This school year marked the launch of the first-ever Social Justice Advocacy Fellowship. The fellowship was a two quarter program that sought to teach students how to actively and efficiently engage in advocacy on campus and in a larger context. Twenty five students from varying backgrounds participated.
During the first half of the fellowship, students met weekly to learn about and discuss a variety of themes vital to effective advocacy work, everything from creating the messages that are most important to lobbying for support.
Throughout spring quarter the students got involved and worked in small groups directly with organizations to affect change in their areas of interest. The groups worked in affordable housing in Evanston, access to healthcare for immigrants and refugees in Chicago, public policy conversations around education reform, and free feminine hygiene products in public K-12 schools.
Fellowship facilitator and recent graduate Matt Fulle said that students learned with hands-on experience “how to think about not only what’s happening on campus, but what’s happening beyond our campuses where there are a lot of political barriers that need to be overcome. [The fellowship] was a huge opportunity and it’s incredibly important, even if it’s only within a campus context, for students to get involved in activism in any way that they can.”
Kelly Benkert, group founder and Director of Leadership & Community Engagement, said, “Every expectation that I had around student learning has been met and exceeded.” She noted that it was especially exciting to watch the group that wanted to promote free feminine hygiene products in schools work with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund to help pass the Learn with Dignity Act through the Illinois House of Representatives and Senate. The bill was sent to Governor Bruce Rauner on June 23 but has not yet been signed into law.
Through their time spent working with the organizations, “students have expressed a depth of knowledge around the skills of advocacy, and also an appreciation for what it takes to actually make change happen,” Benkert said.
Fulle noted that the program allowed students to partake in a kind of learning that can’t be done in the classroom.
“The skills we were teaching are muscles,” he said. “We had to teach them how to use them. We saw that over the course of the six months, those muscles [developed], where they thought of them automatically.”
Now that this first group of students has learned how to be effective activists, Benkert hopes they will continue to put those skills to work.“You can look across the last 30 years and see different points where campus activism has been more prevalent for the span of a couple years at a time,” she said. “We’re in one of those points and my hope would be that we can sustain that activism. It makes us a healthier, better campus when students are engaged in the direction of their institution and help to shape that direction based on what they care about.”