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Social Activism Panel teaches students, community how to take a stand for their beliefs

By Staff | Sep 13, 2019

The Social Activism Panel, which spoke in the Robert C. Byrd Center on Thursday evening, was (from left) Berkeley County Schools Associate Superintendent of Equity and Inclusion Veronique Walker, Jefferson County NAACP President George Rutherford, Hagerstown Hopes leader Brian George House, Shepherd University senior Tessa Chafin and Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center Director Katie Spriggs. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Last week, Shepherd University hosted its inaugural Social Justice Project Week of Action, sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and the Social Justice Project.

According to Shepherd University Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice Studies Chiquita Howard-Bostic, the events ranged from presentations, to a Friday night performance of “Step Show: The Musical,” to a panel discussion from local social justice advocates.

“This week is very powerful, with our focus on social justice,” Howard-Bostic said, at the beginning of Thursday night’s Social Activism Panel in the Robert C. Byrd Center. “You’ll see throughout this semester, how we’re going to step it up a notch, to help our students embrace diversity. It’s so important to come in here today with the thought, ‘I want to do something.'”

The panelists, who are all Shepherd University students or graduates, represented a variety of disadvantaged groups in the tristate area.

“My passion is to make sure people are heard and to empower those of us who may not be treated equitably,” said Berkeley County Schools Associate Superintendent of Equity and Inclusion Veronique Walker. “It’s one thing to write policy change, but also to see that policy is implemented. Don’t let numbers affect you. You make a difference, [although] you may never know the effect of your work.”

Jefferson County NAACP President George Rutherford warned attendees that social justice does not always have immediate rewards.

“As an advocate, you have to really be willing to pay the price,” Rutherford said, mentioning he has faced adversity and governmental repercussions, since becoming the Jefferson County NAACP president in 1974. “In the ’70s, school just became integrated. They began a system of tracking grades, and the black kids ended up in the lower classes. I lobbied schools to make changes for three years. In 1977, the new Jefferson County Superintendent of Schools Raymond Frazier agreed to knock out the program.”

Hagerstown Hopes leader Brian George House said most of the work he has done in the last two years has focused on reaching out to LGBTQ+ youth in the Washington County Public School system. From his experience as an advocate, House learned one major lesson.

“Care about your work, and it will take you far,” House said. “Use your heart, but don’t forget your brain.”

Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center Director Katie Spriggs agreed with House, and encouraged attendees to work to understand the group they’re advocating for, until they’re accepted as one of the group’s allies.

“Understand you’re not an ally, until the group you’re working with says you are. Know you have a lot more to learn,” Spriggs said, mentioning this has been the case in her work with people escaping personal or societal violence. “I’m not a survivor of anything we’re working to fight against.”

Students at the discussion were reminded they could begin advocating for social justice in college, by final panelist and Shepherd University political science senior Tessa Chafin. In her time at Shepherd, Chafin started a Planned Parenthood General Action group, Students for Reproductive Rights, and interned for Shepherd’s Office of Social Equity, Inclusion and Title IX.

“Create a group or organization that’s a safe space. You’re here for people to learn and grow,” Chafin said, about leading a social justice organization. “Another cool thing about activism, is there are so many different ways that we can help.”