Social justice courses use history lessons to empower change

SJS 300 dives into the importance of social consciousness


Asha Wilkerson, department chair of Legal Studies, and Sociology professor for the fall 2020 semester is co-teaching Introduction to Social Justice Studies (SJS 300) in a synchronous online course at American River College. The SJS 300 course is a required course for students majoring in social justice. (Photo by Ariel Caspar)

Over the last couple of years, the Los Rios Community College District has gone through an institutional redesign, with a commitment to the social justice and equity of all students who have experienced a systemic disproportionate impact on multiple levels. This commitment was added to the district’s mission statement and values by the Los Rios Board of Trustees in March 2017.

As a result of this redesign, along with increased student-generated interest in the subject, American River College started offering social justice studies courses, and the option to major in social justice in the fall of 2019. ARC was the first among the Los Rios campuses to offer these courses and two Social Justice Studies Associate Degree for Transfer (AA-T) programs including Race and Ethnicity Studies and Women, Gender and LGBTQ Studies.

Asha Wilkerson, department chair of legal studies, is co-teaching Introduction to Social Justice Studies (SJS 300) this semester. She is responsible for the first eight weeks which has a focus on identifying the foundation of the course, diving into topics such as race, racism, sexism, heterosexism, as well as transgender and non-binary people, and the oppression that is involved with specific groups. The course also has a strong focus on understanding oppression in classism, power relations and wealth gaps.

Wilkerson says social justice could be defined as making sure a person has access to any resources needed to maintain a general state of well-being regardless of who they are or where they came from, and this is crucial to understand when laying the foundation of the SJS 300 course.

“It’s really about [having] an equal access to things that give us life,” Wilkerson said.

According to Wilkerson, the course focuses on comprehending the history of how racial and gender identifying groups have been affected by classism, in order to understand why current systems are the way they are, and that the governmental and legal barriers of the past are oftentimes responsible for the flaws in current systems. 

The course looks into how acquiring a social justice lens requires the examination of oppression in different groups of people in the United States and comprehending the power relations between the oppressors and the oppressed, what the power groups benefit from and more importantly what the oppressed groups lose. 

Wilkerson says it’s important for her students to recognize that solutions to these historical issues are not found in treating these oppressed groups like everyone else and expecting them to be able to catch up to those who experience more privilege, but in understanding these groups are dealing with a historical under-resourcing that is a result of hundreds of years of targeted oppressive governmental policies and treatment.

She says her classroom is an open environment to discuss these topics and share personal stories when appropriate, and examine the factual side of the oppression being experienced.

“It becomes emotional. It’s painful sometimes, but we’re not looking at it from that emotional perspective,” Wilkerson said. “We’re looking at it from a factual perspective, so we can figure out how we are going to empower ourselves to do better in the future.”

According to Wilkerson, social media is one of the driving factors in raising awareness and creating a space and platform to discuss and be educated on the importance of social justice. She says it has also created visibility for under-resourced groups and various social justice movements involving Black and African American rights, police brutality, immigrant rights and many more. 

Social media has been a driving factor in social circles becoming more diverse. Wilkerson says when a social circle is more diverse, the level of concern for people, and the desire to be educated on important subjects is raised.

“You can glimpse into people’s lives via social media. You get to see people coming from all different backgrounds, diverse from education, opportunities,” Wilkerson said. “So we’re just in community with people, and when you’re in community with people, you want to know a little bit more about them.”

Recent events in the media within the last six months, including the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as a result of police brutality and negligence are still hot topics of discussion. Wilkerson says real-world circumstances like these are important to discuss in the classroom because they heavily relate to social justice and understanding the historical systemic flaws within the legal system that allowed these events to occur.

According to Pam Chao, department chair of sociology and behavioral sciences, the intensification of the Black Lives Matter social justice movement is awakening a critically conscious moment in society that is both causing divisions among groups and bringing people together at the same time.

“There is an undeniable impact, and there are different impacts for different populations and for different people in populations,” Chao said. “Some people [say] it’s really important for people to see these things, because it moves people to action.”

According to Chao, although social media is allowing the visibility of these events and is opening up multi-faceted conversations and raising concern, it’s still important to check on the well being of students as these historical events are being processed.

“I think it’s important for me as an instructor in a classroom to acknowledge what’s going on and [what is] affecting our students,” Chao said. “There’s always something you can mention and just say ‘I know these things are happening and I want to acknowledge that it’s happening, and that we are going to be doing this class in that context.’”

Wilkerson says she thinks SJS 300 should be a required course for all students because if the college institution’s goal is to educate better citizens with more concern for one another, the institution needs to require courses that properly educate on the historical oppression of certain groups, so individuals can better comprehend these struggles and gain an appropriate social consciousness.

Wilkerson says many of her students take the course simply because they want to be able to correctly and confidently educate and respond to those around them who may speak from a place of ignorance.  

“There is a desire to just learn more and be educated,” Wilkerson said. “I think [taking SJS 300] is a double-dip. You get a college requirement done and you get to answer those questions that maybe you don’t know where to go to find the answers.”