Building Foundations for Social Justice

Arcus Center develops leaders who want to ‘fix the system’

The nearly 10,000-square-foot building on the corner of Academy and Monroe Streets in Kalamazoo is still under construction, just bare cement and crews in hard hats covering its rising steel skeleton like worker ants. But while the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership (ACSJL), at Kalamazoo College, is still months from its anticipated grand opening in June, its reach is already extending across the globe.

Kalamazoo College has had a commitment to social justice and leadership development as part of its curriculum since its founding in 1833. In 2009, the college took that commitment one step further with a $200,000 planning grant from trustee and alumnus Jon Stryker’s Arcus Foundation for the establishment of a social-justice leadership center. A year ago, the Arcus Foundation made a $23 million endowment grant to fund the new center. Within that funding was money for the construction of a new building on the edge of the college’s campus, in the West Main Hill neighborhood, that is estimated to cost $5 million and was designed by Chicago architect and MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang.

“Our vision is pretty clear,” says Lisa Brock, the academic director of the ACSJL and the center’s interim executive director. The center aims for a world in which “every person’s life is equally valued, the inherent dignity of all people is recognized, the opportunity to develop one’s full potential is available to every person, and systematic discrimination and structural inequities have been eradicated.

“But the mission of the center is to develop emerging leaders and sustain existing leaders in social justice and human rights. We differ from social-justice service because we see things as systemic, and we want to fix the system,” she explains. “We want to address the ‘why.’ If we want students to work to eradicate poverty, then they need to understand poverty’s underlying causes.”

Toward that end, the center focuses its programs and activities on promoting social justice and the advancement of human rights by educating and training leaders. That training is provided through a wide range of opportunities, including awards, internships and fellowships for Kalamazoo College students and faculty. But those opportunities go beyond the campus’s borders as well — the ACSJL has fellowships and the Global Prize for Collaborative Social Justice Leadership Prize that are available to anyone anywhere (see box, 
page 19).

“A social leader is someone with a passion to see a more just world, a person who wants to understand and help others understand world issues and the blockages to justice — racism, sexism, homophobia,” Brock says. “Nothing about social justice is a hammer. There are people who want to give, but that is not the kind of person we are seeking here.”

The idea of one person being a giver and another a taker, Brock says, is a false one, and a social justice leader discerns that falsehood. “Both sides give, both sides take, both sides grow,” she says. “When a student comes to us with an idea for change, we talk to them about bringing the voices of those impacted into the decision-making. Talk to those you want to help. Listen. That idea of paternalism, that you know better than those you want to help about what they need, is wrong. Never assume you know better.”

Brock came to Kalamazoo three years ago from Chicago, where she was the chair of the humanities department at Columbia College. “I loved what I heard about ACSJL, and I loved that the Arcus Center was based on an endowment,” she says, meaning that the center was a dream with deep roots, not just a passing vision.

She learned about social-justice leadership growing up in southern Ohio, near Cincinnati. “It was a segregated but changing area,” Brock says. She admits to having been an activist all her life, fighting for girls’ rights and black rights and against police violence and judicial misconduct in Washington, D.C. “I had the passion,” she says.

Brock attended Oberlin College, in Ohio, and earned a bachelor-of-arts degree from Howard University, in Washington, D.C., and a Ph.D. in African history from Northwestern University, in the Chicago area. She became a leader in the anti-apartheid movement in Chicago, lived in Mozambique as a Fulbright Scholar in the 1980s, and merged her academic interest with southern African social-justice struggles. In the mid-2000s, Brock helped establish the Chicago Anti-Apartheid Movement Collection at Columbia College Chicago, leading an effort to endow an international travel scholarship at the college and develop study-abroad programs in South Africa and Cuba.

She has brought that rich experience to Kalamazoo, where she and the other ACSJL staff work hard to make the new center a vital part of Kalamazoo by partnering with community organizations and individuals..

“Everything we do, we try to involve the community in some way,” she says. “I would like this new building to be a destination place for the people of Kalamazoo. I would love to see community members dropping in to visit, school field trips to bring schoolchildren here to learn about social justice. People have been contacting me with all kinds of exciting ideas. I would like to have an art exhibit here every six months or so for the community. Art can move you to take up an issue. Art can be an entry point into social change.”

Kalamazoo College President Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran also talks about the connection between ACSJL and the Kalamazoo community: “The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership builds on the strong historic connection between the college and the community. Through the center’s programs, social-justice leaders from around the globe come to Kalamazoo to interact with local activists and academics, and K students deliver their talents and energies to partner organizations areawide.”

In its three years of existence, the ACSJL has already helped to foster an array of social-justice projects both locally and globally.

One of those is a project exploring the connection between play and social justice undertaken by Kalamazoo’s Michelle Johnson. Johnson, the co-founding executive director of Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative, a nonprofit on Portage Street that fosters the development of youth and emerging artists, used her ACSJL fellowship to develop a program she calls Playgrown.

“During this fellowship, I researched intergenerational play and focused on how play functions as a basic need,” Johnson explains. “I collected local, national and international data and visited playground organizers and manufacturers in Europe. But, most importantly, I played. I did all of this in spaces built with full-grown bodies in mind.

“My ACSJL fellowship to retreat and pursue international research on play and social change was an invaluable experience. I can honestly say that my ability to focus on my dream that the fellowship allowed catapulted me into making Playgrown a reality. Playgrown provides destinations for reintegrating play into physical activity and invigorating urban space for neighborhood residents and members of the larger community.”

Johnson is now helping to create the first Playgrown installation in urban Detroit and is planning a similar installation in Kalamazoo.

Another fellowship recipient, Alyce Brady, has a project with more of a global reach. A professor of computer science at Kalamazoo College, Brady received an ACSJL Fellowship for two years to collaborate on an academic record-keeping software project in Sierra Leone, a country that has been beset by civil war and ethnic strife. The project involves the University of Sierra Leone and Njala University.

“Developing academic record-keeping software doesn’t sound very exciting compared to developing web applications or mobile apps, for example,” admits Brady, “but accurate record-keeping is a fundamental need for all institutions of higher learning. Having computerized, accessible academic and administrative records will help both universities establish and communicate educational requirements, monitor and support students’ educational progress, forecast programmatic and institutional needs, and assess and document progress toward institutional goals.

“We hope to support the ongoing efforts in Sierra Leone to rebuild its governmental and educational infrastructure. The two Sierra Leonean universities have an important role to play in that effort, providing education, supporting research, and producing alumni who have been and will continue to be instrumental in the rebuilding of their nation.”

ASCJL’s efforts are definitely having an international impact. Its Global Prize for Collaborative Social Justice Leadership, a biennial $25,000 prize honoring an innovative and collaborative social-justice and human-rights project anywhere in the world, drew 188 applicants in its inaugural year, according to Brock. The center found it couldn’t choose one winner, so instead in May announced it would split the award among three recipients: the Dalia Association, a Palestinian-led community foundation dedicated to civil society development; Language Partners, a prisoner-created and -led bilingual educational program in Illinois that develops language, leadership and job skills post-incarceration in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Building Power for Restaurant Workers, a restaurant-worker-driven wage justice project in New York City founded by workers displaced by the 2001 bombing of the World Trade Center. Each recipient received $10,000.

“The Global Prize provided a singular opportunity for the Kalamazoo community to learn about innovative social-justice initiatives throughout the world, and many in the community served as hosts for the contestants,” Wilson-Oyelaran says.

But Brock points out that social-justice issues are found everywhere, even close to home, which is why the ACSJL has established a $5,000 Regional Prize for a project originating in Southwest Michigan. The 2013 Regional Prize was awarded to Welcoming Michigan, a regional partnership seeking to educate and organize across immigrant and U.S.-born communities throughout Michigan.

“People tend to think that social justice is something that is needed ‘over there,’ but it is needed everywhere. We can’t give without being given. We become better people,” says Brock. “The Arcus Center is making an impact on the college campus, in our community, nationally and internationally.”

As its physical structure evolves from a steel skeleton to a curvy, delta-shaped building nestled within a grove of trees, the Arcus Center is poised to become the world’s first purpose-built structure for social-justice leadership development, according to its architects. The building’s facade will feature wood masonry – a regional, traditional building method that incorporates local, sustainably harvested white cedar. According to Studio Gang Architects, this is the first instance in which this building technique, which is both low-carbon and highly insulating, has been employed for a project on an institutional scale.

Within its walls, there will be new beginnings as well, as a search is conducted this spring for a new executive director to replace Jaime Grant, who stepped down in September after leading the ACSJL for three years. With a new building, a new director and new initiatives on the horizon for the Arcus Center, there is no doubt this is a period of excitement on the Kalamazoo College campus and beyond.

“The Arcus Center is nurturing leaders here in Kalamazoo and around the world,” says Wilson-Oyelaran. “And once the new building housing the center is complete, it will be a destination for people interested in both social-justice leadership and architecture.”


Arcus Center Initiatives

The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership has a many-tiered approach to supporting the pursuit of human rights and social justice:

It awards a $25,000 Global Prize for Collaborative Social Justice Leadership biennially for innovative and creative projects.

  • Through its Social Justice Leadership Fund, it provides grants of $500 to $1,500 to students to develop projects, attend conferences or receive training.

  • It plans to hold an academic, activist conference biennially for thought leaders to gather and discuss their ideas. The first conference, titled “With/Out, ¿Borders?” will take place in September.

  • It provides faculty and visiting fellowship programs to college faculty as well as local, national and global social-justice leaders.

  • It awards student scholarships each year and incorporates student internships, projects and study-abroad experiences into its social-justice pursuits.

  • It offers approximately 40 social-justice programs and events to the public each year.