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Students join peace and justice communities

By Natalie Bannon
7:00 A.M. ET July 9, 2013 | NASHVILLE, Tenn.

"In every story, there's going to be a side that's not heard," said Noah Manskar, a sophomore at Ohio Wesleyan University. "It's imperative to look for the voice that needs to be heard by those in power and the public at-large."

Manskar, an aspiring journalist from Nashville, Tenn., is just one student at a United Methodist-related university who is giving a voice to the unheard through social justice advocacy.

Along with 16 other students at OWU, he has skipped traditional dorm life to live at the House of Peace and Justice - a themed on-campus residence for students who want to be immersed in human- and civil-rights education and awareness.

"It's similar to dorm life in that there's a sense of community, but people are really intentional to get to know each other," said Kami Goldin, a senior from Fairfax, Va., who is majoring in both philosophy and women's and gender studies. "We are a lot more likely to think about something wider than our own lives."

That wider thinking leads to passionate advocacy for issues such as mental health, women's rights, economic justice and much more.

Student Cassandra Henry lives at the Social  Justice Living Learning Community at American University. A web-only photo courtesy of Cassandra Hendry.
Student Cassandra Henry lives at the Social Justice Living Learning Community at American University. A web-only photo courtesy of Cassandra Hendry.

"United Methodist-related higher education provides an ideal setting for students to analyze social structures and develop the robust faith and interpersonal skills needed to improve those systems they perceive to be unfair," said Melanie Overton, staff executive for schools, colleges and universities at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. "These learning communities are, in fact, engaging students' heads, hearts and hands."

Each semester, residents at the House of Peace and Justice are responsible for completing a project and taking it to campus - "something like a documentary or visual arts installment to make people stop and think," explained Goldin.

One semester, Goldin said, she became interested in the inner peace aspect of social justice, so she held meditation in the chapel on campus three times a week.

"Religion and social justice definitely intersect, especially in the United Methodist interpretation of the teachings of Jesus and Christianity," said Goldin. "We're constantly working with the chaplain's office on campus. Our chaplain's office has more of an interfaith dialogue than most."

Both Manskar and Goldin admit they were not very involved in social activism before college.

"I went into my first interview not knowing what to expect and thought it might be a cool opportunity, but I wasn't going to be disappointed if I didn't get in," explained Manskar. "The first interview was such a warm environment. I saw something special in the people in the room and I left very excited about the possibility of getting in."

Since getting in, Manskar has refined his understanding of the political, economic and social relationships that occur between men and women. He helps men on campus to understand their role in undoing what he calls a "patriarchal system."

United Methodist-related American University in Washington has created a community similar to OWU's House of Peace and Justice. In its first year of existence, the Social Justice Living Learning Community at AU is designed to introduce 60 students to living, learning and exploring social activism as a tool to create change.

OWU grads leave a mark

Steeped in a rich history of social justice advocacy, some Ohio Wesleyan graduates have been recognized internationally for their work, including:

  • Branch Rickey (1904), named ESPN's Most Influential Sports Figure of the 20th Century for breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier when he signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
  • Shirin Tahir-Kheli (1961), named one of 150 Women Who Shake the World by The Daily Beast for her work in improving U.S.Pakistan relations
  • Woodrow Clark II (1967), one of the members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to receive the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, along with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore
  • Byron Pitts (1982), an anchor and chief national correspondent for ABC News
  • Farooq Busari (2009), founder of the nonprofit organization Shakepoverty, dedicated to eliminating poverty in sub-Saharan Africa

"Living in this community allows you to start new friendships with individuals who are also passionate about social justice and influences you to use your abilities and take action against the injustices that occur in this world," said Cassandra Henry, a sophomore from the Bronx, N.Y., who is studying justice and law.

One of the injustices that Henry is passionate about is educational equality for urban schools. "I am a product of the New York City urban public school system," she explained. "After coming to American University, I believe my school did not socially prepare me for higher education. I mean, my school did not challenge me to realize my true potential. Instead of challenging me, they focused more on studying for the test. All students should have the same educational opportunities that can help them realize their true potential, and, ultimately, enable them to grow as strong individuals."

The students say they've learned lessons that they will take with them long after they've graduated.

"I've learned that you don't have to be in a classroom to have a really enlightened discussion about important issues in the world," said Manskar. "Conversations have started out of nowhere. It helps my mind to grow and to listen, and it's incredible to hear those different perspectives. I've learned communication skills, organizational skills and leadership skills from the house. It's also given me a healthy dose of journalistic skepticism."

Goldin said she will "take away a critical world view, but I'll also take away an appreciation for picking flowers, taking life slowly while thinking about the big picture."

*Bannon is a public relations specialist at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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