Fall student

Emory’s Social Justice Innovation Institute: Enhancing social justice education by tapping the creativity and cognitive diversity of social networks.

By John Baker Brown, Campus Life

Emory’s Social Justice Innovation Institute (SJII), a Campus Life initiative, will offer its first seminar this summer under the organization’s new name. But the institute is introducing more than a new name. It is advocating a new, perhaps unique, approach to addressing social justice issues on the nation’s campuses and throughout the larger society.

SJII—formerly the Emory Higher Education Institute—maintains that today’s society is not prepared to address the vexing economic, ecological, social, and political issues confronting our increasingly complex and diverse human society.

Michael Shutt presentingMichael Shutt, senior director for Campus Life, presents at the
institute. Photo by Scott King.

In helping to shape the future, student affairs professionals must embrace decision-making processes that draw on the cognitive diversity and innovative interaction among social networks, according to Ed Lee, the institute’s primary curriculum designer and facilitator.

“This approach calls us all as higher education professionals to tear down our silos of knowledge, partner across our disciplines, and tap into the infinite creativity of our social networks to deliver bold and effective responses to challenges on and off our campuses,” said Lee, who also serves as senior director of the Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation, and Dialogue.

“We must expand the boundaries of our social networks in a manner that allows our respective organizations to more fully benefit from our diverse social identities and the rich cognitive diversity, the pluralism of ideas and perspectives, that are too often cloistered within our individual social networks,” he added.

The institute’s primary goal is to get participants to think about their own social networks and those of their students. Social networks are where creativity flows and innovation occurs, according to Lee.

Dona Yarbrough, assistant vice president of Campus Life and SJII director, agrees.

“The institute’s unique approach examines the concepts of ‘social,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘innovation’ as separate but inter-related and equally important variables,” she said. “This approach invites student affairs practitioners and other educators to think and explore social justice from the diverse perspectives of their social networks,” Yarbrough said.

Mike Edmonds
Mike Edmonds, dean of students and vice president for student life, Colorado College. Photo by Scott King.

According to 2018 institute participant Mike Edmonds, dean of students and vice president for student affairs at Colorado College, the SJII experience itself models the benefits of the approach that Yarbrough described.

“The mix of people attending was fabulous. There were representatives from institutions like Duke, others not as well-resourced public universities, and historically black colleges and universities,” said Edmonds. “And we all shared the same desire to understand in a more in-depth way the impact and need for a social justice approach on our respective colleges and universities.”

The right reputation, resources, and people

Yarbrough and Lee point out that SJII, although it predates the introduction of the university’s One Emory Strategic Framework, the institute clearly aligns with one of the framework’s four pillars: Innovation through Scholarship and Creative Expression. SJII harnesses “intellectual imagination and discovery to address 21st century challenges…to drive societal change for the common good.”

The Emory Higher Education Institute, launched in summer 2016, became the Social Justice Innovation Institute in June 2018, although the official name change did not occur until fall of that year. SJII is informed by insights gleaned from its predecessor, which focused broadly on student affairs professional development.

While Emory is a leader in the field of student affairs generally, the university brings even greater experience and expertise in the critical arena of social justice, according to Yarbrough.

“Emory has a earned a national reputation for developing innovative solutions to social justice issues on campus,” said Yarbrough. “We saw this, for example, in the national coverage of Emory's response to Black students' demands in fall 2015.”

Ed Lee and Dona Yarbrough discuss institute curriculum
Ed Lee and Dona Yarbrough discuss institute curriculum.
Photo by Ruth Reyes.

With a wealth of Campus Life staff bringing the expertise and passion to advance social justice innovation, Yarbrough added, “We decided to play to our strengths and capitalize on our reputation as a higher education leader in social justice and communication across differences.”

Instead of covering three disparate student affairs topics over the weeklong sessions for summer 2018, the newly created SJII focused solely on social justice innovation.

“The experiment was a smashing success,” said Yarbrough. “It proved we are able to offer a unique professional development opportunity by concentrating the institute on this topic.”

Lee agrees that SJII is building on Emory’s reputation for responding openly and effectively to social justice issues on its campus. He also describes another tradition that inspired creation of the new institute.

“Emory has a nationally respected, decades-old history of dialogue and debate—a tradition of addressing how we engage across differences,” said Lee. “For years, the Barkley Forum has provided Emory students the opportunity to enhance their communications skills as they work to build communities and improve the human condition. The Social Justice Innovation Institute is an heir of that legacy.”

The SJII is uniquely situated to guide participants as they explore ideas and cultivate programs that reside at the intersection of deliberative dialogue and social justice, Lee explained.

According to Yarbrough, it all adds up to a university and an institute well-equipped to conceive, develop, and implement SJII’s unique approach to addressing social justice issues on higher education campuses and ultimately throughout society.

“Emory is employing the framework of the Social Justice Innovation Institute to develop innovative programs and practices that advance social justice,” said Yarbrough. “And we are looking for thought partners throughout the nation who are interested in doing the same.”

Learn more

SJII: http://higheredinstitute.emory.edu/
Barkley Forum: http://barkleyforum.emory.edu/
Black Student Demands: http://dialogue.emory.edu/racial_justice/index.html
Commission on Racial and Social Justice: http://dialogue.emory.edu/racial_justice/commission/index.html
One Emory: Engaged for Impact: https://news.emory.edu/features/2018/09/one-emory/index.html