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Spelman's Social Justice Fellows Program Prepares Students to Change the World

July 2022

Spelman College Social Justice Program MuralThe lobby of Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Hall features an eye-catching timeline collage honoring Spelman College’s history of activism from the College’s founding to the present.

The hall is home to the Social Justice Fellows Program, which recently marked its 10th anniversary. The expansive, photographic mural is a symbol of pride and inspiration to hundreds of budding scholar-activists.

“The mural was designed so that every time our students pass it, they see the women activists who have come before them and women who are still here doing social justice work,” said Cynthia Neal Spence, Ph.D., C’78, associate professor of sociology and founding director of the Social Justice Fellows Program.

Cynthia Spence“It is a space devoted to the development of scholar-activists who wish to make a difference in the world.” Spence launched the Social Justice Fellows Program in fall 2011. The program’s framework was inspired by the Spelman tagline: “ A Choice to Change the World,” which was introduced during the administration of former Spelman president Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D.

The program creates a space for students to explore and interrogate how individuals historically and contemporarily bring about change at the social, political and legal, and policy levels nationally and globally. Fellows are selected annually as rising juniors and continue in the program through their senior year. They receive semester stipends and participate in social justice advocacy internships, monthly colloquia experiences, book discussions, and social entrepreneurship projects. They represent various academic disciplines and receive faculty and alumnae mentorship in their social justice area of interest.

“I see the program as a way to augment the work that students do in community service, because Spelman also has a strong history of community service,” Spence said.

“But I thought it was important for students to begin to focus on what’s happening on the social and political structural levels that require such a great need for community service and civic engagement. And so, the Social Justice Fellows Program was founded to help students merge their intellectual interests with their social justice passions.” In response to high student interest and limited funding, an associates cohort was added that offers no stipends, but allows more student participation in programming, such as book discussions and internships.

The program serves up to 15 fellows and 50 associates annually. Since its inception, about 400 students have participated as fellows or associates. Currently, the program is 98% grant-funded, which requires constant grant-writing to sustain it. Still, Spence remains optimistic. She hopes the program will gain enough funding to become financially institutionalized and self-sustaining. In the meantime, like Spelman women before them, social justice fellows are leaving a legacy of advocacy.

To ensure initiatives continue after they graduate, they create succession plans to prepare other students to keep the projects going. Ongoing projects include the Blue Record podcast, which pays homage to the Red Record by journalist and activist Ida B. Wells. Another social justice initiative, the Quarterman & Keller Social Justice Scholars, focuses on local and national discussions about reparations.

Spelman College Alumna Tyra BeamanThe project brings together Atlanta University Center students who collect oral histories and engage in racial healing work with descendants of an enslaved family (the Quartermans) and descendants of their enslavers (the Kellers). For her part, Tyra Beaman, C’2016, has strived to heal the nation’s widening divisions one conversation at a time. The former social justice associate and fellow started Difficult Dialogues: Intercollegiate Discussion on Race, Class and Gender during her sophomore year. Difficult Dialogues began as a pilot program with students from Spelman and Oglethorpe University. It has since spread to include Agnes Scott College, Emory University, Freedom University, and other Atlanta University Center institutions. For Beaman, who majored in international studies at Spelman, Difficult Dialogues informs her current work as a diplomat and her lifelong commitment to social justice advocacy and bridging political divides. 

“I would say that during my four years at Spelman, there’s nothing I’m more proud of than the Difficult Dialogues program. The impact is bigger than me or the students who are now running the program,” said Beaman, a U.S. Foreign Service Officer in Brazil.

“The impact is giving young people practical tools they can use when things get tough in the workplace, academic space or at home. They understand that conflict can be resolved by dialogue. To me, there’s nothing more precious than that.” Sophia Howard, C’2021, always knew she wanted to attend a college with a strong history of activism and chose Spelman because of its Social Justice Fellows Program. For her social justice project, she founded Unlocked Minds, a prison education program currently in the form of a book club, at the Whitworth Women’s Facility in Hartwell, Georgia.

Sophia HowardThrough internships with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia and the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, Howard met mentors who helped her develop the program. One of her mentors, Spelman alumna Pamela Winn, C’88, founded the nonprofit RestoreHER, a policy advocacy re-entry organization led by and for justice-involved women of color. “Social advocacy has been such a backbone of the type of people that Spelman creates and then helps to foster,” said Howard, a RestoreHER policy intern who plans to attend law school in the fall.

“I know that my intellectual growth, personal growth and career growth would not be what it is if I had not attended Spelman and if I had not been in the Social Justice Program.” Social justice fellow Taylor Dews, C’2022, has been following in the activist footsteps of the student leaders who started Spelman’s National Action Network chapter. As the chapter’s president, she has focused on strengthening advocacy for the chapter’s key initiative: addressing food insecurity, transportation needs and housing insecurity among college students, especially during the pandemic. “This work isn’t something new.

There’s a legacy of students who experience food insecurity across the nation, especially at colleges and universities,” said Dews, who recalled that in 2017 NAN members at Spelman and Morehouse led a hunger strike to draw attention to the problem.

“It’s a systemic concern at Spelman. I think [addressing these concerns] is the legacy of the National Action Network on campus.” NAN is currently working collaboratively with the Spelman administration on a list of demands to support students in need of food and affordable housing. It also collaborates with the Spelman NAACP chapter, Difficult Dialogues, and the Atlanta Student Movement Takeover. NAN leader and social justice fellow Lauren Nicks, C’2023, created a website to connect students with resources. In a decade of advocacy work inspired by a mural of trailblazing women, social justice fellows have forged their own paths to create positive change.

Spelman College Valedictorian Taylor Dews“I think that our social justice work is informed by what has been done before us,” said Dews, an anthropology and sociology major who plans to earn a Ph.D. and become an anthropology professor and filmmaker.“Prior to coming to Spelman, I was a social justice warrior in high school. But at Spelman, I was able to frame all of my thoughts and how I viewed the world through an academic lens and a social justice advocacy lens,” Dews said. “And with that framing, I think I’ll go into the world, keenly aware of the ways I experience oppression, but also the ways I am privileged and can contribute to the world in a generative way.”

Connie G. Freightman is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and editor.

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