January 2011 Issue
December 21, 2010

Engaging college campuses in social justice

Author: Darryl McGrath
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler brings his social justice message to a SUNY Geneseo audience. Photo by Kris J. Murante.

In an era of quick-hit text messages and short attention spans, how do you teach college students that social justice can take years — even decades — to achieve?

You start with a quiet conversation to a small group, so students feel like they've each just had a glimpse of the good they could do with their lives and their educations.

This is how NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler is reaching out to college students around the state to teach them about social justice. He met with SUNY Geneseo students in November, and he'll visit SUNY Stony Brook students on the same mission in March.

"It was just a really nice fit for me to be there," Cutler said of his Geneseo trip, where he met with students in the "Gold" program (Geneseo Opportunities for Leadership Development), as well as Geneseo chapter members from United University Professions. Tom Matthews, a UUP delegate from Geneseo and also the college's director of leadership, educational development and training, helped organize the workshop with the students.

During both talks, Cutler discussed NYSUT's recent campaigns to raise awareness about violence against women and child labor, as well as NYSUT's collaboration with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Through this partnership, NYSUT members helped develop the curriculum for the "Speak Truth to Power" program in public schools in New York. The curriculum highlights the lives of contemporary human rights activists, and more than 1,000 students participated in a webinar that launched the curriculum last month (See related story).

Students in the GOLD program prepare for careers in public service through courses, volunteer work, service projects and discussions and workshops with community leaders.

"There were a lot of good questions, and in particular a lot of good questions about politics," Cutler said of his meeting with students.

The students keep a journal about their participation in the GOLD program, and after Cutler's talk, one student wrote, "In the future, I will try to be more aware of times when I am hesitant to speak up to authority figures when I see something wrong, or something that could be changed."

That's just the reaction Matthews hoped Cutler's visit would have.

"I think he challenged them," Matthews said. "If even one person says they'll do something, that's great."