Developing Social Justice Training for Student Staff: One Administrator’s Experience

Group of protestors where one individual is holding a sign saying "ENOUGH"

As the administrator of a one-person office at a small, private, liberal arts university, I rely heavily on my teams of student staff. Together we provide academic support for just over 2,000 undergraduate students and 200 graduate students through several targeted programs that lead to increased success and retention.

Training my student staff is a vital part of our programs’ and our students’ success. To build my teams’ foundational knowledge around enhancing cognitive function as it relates to academic success, I developed a training program centered on evidence-based approaches to effective learning strategies.

Leaning on scientific research and data lends credibility and relevance to the work we do. By helping students understand why strategies are effective and working with them to develop individually tailored approaches they can use now around their busy schedules, students begin to see my teams as legitimate and qualified resources as they start to realize improved success through their evolving approach to learning.

Connecting our work to social justice

Core-shaking events in the spring and summer of 2020 demanded a voice in this year’s training. As I reviewed materials to prepare my student staff of 40 for our work ahead, it became clear we would need to expand our scope to include social justice if we hoped to secure our place in students’ lives as relevant resources on their academic journeys.

With so much misinformation surrounding the nation’s social justice movement, and so many of us simply not knowing the origins or realizing the existence of systemic racism, our valuable work with students – and the improved success and retention that typically result – seemed in jeopardy unless we educated ourselves.

So much of what my learning center student staff does relates to helping students understand how to revise their approach to academics. This means we work with students where they are and develop them to where they want to be. Our work requires listening to students’ perspectives, seeing value in their unique experiences, and including all that in minor changes that fit into students’ lives right now as we move them beyond their comfort zones of passive studiers toward active, engaged learners.

We support the whole student, and to do that, we need to appreciate and understand the whole person.

Adding to our professional mandate is directly connecting our knowledge of systemic racism and social justice to our ability to strategically meet our university’s mission. We “prepare students for fulfilling lives, meaningful work, and responsible citizenship.” My student staff and I would be doing a severe disservice to our students without such training as we sidestepped a core value of our institution. Without reliable information on the history of systemic racism, not only are we unable to fulfill our mission, but we are ill-equipped to begin the necessary steps to actively dismantle racism.

Our university’s culture also strongly supports and actively pursues social justice and inclusion. One strategic objective of the institution throughout my tenure has been to attract and support a more diverse student population. We also have an active Office of Diversity and Inclusion, a diversity council, and a biweekly university-wide open discussion forum for students, faculty, and staff to have dialogue and discourse on issues related to race and inclusion.

Developing the training

Meeting this new demand for a social justice module required an overhaul of my training materials, and a lot of research. My training program is delivered asynchronously over the summer through our learning management system. We spend July working through weeklong modules that focus on effective learning strategies, progress into role-specific training modules, followed by live training before classes begin in August.

To include a weeklong module on social justice, I reformatted content to focus the first two weeks on modules surrounding research-backed strategies to enhance students’ academic achievement. We pivoted in our third week to focus on the connection between social justice and the strategic pursuit of our university’s mission.

Curating content for a module on social justice was challenging and a bit intimidating. I am not a critical race theorist or historian. It has been years since my undergraduate courses in political science, gender studies, and economics. Rather, I am a cisgender white woman, a mom, a wife, and an avid consumer of news whose views have been shaped by decades of experiences, interactions, education, and a passionate belief in equal access to life-enhancing opportunities.

I also wanted this module to serve as a credible and relevant resource for my student staff, not as a platform for my own politics. To maintain as much relevance as possible, I leaned on a combination of popular and scholarly articles, videos, social media, even advertisements that helped tell the story of our nation’s history of systemic racism, and our call to action to dismantle it.

Overview of core curriculum

Our module began with learning objectives that prepared student staff for the shift in our focus. I explained our goal for the week was to connect the nation’s current social justice movement with our strategic work to fulfill the university’s mission. By educating ourselves on the history and existence of systemic racism, and seeing examples of anti-racism throughout the module, we would be in a better position to re-examine our perspectives as we learn from each other and consider our own action steps toward becoming anti-racists.

Drawing on a variety of resources, we began to unpack the history of systemic racism and its repercussions still affecting large segments of society today. Through videos, scholarly research, and popular media articles, we learned about redlining and implicit bias, funding for education leading to career opportunities, access to quality health care, and the disproportionately elevated risk of Black and Hispanic people to exposure, infection, and death due to COVID-19.

Then we moved into the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. We learned about events that precipitated the group’s founding, and its political and legislative successes to build relationships, foster partnerships and cast more light on conversations on the danger of anti-Blackness across the globe. Our module also highlighted BLM’s fight for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersexual, and Asexual equity and fairness.

Language of the movement then became our focus. Determined to cut through misinformation and propaganda, we defined terms prevalent throughout BLM media coverage. We learned what colorblind ideology is and that it perpetuates racism and inaction by dismissing the value of race in people’s self-identity and life experiences. We defined “All Lives Matter” as the incendiary, divisive phrase that denies the existence of racism, thus perpetuating it. We then learned what it means to defund the police and what Juneteenth is.

After that, we moved to understand the impact of BLM as we begin to see evidence of increased awareness and growth throughout our society. We watched a Today Show segment on the rich history of protests in the US and the sweeping, historic changes that have resulted. An infographic and several polls helped us see how the Black Lives Matter movement is the largest in US history, and we learned that, statistically and historically, protests a fraction of this size have very rarely failed to bring about positive, impactful change.

We examined corporations’ responses to the movement. Whether on their own or due to demand from consumers and stakeholders, we saw how many organizations are responding to the momentum the movement has created. Our examples covered everything from Netflix’s new Black Lives Matter genre to country music groups changing their names, from NASA renaming its headquarters in Washington, D.C. after its first Black female engineer, to the NFL playing the Black national anthem before games. We leaned on examples prevalent across media to illustrate the breadth and depth of the movement, and the powerful outcomes we were seeing in various parts of society.

Then our focus turned inward. After we identified key events, terms, and definitions, and began to see the start of sweeping societal change, we reflected on if or how this information, along with events from the first half of this year, might affect our own actions. We defined anti-racism and learned that simply not being racist is not enough, that we must educate ourselves, be willing to speak out, and stand up for our greater good.

In their own words: Student responses

After completing the module in July 2020, I asked students to define new terms they learned in the first half of the year, within and outside of this training. Terms and concepts most often defined in discussion posts were redlining, systemic racism, Juneteenth, and colorblind ideology.

Below are excerpts from a few reactions and reflections collected immediately following our training module.

“I want to be a surgeon. I realized that in order for me to be an exceptional doctor, I need to educate myself and advocate for others… I’m looking at diversity programs in medical schools so my education in healthcare can be more well-rounded.”

“I plan to vote for the first time this year, even though I’ve been able to vote since early 2018.”

“My job as a peer coach is to guide new students into the world of college. I believe being able to connect with students of color by being informed about struggles they have that I do not will allow me to do the best job I possibly can… I also believe this new education will allow me the resources to inform white students on how to approach the issue of racism in a healthy and productive manner.”

“Growing up as a young black man, it confused me why we would go over ‘Black History’ at school. I always wondered to myself, ‘Why is our history being separated? Did we not help build America as well? Are we not U.S. History or part of World History?’”

“I grew up in an overwhelmingly white suburb…I have a lot of implicit biases. Being anti-racist doesn’t mean you are 0% racist; instead, it is acknowledging your biases and working to change them while helping others to acknowledge and change as well.”

“I recently learned the extent of racism within the healthcare system and I was shocked to find ingrained racism even in treatment methods. I read a study… and was appalled to discover there is a ‘racial coefficient’… Redlining has left many black communities with insufficient healthcare and food resources, which leads to a huge increase in chronic medical issues… Becoming aware of, acknowledging, and working to take a stand against these forms of racism woven into medical practices is something I am determined to do throughout my career as a physician.”

“As a future educator, it is important that I understand these systemic differences so that I can fight against them and advocate for all of my students. This movement and my education have helped me to also recognize and acknowledge my implicit bias [so that I may] change my thinking.”

“Growing up…my friends, almost weekly, would say, ‘Why are you speaking that way, why are you dressing a certain way?’ I would be told I am the whitest black person [they] know… I strive to speak as grammatically correctly as possible. It apparently is only associated with Caucasians and not Black/African Americans to some people. It’s sad to see because I’m proud to be Black and that me and my background are almost being discredited because of the way I speak and how I don’t speak like a ‘typical black person’.”

“I’m mixed…When I get good grades and awards…I always wonder, ‘[Do they] think it’s the white in me that made me successful?’”

Three months later

In October 2020, three months after our training, I asked my student staff to reflect on if and how their increased knowledge has changed them. Here are their responses.

“When I started to educate myself on anti-racism, I became even more aware of other human and civil rights issues.”

“I will be a more educated voter.”

“One of the biggest steps I have taken is becoming Student Senate Vice President! There I can express students’ opinions and concerns to ‘upper level management’ at the university.”

“My increased awareness of what is going on has also made me pay more attention to other issues that are happening in the world right now. This new awareness has also altered my perspective on not just the issue on hand but every issue that I have encountered. For almost every issue I have thought about I have now put myself in other people’s shoes in order to try and experience what they are experiencing.”

“I have gained more knowledge and confidence in having conversations about social injustices.”

“We can’t expect Black Americans to be happy if the system is built against them. We have to rebuild society so that it functions equally for everyone, so that everyone can feel motivated to contribute to society.”

“At first, I took a stance that I feel many in our world take, and that is one of not placing myself within the problem because it did not directly affect me. Having watched our nation throughout the past months, I have found that it is my place to take a stand and my duty to speak out.”

“I used to never read the news or watch it in the morning but now I am making it a part of my daily routine because I need to stay updated.”

“As [a resident assistant], I am partnering with [the Black Student Union] for an educational presentation on environmental injustice related to African Americans and other minorities.”

“I was trying to figure out a way to implement these ideas into our work on campus and you did it seamlessly with this module. I’m proud to work for someone who takes this social justice initiative seriously and challenges us to have difficult conversations so we can better serve our students. This was a much-needed lesson. Thank you.”

What’s next?

Parts of my staff training course may also be facilitated among segments of our general student population. It may be delivered to our entire first-year class of 600 students through our success series for new students. I may also have the chance to partner with our Center for Faculty Development and Office of Diversity and Inclusion to reformat and package course content for export by interested faculty through our learning management system. This would provide social justice education for upperclassmen students across the university.

Moving forward, I will include a module on some aspect of social justice in all my summer staff trainings. Students’ positive feedback, the depth of their reflections, the value of their actions, and the relevant connection to our university’s mission mean this training is a necessity.

Tips for other university administrators

1. Get buy-in from the top.

Socialize the program and its necessity with the leadership in your organization. Like every cultural change, ownership at the highest level of leadership and “walking the talk” are necessary elements of success.

 2. Meet your students where they are.

Use a variety of sources including popular and social media, YouTube, and scholarly articles. Relating issues of social justice to them is the imperative, so we must present it in a relevant way that resonates. This should not look anything like a corporate harassment video from the 80s.

3. Honor the innocence.

Emerging adults matriculating at our institutions bring with them a variety of regional, family, and social norms that inform their thinking. Appreciate those cultural differences and be certain to inform, never vilify.

4. Be open to unexpected realizations.

Some students may find enlightenment on the way through this education, and that enhanced perspective could highlight a mismatch between their character, their family’s or region’s belief system, and who our students are working to become. Support them.

5. Lean into your personal discomfort.

Check your political views at the door and be vulnerable. This is not easy, but we tell our students that value and growth lie beyond our comfort zone. The same holds true for us. As a member of your university community, you must hold yourself and others accountable to presenting these issues for the benefit of our society. These are the leaders of tomorrow and they must be informed. You also never want your students to wonder where you stand on topics of social justice and inclusion.