For five years, students in the School of Social Work at the University of Georgia have helped highlight issues affecting their local communities by gathering community members, service providers, fellow students and academics at its Social Justice Symposium. The daylong, student-run community event aspires to foster dialogue among those aiming to right injustices that people on the margins face.
This year, the symposium reached beyond the Athens area, through the power of Zoom, to not only feature social justice organizations based around the flagship but also to attract attendees in states beyond. In addition, students from the school’s Gwinnett campus joined to help organize and stage the conference.
“The SJS is one of the most important events of the year at the School of Social Work,” said School of Social Work Dean Anna Scheyett, who kicked off the morning panels. “It is a time when students and the community work together to better understand and tackle some of the most pressing social justice issues we all face.”
The concept of social justice, the idea that every human being is worthy of honor and respect and deserves equal economic, social and cultural rights, is central to social work. Showing students and the community how they can band together to bring hope and real change is just one of the reasons Llewellyn Cornelius, professor and director of the Center for Social Justice, Civil, and Human Rights, began the symposium five years ago.
State Rep. Jasmine Clark delivered the keynote address, in which she spoke about moving forward in hope. Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of the voter enfranchisement organization Fair Fight Action, accepted the June Gary Hopps Bridge Award on behalf of the nonprofit. The award, established in 2017, is given on behalf of its namesake, the School of Social Work’s professor and social justice crusader, who spoke at the symposium about the necessity of creating a just society.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the symposium faced particular challenges this year.
“Given the need to shift to a completely virtual format, I was deeply impressed with the SJS leadership team’s commitment to online safety and security,” said Rebecca Matthew, assistant professor and one-half of the advising team for the symposium. “They implemented a detailed and extremely well-choreographed mitigation and response protocol, which is now being shared with other members of the UGA campus community.”
With nearly 100 people from three states registered, the SJS featured 16 panels from social justice organizations stemming from the Athens and Atlanta areas. Some of the topics covered include educational equity, trauma response and awareness, and campaigns by communities of color to create just communities and startup businesses.
Adapting the live event to a virtual one required some creative thinking by the students behind the symposium.
“Planning and executing a virtual event was like nothing I have ever done before,” said Kellye Call, MSW/MPH candidate in Athens. “We wanted to make sure everyone had an amazing experience connecting with like-minded community members while making attending the event as simple as possible. The day went smoothly with no major hiccups, which was a testament to our team’s hard work.”
The virtual format allowed presenters from metro Atlanta, such as InterPlay Atlanta and Emory University’s Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics, to take part in this community-bridging event. What’s more, the symposium’s technology became a way to unite students on both the Athens and Gwinnett campuses.
“It was lovely to find the silver lining of connection between the two campuses and to our expanded communities working for social justice,” said Heather-Leigh Owens Nies, MSW candidate in Gwinnett. “My only regret was that I was not able to see all 16 sessions.”