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Our experience working in a nonprofit organization in the public service sector has made us recognize the importance of confronting social justice issues, both within our agency and with other members of the community. And, having both graduated within the past year from Grand Valley State University (GVSU) with a Master’s in Public Administration in Nonprofit Management and Leadership, we were inspired to continue our learning. As we embark on our careers as nonprofit leaders within our community, we often wonder how we can best make a difference in our work. How do we challenge the norm in order to create positive change? How do we take the critical thinking skills that we developed in our academic program at GVSU and apply them to our daily work?
These questions led us back to GVSU to a program that provides social justice training for faculty, staff, students and community members, called Change U. Change U is made possible by a grant from the Arcus Foundation Gay and Lesbian Fund and is hosted by the GVSU LGBT Resource Center. According to the Change U website, “The purpose of Change U is to further strengthen social justice movements on and off campus by fostering cross-issue, intergenerational, and diverse partnerships between the GVSU community and social justice efforts throughout the area.” The training is offered in two parts – 1.0 and 2.0. For more information visit: http://www.gvsu.edu/socialjustice/.
Change U 1.0 focuses on the history and terminology associated with social justice work and ensures that participants have a strong foundational understanding of past and current social justice movements. The training provides a space for participants to ask questions and grabble with how social justice issues intersect. Time is allotted during each session for both large and small group discussions and idea sharing. Change U 2.0 trains participants in the skills they need to actually do social justice work.
Change U has helped us examine the challenges the nonprofit sector faces through various conceptual lenses. Often nonprofit organizations can get caught up in the short-term demands of their own work and neglect to see how they are part of a larger system. Nonprofit agencies do not exist in their own bubble but are connected to the larger community and world. Interagency and community collaborations are essential to lay the groundwork to combat the issues that face the nonprofit sector, such as lack of funding and providing holistic services for clients. Decisions we make as leaders of nonprofit organizations and how we choose to do our work every day have far reaching effects. We can choose to work within the status quo or push the boundaries in order to work for greater social justice and structural change.
Ghandi once said, “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to control over his own life and destiny?” This is what we must consider as nonprofit leaders: How can we best serve our clients and make a difference in their lives while promoting change in the greater system?
We both work for a social service agency that has a long history of providing services to those in crisis situations. Change U has trained us to examine the deeper causes of these crises and how they are connected to the larger system. We have started asking questions such as: How do we challenge systems of oppression that exist within our communities? Our state? Our nation? How can we, as nonprofit leaders, tackle the ageless problems of racial, legal, economic, and social forms of oppression? It is not enough to “band aid” the problem: How can we get to the root of it? What causes these systems of oppression and why do certain races and classes of people get stuck in them? These questions act as a guide to help us evaluate how we create and manage social service programs.
One of the most beneficial results of Change U for us as nonprofit professionals is that we have been able to hear the perspectives of other individuals in the community on the very issues that we aim to tackle. Due to the diversity of participants in Change U, we are able to see issues from a variety of perspectives and learn about emerging grassroots movements in our city.
GVSU is playing a unique and essential role by offering this class. There are not many forums where individuals can feel confident to raise hard questions and explore controversial social issues. As a public entity, the university has created a safe place to bring a diverse sample of the community together to discuss these critical issues. If a university is to, “Educate students to shape their lives, their professions, and their societies,” as stated in Grand Valley’s mission, then programs like this one are a good way to foster open and honest conversation that can lead to effective action, and more just and prosperous communities.
Authors: Darcy Cunningham, MPA, and Jennifer Parks, MPA from Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, Michigan.