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Mastering social justice



Forget about irrelevant classes, students who never use their degrees and faculty who sit isolated in their ivory towers.

A five-year-old master's program in social justice at Detroit's Marygrove College is more like guerrilla academics.

"The program encourages each student to get out there and do something. One of the primary objectives is to promote action, not just study and research but to promote action," says Elaine Semanik, 64, who will graduate in May.

Four years ago, the West Bloomfield woman retired as a project manager in the legal department at Chrysler Corp., where she'd worked for 23 years. She decided she wanted to do something about problems in the United States — and specifically Detroit — rather than "sit around and talking about things, whether it was the war or poverty or different social injustices."

An Internet search of "social justice" landed her at Marygrove's website, and she enrolled in the program in September 2008, attending its one-weekend-a-month courses that go from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. 

The curriculum includes classes in organization development, economics, religion, values and ethics, human rights and literature, media and leadership, as well as a practicum and project. Students prepare to work in nonprofit management, politics, public interest law, human services and other advocacy positions.

"Every one of the classes, no matter what subject it has addressed, has required each student to research and write about their own passion," Semanik says. "Each member of the program does have experience of their own relevant to social injustices. That in and of itself brings a sense of community and understanding among and between the different students."

And there are a growing number of them enrolling. The first class that started in 2004 had 18 students, and subsequent groups — called "cohorts" — had about the same the 2009-2010 academic year, when 34 new students started, says Brenda Bryant, dean of extended learning and one of the program's founders.

Because of the demand, Marygrove, a private Catholic college, added an entering class this winter instead of limiting enrollment to the traditional fall start, Bryant says, and now a record-high 60 students are enrolled. They have included nuns, community organizers, health care workers, police officers, a television journalist and teachers. Overall, the program seeks to study the institutional structures that can lead to inequality, how to think differently about the actions that could promote a more just society and how to work with a "bottom-up" approach to create change in communities.

"We focus on how to fix systems, whether it's at the institutional level, the political level, the civic level. We tend to focus more on that and organizing movements or joining movements," Bryant says.

It's one of just a handful of programs around the country. Several schools have social justice centers — including the new one at Kalamazoo College — but just a few schools have graduate degrees in the subject. Loyola University, a Jesuit school in Chicago, has one, and Arizona State University launched a degree program in 2008. 

Students in the Marygrove program are overwhelmingly women — many women of color — and Bryant says she knows the college needs to find a better way to market the program to white men.

"There's no job link to it per se," Bryant says. "It's not like you come out and you're a nurse."

State Rep. Shanelle Jackson (D-Detroit) was in the first class to enroll. She was a law student, "But law school had not been what I hoped it would be, and I felt it wasn't speaking to my needs, who I was and what I wanted to be studying," Jackson says. She initially did both law school and the social justice program until she dropped law school to focus on the master's degree.

"It was the first time I ever felt like I was learning things that I wanted to be in a position to implement every single day in the work world," she says. "It spoke to the social problems that are facing the world and my duty, every human being's duty, to be a change agent."

Jackson says her work in the Legislature on Michigan's housing crisis is a direct result of her coursework at Marygrove. She was a co-sponsor of the package of bills last year that added a notification and negotiation period between lenders and homeowners before a home can be seized.

"My main focus in the Legislature has been addressing the mortgage foreclosure epidemic, which is linked to the banking crisis and subprime lending. We studied that in the program," she says. "I remember learning about disparities in lending and how in an effort to historically look at people of color, people who had been impoverished or were working-class sometime in their lives had a hard time getting conventional loans, how the subprime market kind of rose in an effort to meet that need."

A new component of the program this year is bringing a somewhat revolutionary approach — participatory action research (PAR) — that students can choose to be part of in lieu of their individual projects.

PAR is a research method that involves students or faculty being part of the community they study or work in. Instead of academic researchers swooping in to make top-down recommendations, they use the strategy to embed a program of research, recording, public education campaign or other social change.

This semester, Marygrove social justice students and faculty are starting to design an ongoing project that will recruit community members to join the students themselves in identifying community problems and solutions.

"Our students want to understand the theory but they don't want to stop at that. They want to move toward doing something. That, I think, is one of our defining pieces of the program," Bryant says.

The class will focus on some aspect of Detroit Public Schools, says Monique Hayes, a student in the program who also works as the deputy director of Community Assessment Referral & Education, a substance abuse prevention and treatment agency based in Fraser.

Bryant says Marygrove, as part of its urban, community development mission, plans to infuse the curriculum with participatory action research, starting this semester with the social justice program.

The class has only been meeting for a few weeks and has not yet decided on a specific aspect of education they'll work on. "The goal of this participatory action research is not to have researchers come into a community, research that group and take away that knowledge," Hayes says, "but to really make change an ongoing process for the community itself."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or

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