Building Community and Inspiring Change

by Shaya Gregory Poku, Director, Center for Social Justice and Community Impact

December 5, 2013 is a day I’ll never forget. I was standing outside in the frigid cold when I learned that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had passed. His death affected me deeply. There are few people I revere more than him.

Oftentimes, when we think about iconic thought leaders, like Mandela, we think ‘once in a lifetime’ or ‘once in a generation.’ Yet, what I was thinking that cold December evening was this: What the world needs now is one million plus Nelson Mandelas. It needs more people with vision, moral courage, conviction and compassion.

In short, the world needs complex problem-solvers.

Mission of the Center for Social Justice and Community Impact

As the inaugural director of Wheaton’s Center for Social Justice and Community Impact (SJCI), I am working to fill this tall order. Located in the basement of the Cole Memorial Chapel, The Base, as we affectionately call the space, offers experiential opportunities for your student to understand what it means to “do justice.”

As a part of the Division of Student Affairs here at Wheaton, we support students on their journey of empowerment and self-discovery.

Our specific mission is to equip and inspire Wheaton students to become thoughtful advocates of justice and social change in a complex world. This latter part of our mission statement is key.

The SJCI Value Proposition

It is entirely possible to be a college-educated person and be unaware of how the world works—economically, politically and socio-culturally.

It is possible to hold a bachelor of arts degree and to lack the skills to engage with those different from yourself. No matter your student’s nationality or major, the cost of the lack of skills and knowledge in these areas is high.

Consider this:

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has touted “…teamwork and the ability to collaborate in pursuit of a common objective” as one of the single most important traits that employers around the world are looking to see in new hires. Skills such as empathy, communication and collaboration cannot be automated. This point was particularly emphasized in the book Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.

Moreover, McKinsey and Company has looked at countries around the world and gathered ample data that indicates diverse teams and organizations are more profitable. Harvard Business Review has further noted that: “Diverse teams focus more on facts, process those facts more carefully, and are more innovative.”

What the research suggests is that the world needs inclusive and complex problem-solvers.

What SJCI Offers

My staff and I at SJCI agree. We contend empathy is incredibly important, but it is not just a feeling or an emotion. When it comes to complex problem solving, you cannot supplant aptitude with altruism. Good intentions are not enough.

So, on one hand the goal is to encourage students to be informed about the pressing social issues of our time. The other part of the goal (the biggie) is to cultivate skills and literacies that are pivotal to your student’s success in this knowledge-based economy.

Your student can practice engaging with difference as a volunteer mentor or tutor through our longstanding Wheaton Tutor Outreach Program in the local Norton schools. Last year, through signature SJCI volunteer opportunities, 251 Wheaton students contributed 2,195 hours towards improving their communities.

By engaging with our first-generation program, your student can build community with fellow first-generation college students, or learn that approximately 50 percent of all U.S. college students are the first members of their family to pursue higher education. There are 430 first-generation college students currently enrolled at Wheaton College alone.

Your student can practice understanding how policy-making affects human rights by attending one of our Safe Zone trainings. Last year, 203 members of the Wheaton community participated in Safe Zone trainings to learn more about the nuances and complexities of the vast LGBTQ+ community.

Your student can learn more about media literacy and media representation by attending a workshop on Islamophobia hosted by the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, which is part of The Base. This topic is timely considering that according to the Council on American–Islamic Relations there were 431 recorded incidents of Islamophobia from April through June in 2018 in the United States of which 10 percent were at educational institutions.

Your student can learn how issues like pay disparities affects economies around the world, as well as their potential take-home income, through our social justice trainings and workshops. Your student may know that on average, women are paid 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, but they may not know women workers with disabilities earn 63 cents for every dollar their non-disabled colleagues make according to the American Institutes for Research.

In everything that SJCI does, we infuse introspective and collaborative practices so that your student benefits from real-time modeling of what it takes to lead with others.

The Impact of SJCI

The book, Becoming a Student Ready College poses a question to educators: How are we preparing “… all students for the kind of challenges they will confront in life, work and citizenship?”

For SJCI, success will mean that your student will be able to negotiate multiple points of view and achieve collective impact.

We want students to be prepared to look at current news headlines from around the world and decipher how they tie back to complicated social systems, histories, and policies that shape their societies. We want your student to notice how potential flashpoints of misunderstanding in those headlines could undermine collaboration and still be able to secure an optimal outcome.

Defining success in this fashion speaks to a vivid truth that Nelson Mandela himself once said, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

In this way, Mandela’s emancipatory wisdom is alive at Wheaton College.