Studying Social Justice

SSIR program traveled through the South to study historical and contemporary issues in social justice

March 31, 2011

Dr. Melissa Ooten started with a summer roadtrip and ended with one of the most popular Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) programs at Richmond.

The “Demanding Equality” program focuses on social justice movements, from Reconstruction to the present. Topics range from anti-lynching campaigns in the early 20th century to modern-day issues such as environmental justice.

“Who are vulnerable to these issues?” Ooten said. “Who are the activists involved behind them? We spend a lot of time on the civil rights movement and a lot of time on the labor movement. In contemporary terms we’ve talked a lot about poverty, a lot about the health care movement and the environment.”

Ooten, who is in her fifth year at Richmond, is the director of Women Involved in Living and Learning (WILL) and teaches courses in women, gender and sexuality studies. When she heard about the SSIR programs starting, she jumped on the opportunity.

She said that not only would this become an intellectual experience for the students, but also an emotional one.

Ooten credits the start of this program to a roadtrip through the South that she and a colleague took with students a few summers ago. The trip — the route of which mirrors Ooten’s Demanding Equality journey — gave those students transformative experiences because they were meeting with activists who had been shot at and had friends who were killed, all because they were trying to vote for things that people take for granted today.

“These are really powerful stories that I simply can’t convey,” she said. “You have to get it from somewhere who’s been there and done that.”

For the SSIR program, Ooten’s students traveled to Tennessee and Lousiana. They focused on both the historical and the contemporary aspects of the movement, visiting Memphis for its history and the Civil Rights Museum, and New Orleans for its more recent issues.

In Memphis, they spent time with a scholar who discussed what he called the “master narrative” of the Civil Rights Movement. He challenged them to think not only about what stories are told about the Civil Rights movement, but also those that are not — considering those about whom they do and do not hear.

“Everyone can recognize the name of Martin Luther King Jr., but what about a lot of the women activists, what about a lot of the activists in local communities who were the backbone of the movement?” Ooten said. “We don’t know their names and we don’t know their stories. That was really our focus in Memphis.”

In New Orleans, the students were faced with how issues of race, poverty and the environment play out in contemporary terms, focusing heavily on the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

The students concentrated on the stark differences in the city in terms of what has been rebuilt and what has not. What has been rebuilt, Ooten said, for the most part is middle- and upper-class neighborhoods that tend to be white, but what has not been rebuilt is the working class, primarily African-American neighborhoods.

“We toured around the city, met with people who toured us around the lower ward to really show what had been rebuilt and what hadn’t, and we also met with two scholars at Loyola University who talked about the BP oil spill,” Ooten said. “We don’t really hear about it in the news anymore, but it’s been incredibly detrimental to the economy there, especially the tourist-driven economy and fishing industry.

“It’s taken such a big hit, but we don’t really think about it anymore. It fed right into our environmental justice topic, and what it means to have this toxic stuff in your ocean.”

This semester the students are working on independent group projects. Ooten said that one group is focusing on a historical project on busing in Richmond, examining how Richmond attempted to de-segregate its schools. Another group is researching educational equality in the community, while another is delving into poverty within the City of Richmond.

Ooten stressed the importance of studying the history of the Civil Rights Movement and continuing to investigate issues that may still plague communities today.

“Quite frankly, when we talk about the Civil Rights Movement, those activists are dying,” she said. “If we don’t get their stories now, we’re not going to have them.”