Fall semester at S-CAR brings themes of racial and social justice to the fore

Congressman John Lewis speaks on stage and is illuminated by stage lights.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a longtime congressman from Georgia who played a key role in the civil rights movement, was a featured speaker at this year’s Fall for the Book festival. Photo by: Ron Aira/Creative Services/George Mason University

By Audrey Williams

“Read, my child, read!”

This was the advice that an elementary school teacher gave Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia) when he was a student, and he took it to heart 

“I tried to read everything,” he told students and members of the public on October 11 at George Mason University’s Fall for the Book festival. “I love books, and with books, I was able to travel, to dream dreams.”

(Read the Mason News coverage of Congressman Lewis’s talk.)

Congressman Lewis’s graphic novel, March: Book One—co-written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell—was chosen for this year’s Mason Reads program, which gives a common book to all incoming first-year students.

For Mason’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, the choice of March proved a perfect opportunity for a book discussion to generate conversation around social justice and civil rights. The event, held on September 20, was organized in recognition of International Peace Day.

According to Jane Walker, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Student Services at S-CAR, the school was uniquely poised to “supplement and enrich” the conversation around March because “we have a different way of looking at the problem that considers complexity” and “we try to approach problems creatively.”

The discussion brought students together with faculty to explore the themes of racial and social justice portrayed in the book.

“When you’re reading [March], you see it within your own scope of understanding and the context you give it,” said Wadha Al Dabous, an S-CAR international student who joined the book discussion and read the graphic novel as part of Walker’s Advising Seminar for Conflict Majors (CONF 314). “But when you discuss the book with cohorts [and] other professors, you get different perspectives.”

Desarai Egerton, an S-CAR undergraduate student who also participated in the book discussion, found the book’s theme of nonviolent resistance especially powerful. “That really goes along with conflict resolution, because we try to be peacebuilders,” she said.

September’s book discussion was just one of many events and initiatives this fall that drew deeply on the work that the S-CAR community is doing on racial and social justice.

On September 26, Georgetown Law Professor Paul Butler gave the 29th Annual Lynch Lecture, which is organized each year by S-CAR on the Arlington campus. His speech, titled “Chokehold: Policing Black Men,” drew on his book of the same name and explored how the police’s targeting of Black men for incarceration and violence is built into the criminal legal system in the U.S.

(Read S-CAR’s coverage of the 29th Annual Lynch Lecture.)

As the Vernon M. and Minnie I. Lynch Chair at S-CAR, Professor Susan Hirsch organizes the lecture each year, and she has dedicated the first five years of her tenure as Chair to “trying to raise the profile of the theme of justice for the conflict field, and for S-CAR as well.”

Three professors chat with each other during a formal reception at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

From left to right: S-CAR Dean Kevin Avruch, Vernon M. and Minnie I. Lynch Chair Susan Hirsch, and Georgetown Law Professor Paul Butler. Photo by: Ryan M.C. Chiu/S-CAR.

Butler’s lecture was the second in this five-year effort; last year’s Lynch Lecture brought the President of Malta to George Mason University to make the case for challenging the patriarchy in government and business.

“Concerns around justice have always been there in the field,” Hirsch said. “They haven’t always been taken up explicitly in the name of justice, with a lens of justice, or with justice issues in mind.”

Hirsch—whose work focuses in part on rule of law and social mobilization within the frame of justice and the pursuit of justice—wants to bring justice explicitly to the fore of the conflict resolution field as it “enlarges” and “connects to other fields, like transitional justice and restorative justice.”

Toward this effort, Hirsch has been teaching Butler’s article “Stop and Frisk and Torture-Lite: Police Terror of Minority Communities” for several years.

“That piece really allowed me to bring together concern I had about conflict in the U.S., particularly as it related to policing, with things that we’re teaching about extremism, torture, profiling, and securitization,” Hirsch said.

Other S-CAR professors have also incorporated Butler’s work into their syllabi. S-CAR’s incoming PhD cohort kicked off their Introduction to Conflict Analysis and Resolution (CONF 801) course this fall by reading Chokehold, reflecting upon its themes in a short paper, and attending the lecture.

“I saw this as a great way to get incoming doctoral students to engage with his argument in multiple ways,” said Associate Professor Terrence Lyons, who teaches the course.

For Shakiyla Sincere, an S-CAR PhD student in CONF 801 whose doctoral studies focus on “crafting an intergroup-dialogue-based intercultural competence training for law enforcement to curb racial bias in community policing,” the Lynch Lecture provided an opportunity for the S-CAR community to focus on issues in the U.S. 

“I think we talk a lot about international conflict, but not so much about national conflict,” she said. She believes that “talking about race” and “demystifying ‘others’” is essential to getting rid of stereotypes.

The Fall 2018 incoming master’s students also started their S-CAR journey with an introduction to Butler’s work. In this semester’s Foundations of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (CONF 600) course, taught by Associate Professors Leslie Dwyer and Agnieszka Paczynska, students read the transcript of a keynote address that Butler gave at Northwestern University. Students were also encouraged to attend his lecture.

“Butler’s work provides students with a compelling illustration of key concepts of structural violence and social inequality, and reinforces just how crucial it is that the conflict analysis and resolution field engages with racial injustice,” said Dwyer.

S-CAR, which recently debuted master’s concentrations in Social Justice Advocacy and Activism (SJAA) and in Inclusive Conflict Engagement (ICEN), is home to a number of initiatives that address issues of justice, equality, and inclusivity.

The Dean’s Diversity Committee, which was established in 2017, is one such initiative. The committee’s mandate charges it with addressing “historical and ongoing injustices, structural violence, power imbalances, and cultures of intolerance” and engaging “with issues of diversity, inclusivity, and equity.”

As an S-CAR alum who signed an alumni letter to the S-CAR faculty board requesting a strategy to increase diversity among S-CAR’s faculty, Gina Cerasani (PhD ‘15) had “a keen interest in participating” in the Dean’s Diversity Committee. Cerasani serves as a co-chair of the committee with S-CAR Associate Professor Susan Allen, who said “I am committed to doing what I can to make progress on building an inclusive community within S-CAR through concerted effort over time.”

S-CAR faculty also explore issues of inequality, racial and social justice, and structural violence in their research and practice. During her opening remarks at the Lynch Lecture, Hirsch highlighted the work of Assistant Professor Tehama Lopez Bunyasi, who is working on a book on white privilege; Professor Richard Rubenstein and Professor Daniel Rothbart, who recently published books on structural conflict and systemic humiliation, respectively; Druscilla French Cumbie Professor Sara Cobb, whose current work explores race- and class-based extremism in the U.S.; and Assistant Professor Arthur Romano, who focuses on “engaged practice and writing on peace education and violence-effected communities,” according to Hirsch.

Two professors chat during a reception at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Multiple other guests mill in the background.

Georgetown Law Professor Paul Butler (left) and S-CAR Assistant Professor Arthur Romano (right) chat during a reception before the 29th Annual Lynch Lecture. Photo by: Ryan M.C. Chiu/S-CAR.

For Romano, the “chokehold” concept used by Butler in his book is a powerful metaphor describing “the lack of space to breathe, which gives insight into the ways in which our society restrains Black men—in this case, from being seen as fully human and giving the opportunity to really manifest their full brilliance and potential in society.”

In his work, Romano maintains a strong focus on social justice—and on nonviolence in pursuit of it. His practice includes the training of trainers in nonviolence and developing diversity; social justice and conflict resolution workshops that are “attentive to power”; and supporting The Truth Telling Project, which is a “grassroots, community-centered effort” to amplify discussion of structural violence in the U.S. He uses experiential education to help connect theory and practice in a way that helps learners—whether they are activists, government officials or S-CAR students—more fully grasp systemic issues like racism.

“When [large-scale systemic analysis] is not connected to forms of practice that are attempting to shift those dynamics, then it can be incredibly disempowering,” Romano said. He argues that advanced practice should be geared at addressing systemic issues and he aims at creating “concrete pathways for thinking about what those kinds of forms of practice are.”

He’ll do just that this fall when he teaches Conflict Analysis and Resolution Advanced Skills (CONF 650), during which students will develop a teaching module for restorative justice training that is attentive to systemic racism. The students will also work with communities and police in Northern Virginia by “hopefully trying to support law enforcement in developing more robust ways of thinking about police-community engagement.”

Romano also conducts workshops for hip-hop artists as part of the State Department’s Next Level program, and he incorporates arts-based pedagogies into his work.

Congressman John Lewis sits at a table where he is signing books for audience members at George Mason University who heard him speak. He shakes hands with a Mason student, who is standing on the other side of the table.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis (left) shakes hands with S-CAR master’s student Audrey Williams (right) at this year’s Fall for the Book festival. Photo by: Evan Cantwell/Creative Services/George Mason University

It was the power of art—in this case, comic books—that inspired Andrew Aydin, Congressman Lewis’s Digital Director and Policy Advisor, to suggest that the Congressman write the graphic novel that became March.

“The arts cultivate that fire and desire for students to be inspired within this program,” said Leslie Durham, an Undergraduate Academic Advisor and Program Coordinator at S-CAR who helped organize the HyperBole Youth Poetry Slam with Split This Rock at Mason this past February.

Aydin, who addressed George Mason University on October 11 alongside Congressman Lewis, said that March was written to show that the civil rights icon is a “real human being” and to “instill a social consciousness” in youth around the nation.

For Al Dabous, it was the human story at the center of March that was particularly impactful. 

“I bet if you talk to 11-year-old John Lewis, he wouldn’t really understand the idea of equality as a legal term or as a social justice term,” she said. “But his instincts, his humanity, his faith, moved him to feel that there was something wrong, there was something missing, and he felt that responsibility to make a difference.”

According to her, “that immense bravery from someone grappling with concepts like equality at such a young age basically tells us there’s no excuse” for ignoring racial and social inequalities. 

If this fall’s activities at S-CAR are any indication, the school is giving students not only an understanding of these inequalities but also the tools needed to rectify them.