Conversations with Leaders: Dr. Phyllis West moves social justice from vision to reality
For Dr. Phyllis West, a born and bred social justice champion who holds two master’s degrees in public health and social work, as well as a doctorate in social work, talk is cheap.
“We’re worn out from what’s happening in the world,” said West, Director of the Social Justice Initiative (SJI) at GSU. “People are tired of talking. It’s time to ask, ‘What can we do about it?’”
What she’s doing is sharing a vision for social justice at the university and across the entire Southland area. Since January 2022, she has led an inaugural Initiative to address larger societal issues surrounding justice and community-building by finding opportunities for action and cultivating partnerships.
The Initiative has five goals:
· resolving food and housing insecurities
· promoting voter education
· creating a legal clinic
· addressing root causes of mass incarceration, community violence
· ongoing student training to empower tomorrow’s leaders
In this first year, two priorities have emerged with the first being to launch a legal clinic for the GSU campus and the larger Southland area, home to six of 20 counties in Illinois with the highest percentage of residents living below the poverty line. An advisory council was also assembled for the legal clinic made up of alumni, community leaders, current students, faculty, and staff. The clinic will be available for services by spring 2023.
“Our students and their families often need legal assistance – as they struggle with issues related to housing, employment and health care,” said West. “And we’ll address the causes that are behind the need for legal help, using a model that combines legal and social work services.”
Collaborating with West on the clinic is Co-director Dr. Vincent Jones, Criminal Justice Professor. Together, they secured pro bono support from law firms like Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Law interns will come from Northwestern University, UI-Chicago and Southern Illinois University, which participates in a unique 3 + 3 partnership with GSU. This partnership, one of President Cheryl Green’s goals for the University, is a mapped curriculum for students majoring in Anthropology & Sociology, English, and Political Science who at the completion of the BA/JD program will receive law degrees from SIUC.
The second emerging SJI priority is promoting student involvement surrounding the “The Beloved Community” a philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The website for The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change states that, “An expression of agape love in Dr. King’s Beloved Community is justice, not for any one oppressed group, but for all people. ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ he often said. He felt that justice … was the birthright of every human being in the Beloved Community.”
In 1966, Dr. King lived across the street from West’s childhood home when he moved to Chicago’s Lawndale community to study poverty and inequities in urban communities. This experience from West’s childhood continues to resonate in her work with students.
In April 2022, West and Dr. Amy Vujaklija, Professor of English accompanied 14 students to Alabama to attend The Beloved Community Conference at Auburn University. (The timing of the conference commemorates King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.) The group also visited the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the Bryan Stevenson Legacy Museum and National Lynching Memorial, the Clotilda (the last known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States), and other historic sites relevant to the Civil Rights movement. The end goal was to build a Social Justice Student Leadership Program whereby students use their gained experiences to engage in important conversations and action.
“Students who attended the trip had to commit to engage in dialogue and be willing to share their feelings about what this all means to them personally and professionally,” said West. One of the outcomes was the engaging and heartfelt Beloved Community documentary, directed by Tiyen Simmons and Zhamarr Thompkins, that the students presented on campus, at local film festivals, and to the Board of Trustees. West said the work of GSU’s Beloved Community will continue in 2023 with additional travel in Alabama to focus on incarceration and learning about indigenous tribes and ancestral land in Illinois.
Future SJI priorities include working with the College of Business on logistics education that prepares people in prisons and halfway houses for future employment—the result of a grant from the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation. West will also continue to be involved with dialogue surrounding events related to violence prevention, panel discussions, film presentations, and fine arts performances, and other community programs. Dr. West, recently trained as a restorative justice practitioner by Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, said that SJI will also be promoting restorative justice as an approach to conflict resolution and peacekeeping.
At the heart of all her activities are using resources “for good” and ensuring that GSU continues its commitment to community members underserved by higher education. And GSU students gain from the experiential learning surrounding these programs, giving them an outlet to make a difference in their own way.
Leading the SJI is West’s second position at GSU. She first joined the university in 2008 teaching in the Social Work Department. During her time in the Department of Social Work, she launched the Social Work Community Practice Learning Lab (CPLL) to provide learning and service opportunities for students when COVID locked down the world in 2020. She left the following year to continue consulting with organizational wellness, equity, and gun violence in Chicago, but returned less than a year later to share her vision for the SJI, inspired by GSU President Cheryl Green who announced it as a priority early in her tenure which began in 2020.
Since her return, West has been devoting much of her time to building partnerships in support of the legal clinic, meeting with community members, organizations, funders, attorneys, judges, Governors State University collaborative partners, GSU’s Digital Learning and Media Design (DLMD), the Center for Performing Arts, and GSU alumni. The clinic will ultimately be housed in a new Social Justice Center that could be constructed by late 2023.
West says the work of SJI begins and ends with the desire for justice for humanity. “That’s what my work – my life – is all about.”