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Grad students explore nexus of race, social justice, policy

Manuel Pastor joins the conversation among academics and community experts

by Robin Heffler

Graduate students from the USC Price School of Public Policy and the USC School of Social Work partnered to organize the first Students of Color and Allies Policy Forum, which examined policy, planning, development and social work issues within the context of race, ethnicity, class and social justice.

More than 70 USC Price and social work students came together to discuss how to address racial and social justice issues in their fields. In addition to sharing their own experiences, the students heard from academic and community experts at the half-day event.

USC Price Master of Public Policy student Justin Tandingan, president of the Graduate Policy and Administration Community and co-organizer of the event, noted that the goal of the forum was to go beyond statistics about race that are presented in the classroom and to “have a conversation at a deeper level about how these statistics have an impact in the community, which communities and why.”

Students of Color Forum

USC students organize the first Students of Color and Allies Policy Forum. (USC Photo/Tom Queally)

The opening keynote speaker was USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences Professor Manuel Pastor, director of USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and co-director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. Pastor’s work focuses on environmental justice, regional inclusion, and the economic and social conditions facing low-income urban communities. He offered advice from his 25 years of research collaboration with community organizations.

Among his recommendations for students when they take jobs that seek to bring about social change were to “be humble, but confident” and “move past critique and protest to constructiveness and proposal.” Pastor added, “Realize you don’t have to do everything, but be part of an ecosystem of people who can do a piece of it, like you can.

“You’re in this because something deeply touched you, something about your own experience,” Pastor said. “It deserves all of your social science research, but it deserves all your passion and love as well.”



Know the facts, solve problems

In the social justice panel discussion that followed, four professionals touched on how their work and identities were shaped by issues of race, gender, sexual orientation and poverty.

When engaged in work for social change that involves considerations of race, gender, class and other factors, the panelists advised students to be comfortable with their own backgrounds, while also encouraging them to know the facts of the situation, including the best data. The panel’s other suggestions included demonstrating the ability to solving problems, not just critiquing them; finding mentors; and taking a teamwork approach to help communities to help themselves.

Besides the race conversations workshop, there were three other interactive sessions. “Making a ‘Case’ for Social Justice” offered practical skills for analyzing and finding solutions to dilemmas faced by marginalized communities. “Community Engagement as a Tool,” led by USC Price Professor LaVonna Lewis, presented methods of using community engagement in policy, planning and development, particularly in addressing the health care needs of underrepresented groups. “Critical Race Conversations: Overcoming Power Dynamics to Build Strong Allies” engaged students on how power and privilege shape marginalization and oppression, drawing from their personal experiences.

According to Tandingan, the student planners are considering a follow-up to the “Critical Race Conversations” workshop because of requests from attendees, and another forum next year.

Participating USC Price student associations included the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus; Associated Students of Planning and Development; Association of Black Students in Policy, Planning and Development; Graduate Policy and Administration Community; Latino Association for Policy, Planning and Development; Partnership for an Equitable Los Angeles; and Women Leading Policy, Planning and Development. USC School of Social Work participating groups included the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus, Black Social Work Caucus, Social Action Caucus and the Social Work Student Organization. The forum was held April 18 at the Radisson Hotel at USC.

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