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Encounter with social justice

By Lynne Dulaney-MacNicol

The concept of social justice—promoting human rights, advocating a basic standard of living and giving individuals a voice in how the system works—can be difficult to address at a thoughtful and practical level.

The University of Calgary’s Faculty of Social Work is assuming a leadership role in building and sustaining social justice by sponsoring a number of events to reconnect with the broader social justice community.

On May 1, students and faculty partnered with more than 40 interested community members and organizations to host Living the Vision, a day-long encounter with social justice.

More than 150 activists—including students, academics, researchers and community practitioners—gathered on campus to reflect on social issues, identify obstacles and propose strategies to achieve social justice.

Besides enjoying theatre presentations, musicians, displays and an international food buffet, the group participated in sessions on aboriginal issues, disabilities, the environment, ethical leadership, gender, global citizenship, youth, immigrant worker issues and fair trade. A multimedia presentation at the end of the day wove together the many experiences.

Social worker Colin Grant, who recently retired as one of Calgary’s Public Guardians, was impressed. “Having different sessions allowed those with a particular bias and level of interest to focus on their own deeply-felt concerns. The disability circle, which I was in, was wonderful because our disabled population’s issues and feeling of inclusion rarely gets this level of attention.”

Organizer Dr. Tim Pyrch, a professor in the Faculty of Social Work, believes that by examining issues of injustice and listening deeply to one another, participants can create relationships that will support long-term commitment to social change.

“The encounter shows the power and effectiveness of an open and participatory process to visualize, organize and deliver community events,” says event co-organizer Marleny Munoz, a social work doctoral student. “We merged ideas, knowledge, experiences, energy, efforts, resources and dreams to create a welcome and safe space for sharing stories of social justice.”

Other sponsors included the City of Calgary, the United Way of Calgary and Area and 40 other organizations, spanning the alphabet from AIDS Calgary to the Women’s Resource Centre at the U of C.

Other social justice events sponsored by the faculty include: Voices International, an ongoing luncheon series that encourages dialogue about current international issues affecting social justice work; Diversity Dialogue, a discourse about the enrichment possibilities in diversity; and the Alberta Social Forum, held on campus in 2005. Pyrch also works closely with social work students to sponsor Social Action Day, an annual event since 2003.

Pyrch, Munoz and the rest of the faculty are eager to move on to the next social justice challenge. “We are building momentum for the long haul and planning additional initiatives, including the second annual Encounter with Social Justice on May 1, 2008,” says Pyrch. “These events will reconnect us with the broader community and celebrate our achievements and dreams.”