Sunday, October 7, 2018

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Alex Mejia on Changemaking

We are very happy to publish a series of blogs from last year's Changemaker Faculty Fellows.  This week we are highlighting Dr. Alex Meijia, assistant professor of general engineering at USD's Shiley-Marcus School of Engineering. Alex took part in last year's Changemaker Faculty Fellows program in 2017-2018, below is his reflection on the experience and how it aligns with his current changemaking work. We will be sharing additional blogs from faculty this year.

I joined the Changemaker Faculty Fellows Development Program to gain the theoretical concepts and practical tools to engage in social justice advocacy. I was interested in learning more about how social justice and changemaking approaches work toward eliminating issues of inequity in our communities. I know that in order to make change happen I needed to continue learning from others and reflect on my role as an educator, researcher, and member of the community. Paulo Freire emphasized the importance of developing a critical awareness of one’s social reality through reflection and action. Freire also argued that we need to stop regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and see them as individuals who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, and historically oppressed. The ways of knowing and meaning-making practices of members of our communities should not be silenced or sanctioned. We need to fight alongside the oppressed and not make only pious, sentimental, or individualistic gestures.

As a Changemaker Faculty Fellow, I knew that I could engage in activities and practices to learn from others and collaborate with faculty, staff, students, stakeholders, and the community to achieve collective impact. The Changemaker Faculty Fellows Development Program became the vehicle to fight alongside the oppressed and support their own quest to liberation. I believe that the Program provided the space for synergistic interactions with faculty, staff, students and the community to achieve institutional change and equity. As a Latinx, I wanted to be part of this initiative to empower our communities and together create new solutions to problems of equity, access, education, and social policy.

I applied to the Changemaker Faculty Fellows Development Program because I believe that it is important to acknowledge, value, and validate the knowledge, skills, and practices of people of color in our communities that are frequently silenced. The program gave me the opportunity to interact with people across different disciplines who have the common goal to make change happen. I joined to learn more about policy, how to be more engaged and participate in action research to enact change toward social justice and be part of the university-wide Vision and Pathways to 2024. I was very interested in learning more about how to form cooperative relationships with faculty, staff, students, community members and stakeholders to plan strategic action for change, participate in engaged interdisciplinary scholarship, expand access and inclusion initiatives, monitor the problems and effects of changes, and reflect on the value and consequences of the changes implemented. I wanted to be able to bring all that knowledge and everything I learned through the program to my classroom and encourage others to engage collectively to develop a critical consciousness and have the ability to perceive social, political, and economic oppression and to take action against those oppressive forces.

For the past few years, I have worked on issues related to access to engineering education, literacy, and equity in STEM. For instance, the number of Latinx students in the K-12 population is constantly growing but Latinx are disproportionately not pursuing careers in engineering. At the foundation of this problem lies a deficit of critical sociocultural knowledge about these students. Although Latinx adolescents bring a wealth of knowledge, skills, and practices into the classroom, they are often unacknowledged. Dismantling prevailing notions of educational access and opportunity is critical for engineering and STEM education policy, practice, and research. Often, the narratives of people of color are omitted from the engineering curriculum. One of my goals as a Changemaker Faculty Fellow is to learn more about the synergies between research, teaching, and service that can help me continue working on this area. I also want to connect with other researchers and educators in other disciplines that can help me elaborate more robust approaches to tackle these important issues.

I believe that I can bring my research, teaching, and personal expertise and experiences to the table and contribute to the larger effort of achieving equity and social justice through engineering education and interdisciplinary collaboration. I would like to share this knowledge with others, learn from others, and together work toward a common goal.

I also believe that as an educator I can share with other Fellows some of the strategies I have used in the classroom to integrate social justice into the curriculum and how that translates into culturally responsive education. I am currently teaching an engineering and social justice course that seeks to help students understand how engineering designs, systems, processes, and products impact society, and reflect on our roles as engineers to achieve true change in the world. Students also learn about social responsibility, unequal power relationships, and reflect on their own privilege. I believe that all these efforts have had an impact on my students and colleagues, and influenced the ways we talk about diversity, equity, and transformation in engineering.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Changemaking and Discourse: The Power of Labels

The following reflection was written and shared by Dr. Kate DeConinck, Teaching Professor, Department of Theology and Religious Studies.

In 1943, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt published an article entitled “We Refugees” in a small Jewish periodical. Like many Jews, Arendt had fled Nazi-occupied Germany in the mid-1930s, and her article describes the discomfort that those who had recently arrived in the United States felt at being labeled “refugees.” She begins the article: “In the first place, we don’t like to be called ‘refugees.’ We ourselves call each other ‘newcomers’ or ‘immigrants.’[…] A refugee used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held. Well, it is true we have had to seek refuge; but we committed no acts and most of us never dreamt of having any radical political opinion” (69). The stigma that came with being labeled refugees had deep psychological and existential consequences for the Jewish American community, as evidenced in a story that Arendt shares about a man named Mr. Cohn, who goes so far out of his way to assimilate to his new country that he loses all sense of who he is.

This past spring, I taught FYW 150: Rhetorics of Fear, Hope, and Belonging in the U.S., and one of the first readings that I assigned to my students was Arendt’s article. To be honest, I was not sure how our class discussion surrounding this piece would unfold—this was my first time teaching a course geared exclusively toward first-year students, and I wondered if they would grasp the meaning of Arendt’s prose or find her claims interesting. To my delight, what unfolded in our classroom was a meaningful dialogue about the power of labels. We talked about the challenges that Jews coming to America in the post-World War II era faced and how conventional ways of framing identity and inclusion (which were—are often still are today—derived from the concept of nationhood) only contributed to their hardships. We also read the late Eddie Ellis’s “An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language” aloud together. Ellis was an activist who spent 25 years in New York’s maximum security prisons before going on to co-found a think tank that advocates for the formerly incarcerated. In this letter, he writes about the damage that labels like criminal, inmate, prisoner, felon and so forth can have upon men and women who are trying to forge new paths forward in their lives. Ellis claims that terms like these are “devoid of humanness” and only serve to portray the formerly incarcerated as “things,” or embodiments of their crimes, rather than people (1). He encourages his audience to reconsider the language that they use, writing: “[we believe] that if we can get…publications, organizations and individuals like you to stop using the old offensive language and simply refer to us as ‘people,’ we will have achieved a significant step forward in our life giving struggle to be recognized as the human beings we are. We have made our mistakes, yes, but we have also paid or are paying our debts to society” (2).

Our conversation about these readings highlighted how the discourse we use in our everyday lives has real implications for the ways in which we imagine the world around us as well as our relationships with others. “Changemaking” can be a big concept to wrap our minds around, often conjuring notions of large-scale activism or fearless dedication to empowering underserved communities. But, as our dialogue in class revealed, Changemaking can also take form at a more mundane level. The ways in which we speak about other people in our everyday lives can also serve to effect change and promote social justice.

To follow up on this conversion in class, I asked my students to complete a short writing assignment for inclusion in their weekly writing portfolios. Students were tasked with picking one word that is commonly used to describe a group of people in the United States today and then write a short response to unpack the weight that word carries. With their permission, I share some “snapshots” from their work here:

      One of my students wrote his response about use of the word “slut” in America today. He observed that the way this word is commonly deployed is wedded to the idea that women’s sexuality is shameful and should not be visible in the public sphere. He wrote that use of the word slut “discourages women from being comfortable in their own bodies” and only serves to fuel “cycles of oppressive patriarchy” in our country today.

      Hailee Litchfield wrote about the connotations that the label “widow” carries in the United States, as reflected in her own mother’s experiences after losing her husband. Instead of empowering and supporting her mother, many people tended to assume that she was fragile, needy, and helpless. “Women like my other do not want pity from others,” Hailee wrote. “They want others to believe that they can get through this difficult time so that they feel empowered to move forward with greater confidence.”

      Shelby Little reflected on the phrase “illegal alien.” This terminology cultivates a certain perception of immigrants in our society today, she claimed, by generating both fear and distance. She wrote: “if we continue to talk about undocumented humans traveling to the United States as ‘illegal aliens,’ [we will perpetuate the notion that] these people are not actually people, but are creatures from another planet that are dangerous and a threat to public safety.”

      Two other students in my class reflected on labels that carry more subtle but equally significant baggage. Hannah McIntosh wrote about the term “dropout” and the common assumption that a dropout is someone who has willingly left school because of “a lack of intelligence, use of drugs, or unexpected pregnancy.” These stereotypes overshadow more complex realities. In fact, many people are forced to abandon school due to their families’ economic situations, situations of abuse, or other serious obstacles—which is not to say that these individuals are incapable of earning their degrees. Another student wrote about the label “handicapped/disabled,” which often lumps people with diverse life experiences and histories under a broad term. This label also says a lot about the sorts of “abilities” that our society sees as valuable or normative.

I share these selections from my students’ work with the hope that their ideas might inspire further critical reflection and dialogue about how to promote Changemaking through small but intentional changes in our everyday discourse.


Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” in Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, edited by Marc Robinson (Boston: Faber & Faber, 1994): 110-119.

Eddie Ellis, “An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language,” Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, 2007,

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Changemaking Starts Here

September 3, 2018
2018 Orientation presentation by Dr. Mike Williams, Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Director of the Changemaker Hub

As we have celebrated Aretha Franklin’s life this week, we have been reminded of how her music is related to social justice and social change.  How she used her skills, passions, and gifts to make a difference in the world.  While she did not solve the issue of civil rights with her songs, she was in the arena of the struggle – seeking to create positive social change.

At USD, we want you to practice changemaking– both while you are here and after you graduate.  To do this will be challenging and “solving issues” with respect to social justice is a long, difficult journey.  But still, we ask you to join our campus efforts.

My name is Mike Williams. I teach in the PS/IR department and I am the director of the Changemaker Hub.  Welcome to USD!

We know that many of you chose USD because it is a Changemaker Campus.  I am here to tell you what this actually means.

First, let me start by saying that I graduated from USD in 1992 and I started teaching here in 1999 – so I have been around this place for a while.  Well, as a junior I traveled to South Africa and the trip changed my life.  I was in SA in the summer of 1991 – 18 months after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison – and I met many people my age who did not know if their country would become a democracy or descend into civil war. 

I came back with an idea – to offer scholarships to young South Africans to come to USD to study.

I talked to a few faculty and staff about this idea and one person told me that what I needed to do was to raise one million dollars to endow a scholarship.  One million dollars?  I had no idea how to do this. 

I admit that this may not have been the best or most feasible idea but it still makes me sad that there was not more support for me to pursue it.

The campus today is different than it was then.  It is a place where everyone is encouraged to come up with ideas that might have a positive social impact.  Now, I am not saying that we have one million dollars for every idea but we are committed to supporting you in other ways.

In other words, you have opportunities to engage in social justice issues in ways that previous students could not even imagine.

What will you do with these opportunities?  What matters to you?  Not in terms of a job or a career but in terms of what kind of person you want to become.

Think about it for a moment.   What do you want to learn about the issues that matter the most to you?  What do you want to learn about the communities that you live in or the ones you want to visit?  What do you want your friends and family to say about you and your life on your 23rd birthday?

I know these are big questions.  These are difficult questions.  But we do not expect you to tackle these questions on your own.  More than anything, the fact that USD has been designated a Changemaker Campus means that we, as a community, are dedicated to provide you with the support you need to build the foundations for a more purposeful and meaningful life.  One office that you can visit to discuss these opportunities is the Changemaker Hub – but as you will learn there are many others

Okay, so a lot of you chose USD because we are a CM campus – so, what does this mean?

We believe that students are not born Changemakers, and there is not one definition, one box or mold that you need to fit in. You will become changemakers through practice.  And we believe that everyone can practice changemaking in their own way.

So, think about the practice of changemaking as you might think about learning a sport, or an instrument.  In each of these endeavors, you bring your own skills, values, and knowledge.  It is the same with practicing changemaking. It requires you commit time and effort - all while enjoying a process that is self-reflective, critical and humble.  We are not saviors at USD, nor do we want to be.  We do not have all the answers.  What we do have is a campus that is committed to asking questions and looking for solutions in ways that can address the world’s most urgent social issues in collaboration and solidarity with the community.

There are three basic steps to practicing changemaking: 1) learn; 2) connect, and 3) engage.
The first step in practicing changemaking is to learn about the social issues that you are most interested in.

You will start practicing changemaking on Wednesday in your classes – like it or not.  Don’t be fooled if your professor doesn’t mention the practice of changemaking – you are still beginning the process.

Why?  Well, one of the most critical aspects of practicing changemaking is that you have knowledge about the social issues you are interested in.  And don’t worry if you don’t know which social issue that you care about right now or if you care about many.  Before you graduate, you can explore all of your passions, and also, get the kind of deep knowledge you will need that is necessary to make a difference.  It is what professors do best at USD – we introduce new ideas, topics, and concepts until you at last find the ones you love the most.

In each of the classes in your LLC, the Core, and your major, you will learn about yourself, about other communities, and about the world in ways that are new and exciting.  You will find that the stereotypes you once had in your head about a particular group or place will be challenged.  And with each new story you learn about these groups or places, your insights will expand.

Your new insights will motivate you to want to connect even more with the people, places or ideas you have discovered in classes.  You will want to connect in a deeper way.  I have learned that this forces us to look up from our phones and begin to make the relationships that will define who we are.

We do not practice changemaking alone.  We need to work with others. 

Yet, we live in an intensely individualistic society.  We are taught to think about our own passions.  We are taught to write about our own dreams and passions in college admissions essays.   To practice changemaking, you will need to shift the perspective from Me to Us. 

You will find at USD that many people who have been here before you have already started to address the issues that you find important.  Meet these people and take note of the progress they have made and join with them.  The efforts that others have made are your starting point - but they need not be your ending point.      

Some of the students that we meet in the Changemaker Hub want to skip the first two steps – learning and connecting – and move right to engagement.  The reason is understandable.  There are urgent, pressing issues at USD and in the broader community and our students desperately want to act.  I think this is a wonderful instinct.  It is okay to want to act – but when you engage, you must be ready.

You see, engaging has its own possible pitfalls.  First, it is scary to engage – even when you have the knowledge and the connections.  What if others do not like your idea?  What if your idea doesn’t work?

But to practice changemaking means that you will have to overcome these fears.  You will have to take risks.

Also, effective engagement requires an approach that is rooted in empathy and not sympathy.  This is not always easy.  And don’t worry, if you are not sure of what the difference is between empathy and sympathy.  I promise you will “get it” after you hear the two accounts of USD students in the My Story presentation that is happening next.

So, practicing changemaking is not easy.  But I guarantee you that when you decide to act, you will find support at USD.  You will not be alone.  And if you engage once, you will want to do it again and again.  Why?  Because trying to make a positive impact in the world with others is fulfilling and brings happiness. 

And that is the goal – for you to graduate from USD having had the opportunities to get better and better at the practice of changemaking, so you can be an informed and engaged citizen.

You may have heard the story of Rosa Parks.  She is the woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 because her space was reserved for whites.

Here is what she says about her decision: “People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

She was tired of giving in.  You see, she had joined a civil rights organization 12 years earlier.  And she was hesitant to join.  She did not, I repeat, did not, want to be involved in politics.  But while in this organization she realized that she had to take action.

To me, one of the lessons from Rosa Parks is that sometimes we are called to not follow our own individual desires or passions.  Instead, like Rosa Parks, we must ask: What does life want from me?  What are my circumstances calling me to do? 

Also, we should remember that Rosa Parks did not “solve” the battle against social injustices.  But rather, she did her part – knowing all along the odds of complete victory are difficult.

It took Rosa Parks many years to discover her calling.  But when she found it she was ready.
Don't worry.  We are not asking you to be Rosa Parks today. We know that your biggest challenge for Wednesday is to simply find your classrooms!  

Also, it took her 12 years and we only have four with you.

At the same time, do not underestimate yourselves.  You can accomplish quite a lot while at USD while you are here.  For example, faculty and students have created the USD Votes initiative – which provides opportunities for the campus community to learn about election issues, and more importantly, to get all of you registered to vote for the upcoming midterm resources. 

Another initiative on campus led by students and faculty is called Pee in Peace.  It is an education and awareness campaign focusing on the need for more all gender restrooms on campus.  This group is not only raising awareness about this issue but it is working to increase the number of all gender restrooms at USD. 

And while we have been ranked the most beautiful campus, our efforts with respect to sustainability are remarkable. We have already reduced our energy consumption by more than 20% since 2010 and water consumption by 38% since 2006. Additionally, we have solar panels that generate 7% of the university’s energy needs, making the system one of the largest solar energy producers among private colleges nationwide.  Students, just like you, have been central to these sustainability issues.

And finally, when it comes to supporting South African students with higher education – it turns out that it does not take one million dollars.  Rather, it costs around $3,000 to $4,000 per year for a South African student to attend university or college in South Africa.  Currently, there are 13 South African youth who are receiving scholarships from USD faculty, students, staff, and alumni that help to pay for their university education.  The South African students who receive these scholarships have formed a group called the Equalizers and they collaborate with USD every summer on a Youth Leadership Workshop.

Today you may or may not know your calling and this is okay.  But when you do, the entire campus will be ready to do what we can to support you and to join with you in your pursuits to make the world a better place. 

Thank you, and once again, welcome to USD!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Honoring Martin Luther King's Changemaking Work and Legacy

The following reflection was written and shared by Dr. Emily Reimer-Barry, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Chair, Department of Theology and Religious Studies

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama when he prepared a sermon entitled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” which opens his published collection of early sermons Strength to Love. It is remarkable how the message of that sermon is as relevant today as it was in 1955. While King was strategizing with community leaders then and implementing the bus boycott, he was preparing his congregation for long term commitments to social justice work and resistance to unjust segregation laws. 

In “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” King explains to his congregation that followers of Jesus must face “a difficult and hostile world.” In that world, Christians must be both tough and tender.
What does he mean by “tough”? King begins by explaining the need for critical thinking. A Christian must have a tough mind, characterized by “incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment.” But it is difficult work to cultivate critical thinking. “There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think,” says King. He calls this “gullibility” and “soft-mindedness.” The soft-minded person accepts what they read in the newspapers without thinking critically about the agenda of the author. The soft-minded person believes marketing messages that tell you you will be happier if you buy their product. The soft-minded person believes in superstitions. The soft-minded person fears change. The soft-minded person is a sheep following the whims of a dictator without raising questions. King quotes Mein Kampf: “By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to make people believe that heaven is hell—and hell, heaven… The greater the lie, the more readily will it be believed.”

So too with white politicians who fed on racial prejudice of soft-minded constituents: “With insidious zeal, they make inflammatory statements and disseminate distortions and half-truths that arouse abnormal fears and morbid antipathies within the minds of uneducated and underprivileged whites, leaving them so confused that they are led to acts of meanness and violence that no normal person commits.”
King argues that Christians must reject soft-mindedness. “The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft-mindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”
King’s critique of the complacency of privileged elites in his own day and his rebuke of soft-minded Christians who want “easy answers” to complex problems is as important today as it was in 1955. Meanwhile, powerful corporations and news agencies continue to distort the truth and manipulate readers. The playbook of Breitbart News aligns exactly with what King describes as “inflammatory statements” and “distortions and half-truths that arouse abnormal fears” for readers. Seeking the truth is a radical act of citizenship in our present context.

But King’s sermons also provide hope and encourage the practice of changemaking. Christians need not only have a “tough mind,” but also a “tender heart.” This means appreciating the beauty of friendship, being moved by the suffering of another person, and rejecting hardheartedness. “The hardhearted individual never sees people as people, but rather as mere objects or as impersonal cogs in an ever-turning wheel… He depersonalizes life.” King tells his congregation that they need to be both tough minded and tender hearted in order to “move creatively toward the goal of freedom and justice.”
“Soft-minded individuals among us feel that the only way to deal with oppressing is by adjusting to it. They acquiesce and resign themselves to segregation.” King describes this approach as cowardly. But he also rejects a hardhearted approach that seeks physical violence rooted in corroding hatred. Violence only begets more violence, King explains. Rather, what is needed is a combination of toughmindedness and tenderheartedness, a combination of justice and love. 

In this, as in other sermons, King demonstrates his enduring legacy: his rebuke of unjust social structures combined thoughtful social analysis with theological acumen and hope rooted in the good news of the gospel. He does not provide an easy way out for contemporary readers, but we can follow his methods by applying the same skills of critical analysis and practical realism to our assessment of structural sins today. That deep dive into the data of poverty, racial injustice, sexism, heteropatriarchy, militarism, and political corruption can lead one to inner turmoil. “I’m so small. What can I possibly do to make the world a better place? I’m just one person.” But King’s message is also one of encouragement. Find a community of people with your shared values and commitments, read critically, reflect on your choices and your values, and take things one step at a time. King didn’t deliver the Montgomery bus boycott on his own. He worked in collaboration with many people who had a shared vision of a more just world. And your changemaking efforts today can follow in his footsteps.

Students in my THRS 231 Christian Changemakers intersession class recently had the opportunity to walk the MLK Promenade in San Diego, discuss the sculpture “Breaking of the Chains” by Melvin Edwards, and reflect on King’s enduring legacy for changemakers today. We hope you enjoy these pictures and some of our favorite quotations from that walk. If you are interested in joining a community of people who want to make the world a better place, join us at the Changemaker Hub!

“As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich… As long as diseases are rampant… I can never be totally healthy… I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”

“The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”