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Facilitating Social Justice Learning at NYU and at Your Campus

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice
June 11, 2020 Qwen Ballard Blake Robert Abraham Kaililauli’i Viena Yettieve Marquez-Santana Josephine Gonzalez Jonathan Wiggins

Excellence Awards recognize the contributions of members who are transforming higher education through outstanding programs, innovative services, and effective administration. NASPA's Excellence Awards cover eleven categories crucial to the success of students. Sharing our successes benefit students, improves institutions, and promotes our profession. 

2020 Contracted Services Housing Residence Life and related Excellence Award Winner: Erin Callihan and New York University.

From the Black civil rights movement of the early 1960s, to the evolution of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, to student activism at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) in 2015, students across the nation have been actively involved in social justice and identity exploration work. In 2015, a committee within the Department of Residential Life & Housing Services at New York University (NYU) was appointed to explore ways that universities across the United States were engaging students in conversations about diversity. The information collected motivated us to proactively create a stronger integration of social justice into our regular work. This process involved cultivating the value of training our professional staff members on the foundation of dialogue principals, which resulted in the creation of the Facilitating Social Justice Learning (FSJL) initiative. 

The goal of FSJL is for professional staff members to gain the facilitation skills and knowledge necessary to lead conversations surrounding issues of social justice. These dialogues took place twice a semester with our Resident Assistants (RAs) as the participants. Professional staff received ongoing training and development on facilitating social justice learning to strengthen their confidence, lean into discomfort, and effectively manage difficult conversations. Some discussion topics included: Colorism, Restorative Practices in relation to Social Justice Dialogue, Sexism in Sports, Socioeconomic Status, Trans Rights Are Human Rights, Understanding & Unpacking Feminism, and Voter Suppression. 

An additional goal of FSJL was to create communities that are inclusive of all social identities due to the increasing diversity within the student population. It was important for us that our RAs were able to continually develop their cultural competence in order to foster inclusive communities on their floors and in their residence halls. As a result of participating in FSJL dialogues, our RAs reported that they felt better equipped to have challenging discussions with their residents as they arose.

Planning & Implementation 

Before identifying our vision for FSJL, it was essential to take inventory of our campus community. At NYU there are approximately 12,000 residents that live on campus with over 300 student Resident Assistants and Resource Center Assistants across 23 residence halls in New York City. We have a total of 80 professional staff members of diverse backgrounds and various levels of experience with facilitating formal social justice conversations. To create a common foundation for training, we decided to use restorative justice and intergroup dialogue as our theoretical frameworks. 

The Restorative Justice Framework provided our professional staff members with tools on how to engage participants when discomfort or triggers occur by other members in the group and/or through societal influences. Feeling apprehensive is one of the common challenges that often steers the facilitator and co-participants from engaging in difficult dialogue. Some of the strategies included using the compass of shame model, affective statements, the use of circles, and a talking piece. Professional staff members used this framework to directly address harm when having social justice conversations or to encourage vulnerability. 

In addition to restorative practices, we used Intergroup dialogue (IGD) tenets to further our work. IGD fosters critical and reflective conversations about issues of difference and social justice in a small, facilitated co-learning environment (Zúñiga, Nagda, Chesler & Cytron-Walker, 2007). IGD provided our professional staff members with tools to bring groups of students from diverse backgrounds together to share their experiences and gain new knowledge related to diversity and social justice. This was extremely helpful considering that our student and professional staff members came with an array of personal and social identities. We covered topics such as dialogue, active listening skills, managing triggers, and much more. We defined dialogue, as “a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us ... out of which will emerge some new understanding. This shared meaning is the ‘glue’ or ‘cement’ that holds people and societies together (Bohm, D. (1990). On Dialogue. New York, NY: Routledge. p.1). 

During the academic year, FSJL was facilitated twice a semester during scheduled RA meetings. FSJL topics were chosen by each Residence Hall’s professional staff members based on the needs of the community or current events. At the conclusion of each dialogue, the RAs completed an FSJL assessment which provided our professional staff members with feedback and ideas for the next dialogue. The facilitators provided follow-up resources related to the topic and its impact on their local and/or global communities. Such shared resources included videos, articles, and/or a list of applicable organizations related to the topic. Finally, at the end of each semester, our facilitators completed a self-assessment survey. This provided the FSJL taskforce with data to see the effectiveness of our offered training sessions and if we were meeting our goal of enhancing our professional staff members’ facilitation skills.

Our Achieved Outcomes

Two separate assessments were designed with questions tailored to the RAs and professional staff members in our department. The overarching goal was to determine if professional staff members were developing the skills and knowledge necessary to facilitate conversations surrounding issues of social justice. Secondarily, the assessment was to identify the most effective facilitation strategies for RAs’ learning and engagement. Overall, we saw an increase in our professional staff members' confidence levels with facilitating difficult conversations centered on social justice learning and gathered key takeaways in the process. 

Professional Staff Key Takeaways

  • Planning/Preparation - facilitators who adequately prepared for their dialogues and provided participants with a variety of engagement opportunities resulted in higher engagement.
  • Connection - the most effective dialogues occurred when RAs felt connected to topics that were timely to current events.
  • Student Staff Engagement - facilitators who demonstrated more of a willingness to share and engage with their RAs contributed to better dialogues overall.
  • Organization/Structure - Facilitators who were intentional in determining group sizes, timing, varied activities, and use of resources helped to increase the chances of having a successful dialogue. These various aspects heavily impacted the participants’ group dynamics during the dialogues.

Participant Key Takeaways

  • Self-awareness - Participants shared a stronger desire to self reflect and further advance their understanding of personal and social experiences.
  • Learning - Participants showed increased engagement and comprehension of social justice issues on a local and global scale.
  • Advocacy - Participants reported a stronger desire to support others through dialogue and action.
  • Multiple Perspective - Participants felt more equipped and willing to engage others in difficult dialogues regarding differences. 

Recommendations on How to Get Started 

  1. Assess the need for social justice dialogue at your campus.
  2. Create a task force by considering who will make an influential impact within your department. The task force should encompass individuals that support the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion on your campus.
  3. Develop a mission and vision which enables the task force to create goals and reliable assessment that will measure if goals were met.
  4. Determine stakeholders (partnerships) and resources on campus that can be useful for training, buy-in, and potential financial support. Furthermore, by determining potential partnerships early in the process, you can have faculty and staff in an array of functional areas such as GLBT student services, civic learning and democratic engagement, disability support services, leadership development, and multicultural affairs to determine areas of growth.
  5. Plan facilitator training to build competency in theories related to social justice (i.e., Restorative Justice and Intergroup Dialogue) and to create buy-in. Determine the structure of the program you hope to develop while keeping in mind feasibility, capacity, budget, and investment from all parties. Set aside ample amounts of time to review integral components needed to make this a successful program at your campus.
  6. Assess the data at the end of the academic year and refine and restructure as needed. A summer FSJL taskforce is helpful to review and analyze the collected data and make any necessary changes to strengthen the initiative.