Student Feature

Organizing for Social Justice

Can students make a lasting difference in their own educational institutions?  Can they leave a footprint that marks a path for other students to follow? Can they create change by making intentional connections among the social theories they study and the lives they lead outside the classroom?

The desire to answer yes to these questions motivated three IAS students – Alejandra Pérez, Ankita Sharma, and Brandon Washington – to become Social Justice Organizers (SJOs) at UW Bothell.  SJOs are paid student-staff positions within the Department of Student Engagement & Activities, where they are advised by Program Manager Leah Shelton.  Through workshops and events, SJOs work together to create a socially just community, challenge norms and systems of oppression, and embody the values of equity and diversity.

This year, the three SJOs have sponsored and co-sponsored 34 events representing points of contact with 1,475 students. Their programs have included the inaugural Indigenous Peoples’ Day, several Undocumented Advocacy Trainings, the Dine-n-Dialogue series, and the IDEA Project retreat, among many others.  The profiles below highlight what brings them to this work and motivates them to push it forward, both individually and collectively.

Alejandra Pérez identifies as an undocumented low-income Guatemalan womyn. She is currently a third-year undergraduate double majoring in Society, Ethics, & Human Behavior, and American & Ethnic Studies, with minors in Education and Society and Diversity Studies.

Alejandra’s experiences in and outside of the classroom led her to become the lead organizer for the quarterly Undocu Advocacy Trainings at UW Bothell. These professional development sessions educate faculty and staff on how to best support undocumented students in higher education. Participants learn about the history of undocumented students, current legislation, how to create and hold safe spaces on campus, how to provide support in and out of the classroom, and how to be an advocate for all students inclusive of their immigration statuses.

Alejandra sees faculty and staff participation in these trainings as key to supporting the social and academic success of undocumented students. ”My hope,” she says, “is that these actions and investments will lead to the development of more institutional supports, such as new programs and accessible resources for undocumented students that will make University of Washington Bothell a more inclusive and equitable campus community.” In addition to her SJO role, Alejandra is involved in the Latino/a Student Union at UW Bothell.  She is also the co-director of the Beyond HB 1079 Conference and a community organizer and undocumented immigrant activist with the Washington Dream Act Coalition.

For Ankita Sharma, a junior studying Media and Communication Studies, the power of SJO dialogues, workshops, and events lies in the space they create for learning through engagement with others.  “I believe we learn the most through our community itself. Starting a dialogue around #BlackLivesMatter, honoring different identities, and learning ways to check our privilege has taught me more than I envisioned.  When these discussions inspire participants to educate themselves, and carry on the work of raising awareness, that’s when I know we’ve been successful. “

Ankita recently organized a Dine-n-Dialogue event focusing on "Justice in Biodiversity." The event allowed her to connect her passionate commitments to social justice with environmental justice, and to discuss ways to build stronger communities that value all life on Earth. “We need to fight for an environment that enables different identities and different species to thrive.”

Brandon Washington, a senior majoring in Media and Communication Studies, was drawn to SJO by his passion for people, especially people who show passion in their work.  “IAS exposed me to a rich curriculum oriented around social movements and influencing social change. In this context, it was only natural to serve my peers and campus community in any way I could.”

SJO has provided Brandon great opportunities to extend his interpersonal communication skills. Over the past year he’s worked with multiple organizations, from the orientation team, the residential advisors, the schools of IAS and Education, and many other student campus groups, as well as community groups like Social Heartistry Educators and Franklin High School students. Across these groups, Brandon has led a campus-community dialogue on leadership, diversity, and direct action, bringing nationally-acclaimed writer, speaker, and activist Kevin Powell to campus to bring further visibility to discussions about social change.

“It’s truly been a blessing to work with such a great group of leaders. I am inspired every day that I get a chance to share space with such authentic and compassionate people,” Brandon says. “This work is deeply rewarding on multiple levels, and I would highly recommend getting involved with social movement in every way possible.”

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As Social Justice Organizers, these students demonstrate the power of connected learning to develop the core capacities of an IAS education: collaboration and leadership, critical and creative thinking, persuasive communication, and engaged interdisciplinary inquiry. They also show us the power of that type of education to shape the campus, community, and culture according to the guiding values of access, inclusion, equity, and diversity.