December 15, 2011
Retreat introduces students to social justice concepts and builds a community for change

Social justice issues can run far and wide, making it daunting for beginners to know where to start. That's why EnVision, two-part social justice leadership retreat, aims to increase students’ understanding of issues that exist today, and facilitate discussions about how to build inclusive communities.

Organized by the Office of Common Ground, the retreat brought together faculty and staff from the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, the Chaplaincy, Westhampton College, and Richmond College. The initial session was held in November at an off-campus site and served as an introduction to social justice issues, with a focus on race, social class, gender, sexuality, and other categories of social difference. “This was billed as a basic retreat, and [students] didn’t have to have a lot of experience,” says Lisa Miles, assistant director of Common Ground. “We took them from a low-risk place to a deeper risk place. We had a pace that was doable, with plenty of time for their voices to be heard, and to ask questions.”

While the introductory nature made the retreat accessible for novices, it was still a chance to dig further into participants’ personal areas of interest. Claire Suh, ’15, wanted to learn more about issues of race, but the retreat revealed intersections with other social justice topics. “I don’t really identify with issues about gender and sexuality, but it was interesting to see basically the same issues — acceptance and awareness,” she says.

The students’ openness to the retreat process and to each other allowed them to quickly build trusting relationships and have complex conversations rooted in personal experiences. “When I came to UR, diversity was the main attraction, but when I got here, the dialogue was missing,” says Brian Guay, ’14. “I thought, how awesome would it be if we could just talk about these things openly? EnVision created a place where we were safe to do that.”

The weekend didn’t stop at talk, though. Students were encouraged to move beyond discussion and find ways to come together for action. “[At first I thought,] it’s just discussion — we can’t change anything,” says Karen Duan, ’13. “The trust and love that was built was so incredible. We could talk about the deepest things in our minds to people who were strangers two days ago. We talked about the problems that we experience and how we were going to change that when we got back.”

For students who were ready to take that next step, EnVision also introduced campus resources that could facilitate any level of engagement with social change. In fact, a subsequent retreat in the spring will build on the skills learned to establish a community of student activists on campus. “More and more we’re going to have students selecting the University of Richmond because of these emphases — civic engagement, diversity, and community building — and [EnVision] is one of those things we can point to when they land here,” says Glyn Hughes, director of Common Ground. “We can say, ‘this is how you do it.’”

However, the relationships between EnVision participants and facilitators may prove the strongest resource of all. The relationship-building aspect of the retreat was a constant reminder to look past stereotypes, first impressions and pre-conceived notions, and get to know people on a human level. “It’s easy to say, ‘that person has a really weird haircut, so they must have a weird personality,’” says Suh. “But you get to know them and it turns out they listen to the same music as you, and they go to the same school as you. It emphasizes the unifying factor of humanity.”

Charissa Mubita, ’14, agrees that facing social justice issues requires teamwork. “They gave us a lot of head knowledge, but to walk that out is really bold. Throughout the weekend, [we talked about] going back and living in the socially just world you envision, as if it’s already happening. As if you’re a member of that equitable community you’d like to see. It’s really great to do that with a group of people.”