When Lauren Lluveras, a doctoral student in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, talks about her advocacy work, she often recites a powerful statement that has fueled the disability rights movement over the years: “Nothing About Us Without Us.”
This rallying cry—which highlights the importance of including those affected by a policy in discussions about that policy—also applies to other movements, she says, because the beneficiaries of social programs must be front and center during policy debates so they can share their voices and experiences.
“I don’t think we can build good policy, programs and interventions without getting the people who are directly impacted at the table,” Lluveras says. “We see how women are locked out of conversations about their own health; this is just one of many examples.”
To bring the most vital changemakers to the table, the Center for Community Engagement recently launched the Community Classroom, a series of eight-week courses that offer advocacy training and resources for concerned residents in low-income neighborhoods. Tuition is $50 or less (depending on financial circumstances), and there’s only one prerequisite: a passion for making a difference.
“We are giving community members relevant content, organization, research materials and—hopefully—inspiration to advocate for themselves and their community,” says Virginia Cumberbatch, director of the Center for Community Engagement.
During the spring 2019 semester, the inaugural class focused on social welfare systems with a concentration on economic and political problems faced by vulnerable populations. Co-instructed by Lluveras and Michele Rountree, associate professor of social work, the class pulled from the lessons taught in Rountree’s undergraduate course on the U.S. social welfare system.
Rountree’s goal, in large part, was to explain the legislative process and empower her students to take action.
“The way I teach at the university is to demystify individual opportunity to contribute to social change,” says Rountree. “Many of the issues addressed in this course weren’t new to the community members, but the lessons they learned heightened their understanding of the solutions.”
Throughout the course, participants learned how to take action in a variety of ways such as writing op-eds, organizing advocacy groups and corresponding with elected officials.
“I like that this course demystifies the idea of what policy is, who makes it and where it comes from,” says Lluveras. “Toward the last week, people started to feel empowered to be social policy leaders. That was the best, most rewarding part of the experience.”
The interactive classroom discussions covered some of our nation’s most pressing social issues, including injustices in the U.S. prison system, affordable housing challenges amid rapid gentrification.
The topic of education was of particular interest to Tiffanie Harrison, a Round Rock High School teacher who completed the spring course. An avid education rights advocate, she brought a group of her students to the class to show them that they, too, could make a difference.
“Teachers are the first civic leaders students get to meet in a lot of cases,” says Harrison, who teaches marketing and other business courses. “I always seek new ways to encourage students to use their voices because they are the experts in their own experiences.”
Harrison was especially moved by a talk given by one of several guest speakers, Lewis Conway Jr., an activist, author and entrepreneur who spent eight years in Texas prisons and 12 years on parole.
“He made the inequities of the criminal justice program all too real,” she says. “When I hear about these problems, it’s more about the numbers, not people. I will never forget this beautiful person talking about how the systems were brought up to work against him.”
Although Harrison is well versed in the realm of education—and the many barriers students face in underserved schools—she discovered there is still much to learn about the other factors that contribute to the cycle of poverty.
“I feel like I have a good understanding about social injustices, but it was illuminating to learn about the many other problems across different systems,” she says. “This class helped me see how all of these things are interconnected.”
Now she feels even more inspired—and better equipped—to work alongside her fellow community members to combat the systematic barriers that are so deeply entrenched in American society.
“I really loved all the people I met, and it was amazing having the opportunity to collaborate with a diverse group of people in the community,” Harrison says. “Hearing their perspectives and their experiences really motivated me to continue my advocacy.”
Rountree says the course was a growth experience for both the students and the instructors. And though the topics and instructors change every semester, she would happily come back and teach another course.
“I was very proud to be a part of this initiative that does exactly what the university seeks to do: change the world,” Rountree says. “It increases our legitimacy as a world-class institution that strives to contribute to the good of the community.”