Article by Katie Bedrich | Photos by Rachael Giles and Ginny Sturgill
Social-justice issues can be controversial and difficult to tackle in a classroom setting. Sometimes the best way for students to understand the world around them is to take action on a local level. Dr. Rekha Nath, assistant professor of philosophy at The University of Alabama, says this is why she chose to incorporate community service into one of her courses.
“I really wanted my students to get involved with real-life community initiatives to promote social justice so that we could put those experiences in context when studying theories of social justice in the classroom,” she says.
Nath’s class, PHL 390 Social Justice in Practice, focuses on the demands of justice on regional and local levels – in the American South, Alabama and Tuscaloosa. Each semester, about 25 students study historical and contemporary events in society, the evolution of laws, the perspectives of social-change advocates and philosophical theories. They then apply these concepts to their community by completing at least 20 hours of service with one of three organizations: Tuscaloosa’s One Place, Project Literacy and Druid City Garden Project.
At Tuscaloosa’s One Place, UA students mentor children in extended-day programs at underserved schools. Students working with Project Literacy tutor functionally illiterate adults who are striving to attain a GED or improve their reading skills. Those who volunteer with Druid City Garden Project facilitate lessons and maintain garden beds at Tuscaloosa-area elementary schools.
“In these different service projects, students gain an understanding of some of the specific manifestations of poverty, deprivation, racial injustices, inequalities and the particular challenges that are involved in addressing these issues,” Nath says.
Allison Cohen, a senior majoring in public relations with a philosophy minor, says she chose to work with Tuscaloosa’s One Place because of issues surrounding public-school funding that were discussed in PHL 390. She says she learned schools in low-income areas sometimes don’t have funding for extracurricular programs.
“After-school programs can be a big struggle,” says Cohen, who attended private school through the eighth grade.
Cohen worked with a group of first graders at Matthews Elementary in Northport, Ala., for two hours per week during the Spring 2015 semester. She helped kids with everything from homework, math problems and reading to mediating issues with friends and family.
“Some kids, when they go home, they don’t have crayons to color with and they don’t have someone to sit down and explain a math problem because their parents are working,” Cohen says. “So when they’re here, we really pick up those issues and try to handle them in the classroom setting.”
Emerald Autrey, volunteer coordinator for Tuscaloosa’s One Place, says UA student volunteers are vital to the success of the nonprofit organization’s after-school programs at nine Tuscaloosa-area elementary, middle and high schools.
“They directly serve children in this community by providing them with both academic and social support,” she says. “To some volunteers, two hours a week may be just a tiny part of their lives, but to the kids who are there waiting for those students to show up, it’s huge.”
Christopher Gonzalez-Tablada, a senior majoring in philosophy and minoring in creative writing, took part in Project Literacy at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa.
Kristen Bobo, adult education site coordinator for Project Literacy, says the program has three goals: to raise awareness of the problem of adult functional illiteracy, to recruit and train volunteer reading tutors and to encourage participation by those who need assistance with reading.
Gonzalez says he was overwhelmed at first when he learned 16 percent of the state’s residents are functionally illiterate (according to the National Center for Education Statistics). The Literacy Council of West Alabama estimates 35 percent of West Alabama residents are illiterate.
“Working with some of these adults reminded me how blessed I am to have been born into an encouraging environment with more-than-adequate learning facilities,” Gonzalez-Tablada says. “But rather than simply counting my blessings, I have now realized that those who have been given great opportunities to succeed should look within themselves and see how they can enrich the community around them.
“This class actually inspired me to join two honors classes that are solely community-oriented. I am currently counseling high school students as they prepare for college as well as teaching a gardening class to students at Oakdale Elementary for Druid City Garden Project.”
Lindsay Turner, executive director for Druid City Garden Project, also says UA students, including those in PHL 390, are key to her organization’s programs.
“Specifically in Alabama, we are a state that is so steeped in agricultural history and yet most of our elementary students – and quite frankly even some of our college students – have no idea where their food comes from,” Turner says.
With the help of the PHL 390 volunteers, kids watch their food grow and learn the importance of sustainable food systems on local and national levels.
“I think that across the country there are issues surrounding our food system,” Turner says. “The issues not only span socioeconomic lines, but have environmental impacts and impacts on trade and U.S. foreign aid and so on.”
Nath says the goal of working with programs such as TOP, DCGP and Project Literacy is to give UA students opportunities to work on social justice issues they aren’t familiar with, but that mesh with their personal interests.
“I hope they have the chance to interact with people they wouldn’t otherwise spend time with,” she says, “and also gain a greater understanding of challenges involved in working towards greater justice on a community-wide level.”
PHL 390 Social Justice in Practice is offered during the fall semester. To learn more about the course, contact Dr. Rekha Nath at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-348-5942.