Bruce, Dixon lead panel on social justice education

Category:  News
Sunday, February 28th, 2021 at 2:26 PM

Edinboro University recently held a panel to discuss “social justice education as well as social norms that sustains practices of oppression and marginalization.”

Among the panelists were Dr. Kevon Bruce and Dr. Adrienne Dixon, co-chairs of the Frederick Douglass Initiative at Edinboro and members of EU’s Department of Counseling, School Psychology and Special Education. Joining them was Dr. Margaret Smith, a professor in the social work department here, and Dr. Susan Curtain, a professor at the University of South Dakota and former faculty member for Edinboro.

“The Frederick Douglass Initiative is a collaborative across the PASSHE system that many of the PASSHE schools have present on their campuses,” said Dixon.

The first question posed to the panel was why social justice pedagogy (“the method and practice of teaching”) is still not discussed in present times. Smith stated: “In our society, education is not equitable. So, those young people who receive an education that is somewhat inferior and under-resourced still have the greater struggle.” She continued: “The ACEs studies, which is Adverse Childhood (Experiences), [tell us] those young people who go to inferior schools tend to have disproportionate income, health, and they tend to live in communities that are high in asthma. And so we’re still talking about it because we’ve never really resolved the issues that, we’re the haves and the have-nots by birthright, not by being a citizen.”

“In Pennsylvania, education is funded by real estate tax, and so if you live in a community which is low income, it is less resourced,” said Smith. “It shouldn’t have to do with where a young person lives, whether their school is funded or not.”

Curtain discussed the issues of social justice from a geographical standpoint, having moved from this part of the country to South Dakota. She stated, “I would say in South Dakota, the work is not done. In some ways [it’s] just beginning … We have a larger Native (American) population, and so it’s manifesting itself that way here.”

Curtain further stated, “There’s also under-representation in the K-12 educational system, and so when you don’t see that, when people aren’t talking about that, then it doesn’t build itself into the culture. And so instead of having an inclusive culture, from kindergarten on up, you just don’t. And so the work is starting almost backwards. We really need to frontload that work. But I’ve noticed very, very big differences culturally and a very strong political influence, to be honest ... There’s a little bit of a resistance to even the term ‘social justice’ and what that word means. And so when we don’t have a clear understanding of the operational language that we’re using, that’s also a barrier to the work that needs to be done.”

Bruce mentioned his experience as a school counselor and some of the issues he saw concerning social justice within the K-12 system. “We also had very candid conversations with some of the educators. Most of the schools I worked in were predominantly white educators, and we did service students of color, so we would have these candid conversations.”

He continued, mentioning training known as “Courageous Conversations.” “Even during those trainings, a lot of the educators would admit to not really understanding or being able to work with students of color,” he said. “They grew up in homogenous societies where they never, they never had Black students in their classrooms.”

Bruce then mentioned how his experience was a little different from his colleagues in working with students of color. “I come from Brooklyn, where it was 99% Black students and we had 99% Black educators. So, to then turn and become an educator myself, and work in a school that I thought was servicing students of color and who had equal opportunities, because of the resources that was allocated to these counties, that wasn’t the truth.”

Bruce is hopeful that even though he doesn’t think these issues could be solved during his lifetime, the work will continue.

He also mentioned using the work of Jane Eliott, “an anti-white, anti-racist educator.” “I believe that in order for us to have a voice, have a platform, we need to have people who don’t look like us. We need to have someone from the majority to help this fight, and I think she’s very important,” he said. “I think when it comes to social justice, she is definitely one of the pioneers for white women who are helping people of color push forward.”

Dixon then posed another important question: What needs to be done and what are the overall goals of making sure social justice is taught within education, communities and counseling?

Curtain said: “It comes out in the frameworks that you use and the curriculum. And the textbooks they choose. Are you honoring all voices, who are the authors they’re using, what are the theoretical frameworks that you’re presenting, what kind of ... instructional strategies are you using, are they the kind of strategies that work best for all populations? Quite frankly, straight lecture doesn’t work for everyone, and so are we mixing those to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to learn?”

She continued: “I think building relationships [is important]. How are we honoring our students, how are we showing them how to honor one another, because sometimes we have to call them out and just say we need to honor all voices … and we have to respect the cultures.”

Smith also stated her beliefs on the issue. “I think for most people, when you say ‘social justice,’ they think they are going to lose something.” Instead of believing that if women get something, men lose something, or similar scenarios, Smith simply wants this pursuit to be seen as obtaining equal rights, or gaining the ability to live in “a good community.”

“I think that the hardest conversation we have is to help people understand that because someone else gets something, that doesn’t take away from you,” she said. “Those are some things that I think we should help our students also think about.”

“However, redistributing power does mean some people will have less power and that is the big threat. And I do think people will feel threatened by that,” Curtain commented.

Smith responded, “I think that it’s all in how we present it.”

Dixon believes one fear is others having to look at themselves. Curtain echoed that statement. “We have to give them a safe place to practice those kinds of conversations and to ask questions that they think are dumb,” she said. “I think as an educator, I feel very responsible for creating a safe space to have a conversation and to just honor where people are.”

Curtain also brought up a study that examined face-to-face education versus online learning in multicultural diversity courses. “The courage in teaching social justice is you have to be prepared for a lot of social justice perspectives.” She continued, “And so I was surprised at how the perception of anonymity gave people more courage to say things that were unkind, that they would not have felt comfortable saying in person. I knew that intellectually, but I was surprised and disappointed by that. I was pleasantly surprised though by those who had the courage to counteract that.”

Smith added: “I think that sometimes we don’t think about the traumatic experiences that students have in schools. We think that because you’re on a college campus that everybody is going to treat you kind, or whatever, but people forget that they bring their history with them.” She continued: “So, for some students, their experience in schools have not been good, and they bring that history to college. And then they may be the only person in the class and they’re expected to represent everybody that everyone ever thought about in that group. And that’s really hard for a teacher who has not resolved in themselves that that person doesn’t represent the group. They represent themselves.

“And when Dr. Curtain talks about safe, those trauma informed principles are so important. Even in education, having safety and being able to have trust that the student might not say it in class, but they’ll come and say to Dr. Curtain, ‘I really feel uncomfortable about that,’ then it gives you something to work with the next time. But if they don’t feel safe with you, then they carry that burden through the rest of the semester.”

The panel also discussed ways in which social justice strategies should be embedded in curriculums and elsewhere. Smith stated: “There has to be some universality in the way we engage people, the way we treat people … We should look at each human being in the same way that we would want to be looked at. Unfortunately, when people say, ‘I don’t see color,’ I know then that they don’t see me.”

Smith continued: “I always feel that you have to be honest with yourself, that we all fall short, and so even though I’m a Black woman, I can still have thoughts that are not kind and pleasant about other groups. And [I have] to recognize that, and to catch myself, because those kinds of thoughts don’t make me any better than someone else who has those thoughts about me.”

Smith also mentioned the factor of older adults who are not going to change their beliefs and how younger people lack the confidence to speak up and tell them they should not say certain things.

Another topic was the necessary tools to help combat negative images and how to reinforce social justice within the educational system. Smith stated how “many schools are now switching to what they call ‘Trauma Informed.’” According to her: “They work with young people in a way that helps them to deal with those kinds of things. And because they do, there is a tremendous amount of difference in those schools.” Smith also explained how it was the schools who needed to realize the trauma that comes with certain issues, such as homelessness, and that by providing students with ways to cope with these issues, as well as hope for a better future, their “trajectory” as adults will be better.

Bruce also stated how “seeing color” is important because it helps students through the problems they face in the communities they live in.

When asked what challenges are faced when dealing with social justice, Curtain said the hard part is that “this cannot just happen in the classroom.” She continued: “This really has to be at the entire university level, the entire community level. It cannot just be done in isolation. And we as educators cannot expect our students to teach us. We need to be informed, we need to know about this, and be aware and create the culture in which all students will feel comfortable.”

When giving their final thoughts on the issue of social justice, Smith stated, “I don’t think we have to look far, we just have to look in our little corner, and I think that if each one of us looks at the parameters of where we are, we can do good work.”

Curtain added: “Social justice happens one conversation at a time, and don’t wait for that conversation. You don’t have to wait for someone to initiate it, you can initiate that conversation and create that safe space so that we can all be lifted up. Our country has had a big crisis and with every crisis there is an opportunity. And so we have an opportunity to grow together and I would encourage you to have the courage to do so.”

Dixon concluded, “We cannot sit quietly and watch and think that someone else is going to step to the plate. It is our reasonable service to step up and to have impact on this.”

You can watch the entire panel below. 

Nicholas Constantino is a staff writer for The Spectator. He can be reached at

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