Students learn the power of collective voice while advocating for justice

August 31, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students discovered the power of community voice while working as interns over the summer through a social justice program facilitated by the Penn State Center Philadelphia, a Penn State Outreach service. Jaqueline Saleeby and Mackenzie Flanders both pivoted from their summer projects to assisting in the organization of a virtual symposium for the Penn State community that will be held in September and is focused on racial justice.

Saleeby is a junior majoring in geography in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State and interned over the summer with The U School in Philadelphia. The “U” represents “users” who are the students, educators, parents and guardians asked by the school to be at the center of designing the learning experience. Saleeby said she worked with three different teams of high school students to create ways to learn about urban farming, cooking, food justice and the environment.

“I worked with one teacher and about a third of the students to create lesson plans and a summer program that allows students to get hands-on experience while being completely remote and unable to meet,” Saleeby said. “There have been obstacles in getting all of the students to be engaged, which led to many video meetings and re-creating lesson plans. Students have interest in different areas, so allowing them to choose where they want to spend their time as well as spending more time with the ones interested in the lesson plans that I created has been fun.”

Saleeby said that after the death of George Floyd in July, her focus turned more toward racial justice.

“Attending protests, watching heartbreaking news stories, and actively trying to be anti-racist has in a way influenced all aspects of my life as I have tried to recognize my privilege and fight for justice however I possibly can,” Saleeby said. “This includes the program I am working on; the students are learning about environmental justice and food insecurity, and I am learning along with them.” 

Flanders is a sophomore majoring in political science in the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State. She interned with the Shut Down Berks Coalition, which is actively fighting to close a family detainment center for immigrants in Berks County. She said her work included managing social media accounts, writing news releases, and assisting with the planning and execution of events, including a town hall. 

“With these tasks, I was able to connect with thousands of supporters who each share a special connection with the movement. I got to interact with the lawyers who represented the families in the detention center and hear the voices of the families who are struggling in the Berks Detainment Center,” Flanders said. “I was also able to interact with the Family Doctors Against Family Detainment who shared the health concerns with keeping families, especially children, in indefinite detainment. And, I got to hear from community members who are unhappy, appalled and revolted by the Berks Detainment Center operating in their backyards.”  

Flanders said she learned the coalition relied on both litigation and community organizing to achieve its goal.

“Rallying the community and showing a collective voice is equally or more important than legal work,” said Flanders. 

Carly Pourzand, program manager for the Penn State Center Philadelphia, said Flanders helped virtually advocate for the coalition during her virtual field placement by learning the inner-workings of a community-led campaign and used new skills to uplift their message.

“Kenzie also collaborated with partners in order to support Shut Down Berks' message within the broader context of the popular uprisings,” Pourzand said. “One partnership evolved into a research project on the history of social movements and hunger strikes related to mass incarceration. Kenzie came into this experience with an investment in ending mass incarceration; it was evident in our cohort sessions that this experience deepened her investment by offering her insight into the realities of immigrant detention.”

Shivaani Selvaraj, director for the Penn State Center Philadelphia, said the cohort experience provides a space for students in the Social Justice Internship Program to discuss the relationship of their day-to-day work within the larger context of events going on in the world.

“This summer was particularly compelling between the pandemic and the recent popular uprisings, which may be the largest social movement that we've seen in this country,” Selvaraj said. “Students reflected on their internships, in which they witnessed the impacts of this historic year on vulnerable populations who are our neighbors in Pennsylvania. They were inspired to learn and apply concrete skills in a variety of change-making efforts, ranging from designing community mapping lessons to exploring food access in neighborhoods to using social media to advance campaigns. As a co-facilitator of this program, it was evident that the students are eager for analytical tools to understand increasing racial polarization in our communities in order to have constructive conversations and frameworks to design strategies for change.”

In July, Flanders and Saleeby participated in a die-in organized in response to the death of George Floyd. Both students are also involved in the organization of the virtual symposium “Reflections on Organizing and Power: Anti-Black Police Brutality and the Popular Uprisings” which is scheduled to take place from 1 to 4:15 p.m. on Sept. 18 via Zoom.

Details about the symposium can be found here and visit the Penn State Center Philadelphia for more information about internship programs relating to racial and social justice.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 15, 2021