When people ask me what makes an education at Roosevelt University distinctive, I explain that we are more ambitious than many colleges because of our social justice mission. Students learn more than important knowledge or facts at Roosevelt. We go beyond an education of the head, and provide an education of the heart. Our University provides a value-rich experience in which students become more aware of social inequalities, discover why they should care, and develop compassion and empathy.
In my child psychology classes, for example, students learn about the experiences of children growing up in communities that lack economic resources and opportunities. They learn about differences in access to high quality schools and mental health care. They read or even gather first-hand stories of children who live in neighborhoods where gun violence is common.
There is an unintended consequence when students learn about deeply engrained social problems. Many become discouraged, feel helpless, or view these issues as hopeless. They can feel small in light of problems that are so large. There is a frustration that comes with knowing and caring, an uncertainty about how to act, and doubt about whether they can make a difference.
“There is a frustration that comes with knowing and caring, an uncertainty about how to act, and doubt about whether they can make a difference.”
To fulfill our mission as a social justice institution, an education at Roosevelt University needs to address head, heart and hands. In this essay, I provide illustrations of how they — and others — can make a difference. I also highlight some perceptual barriers that discourage people from becoming agents of change and suggest different ways of thinking about these myths.
The most immediate way to make a difference is to volunteer and provide direct assistance to someone in need. Some people have an existing connection and know where they can offer help. Other people need to do research using resources such as Volunteermatch.org to learn about places that welcome volunteers.
In my classes at Roosevelt University, I facilitate students’ community involvement by using service learning. Students work directly with people in need and assist at locations such as schools, hospitals and social service agencies. They reflect on the relevance of course material to their site work and connect learning with life. Through service learning or volunteering, people not only learn about the circumstances of those in need of assistance, but also about the broader issues that affect their lives.
People also can make a difference when they become civically engaged. This starts with registering to vote (an easy resource is vote.usa.gov), and casting ballots on Election Day. I also teach students how to become legislative advocates. This process involves researching their elected officials and pending legislation (a site I recommend for this task is commoncause.org). My students have written to their state legislators and set up meetings to lobby for expanding early childhood education funding, supporting after-school programs, and increasing the number of counselors in public schools. If this process seems daunting, it can be easier to join an advocacy or interest group that compiles information, conducts legislative research and organizes outreach efforts.
There are other ways to address social inequalities that are outside of the political sphere. An “education of the hands” can involve public informing through social media, blogs or video (see below for an example created by my students). Others may develop and circulate petitions; participate in demonstrations, boycotts or protests; and organize fundraising.
Some students doubt their abilities to engage in advocacy or activism. I share stories of how ordinary people have made a difference, especially when they have coordinated their efforts.
Some students are instead uncertain of where to begin. I ask them about what they truly care about and ask them to follow their passion. My students recently shared a range of their own top concerns — the money gap between rich and poor, racism, education inequalities, heath care access, homelessness, women’s rights, assistance provided to military veterans, and homophobia.
A narrowed focus allows people to develop expertise, forge networks, and can insulate against overcommitment. Slicing a larger cause (like homelessness) into a local application (like advocating for a new homeless shelter in a particular location) allows for greater traction as well.
A final perceptual barrier that I address is the “one and done” myth. A sustained effort is required to create social change. Many people intuitively understand how this is true for dieting or exercise— the benefits need persistence rather than one valiant act. The same holds true for helping people and communities overcome deep challenges.