ethical community engagement

A new program aims for action, not just words, to fight injustice

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Between media awareness, political and social activism, and changes in university mandates, we are seeing a strengthening of discourses on people speaking out about the production of social injustice. But there's something missing. University mandates and policies are talking the talk with language around diversity and inclusion but how does this translate into meaningful engagements? This gap is exactly what Val Marie Johnson, Benita Bunjun and the rest of the new Department of Social Justice & Community Studies (SJCS) at Saint Mary's University are trying to fill — locally and beyond.

"There is a real craving from students to have courses and discussions that shift away from the conservative ways of thinking," says Bunjun, Assistant Professor in SJCS. This rising concern comes from our youth who envision a more just world. The faculty is hearing their students' and other community members' pleas, and have shaped a new Social Justice & Community Studies Minor, which starts in Fall 2018, around these desires for engagement.

"I think that in connection with the scholarship, we're interested in building stronger social relations and ties. Combining academic learning with community engagement, we seek to strengthen the social fabric in a time where division and conflict, and polarization and inequalities are more marked," says Johnson, Associate Professor and Acting Chair of SJCS. The department's faculty are interested in addressing these social realities, and strengthening and building bridges within and between social groups, the university and communities in a careful and ethical way.

The department is developing new programs for non-intrusive work in collaboration with communities. All of the faculty (currently Bunjun, Johnson and Associate Professor Darryl Leroux, with a fourth position to be hired) have already been doing community-based teaching and research. They are seeking to expand this and produce more explicit ethics for social justice and community work. "Now that we have this department and minor program, and are developing a major, we can really think in depth about how to learn and work in a more respectful way," say Bunjun and Johnson.

Academically, social justice is an important growing area of scholarship in North America and beyond. "But the biggest barrier in the university is that social justice and community work is often labelled as extra-curricular rather than a scholarly discipline that can be studied at the BA, MA and PhD levels," Bunjun notes. She speaks to the need for a more relevant and responsible frame for what "community work" is, and how SJCS are using its department and programs to tackle challenges but also envision a different world.

The SJCS minor and future programs will provide people with the tools for problem-solving in a wide range of contexts. SJCS is meant to attract students from the arts, but also those from science or business, as well as professionals and community members working in fields where social justice and community engagement are relevant. "We see these intellectual tools as relevant to everyone, whether you plan to study journalism, law or social work, or are already working in community organizations, government, business and more," Johnson says. The Department of Social Justice & Community Studies encourages students who want to specialize in SJCS; students from all fields who want to enhance their awareness of social justice and community issues; and anyone from the community and professions, to join the new department in its work.

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