Washington, D.C., fellowship promotes social justice through education

Efrain Marimon, assistant back left, and Ashley Patterson, back right, both assistant professors in the College of Education, lead a class activity in the University Park portion of the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship, during the early part of spring semester 2019. Marimon and Patterson are co-directors of the program. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Efraín Marimón and Ashley Patterson, faculty members in Penn State’s College of Education, understand that training students to tackle systemic racism and inequity requires more than just classroom learning — they need to get out in the field and see the lessons put into action. Students across the University have that opportunity through the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship, in which 12 to 15 students from across Penn State spend the spring semester developing a social justice curriculum at University Park and then two to three weeks teaching those lessons in Washington, D.C., high schools.

“The program is unique in that social justice is at the core,” said Patterson, assistant professor of education and research director of the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship. “As far as an opportunity based in social justice that gets you off campus to do actual instruction, I don’t think there’s another program like this at the University.”

The D.C. Social Justice Fellowship, having finished up its fifth year in the spring, is a collaborative project between the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, its Office of Education and Social Equity, and Georgetown Law and D.C. Public Schools in Washington, D.C. It is a two-semester, credit-bearing program that combines theoretical analysis with hands-on clinical explorations of law, education, policy and systems of inequity through a field teaching experience in under-resourced schools in Washington, D.C. Students from any college or major within the University can apply.

Through the fellowship, Penn State alumnae Addison Weinreb and Shannon Walker, and current student Deja Lewis flexed their teaching muscles as well as developed a deeper awareness of social justice issues that they will carry with them throughout their careers.

“The students come with their own interests,” said Marimón, assistant professor of education, and founder/program director of the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship. “Our goal is to prepare them on how to engage communities on those topics and see social justice in practice.”

In the classroom portion of the D.C. fellowship, Marimón and Patterson integrate social-justice-related materials in their discussion on topics such as environmental justice, educational equity, race and gender. The students, working in teams, develop curriculum materials, while learning about critical pedagogies and inequity. Then in the Maymester, they go to D.C., where they live in dorms at local partnering universities, teach high school youth and meet with stakeholders in their fields of interest. Those stakeholders, in turn, help the students develop community action plans.

“We’re trying to create critical awareness and critical reflection,” said Marimón. “How are unconscious biases playing out in how we respond to students, and how we’re processing our interactions with students and community members? How is my lesson mindful of my students?”

Since the fellowship is funded by the College of Education’s Office of Education and Social Equity and a few grants, Marimón said, the experience costs very little for students. Being able to live independently, take public transportation and attend meetings with advocates is a realistic glimpse of what may lie ahead for the students after graduation.

“They’re living the life of a young professional advocate,” he said.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Marimón and Patterson decided not to pursue a Maymester version of the fellowship this year. To compensate for the lost opportunity, Patterson said, “anyone from this cohort will be able to participate in Maymester next year.”

A crash course in consent legislation

Weinreb, who graduated from Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts with a bachelor of arts in English and a minor in Middle Eastern studies in December 2018, never studied law or had any experience in the legal field prior to her participation in the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship in spring 2019. Nonetheless, through her experience and connections made through the fellowship, she developed a reproductive justice curriculum that will be used by Washington, D.C., public school districts and disseminated widely to educate students about reproductive rights.

From left, Nia Baldwin, Addison Weinreb and Heidy Canales participated in the group "Systems, Politics, and Reforms" in the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship in spring 2019. Credit: Photo courtesy of Addison WeinrebAll Rights Reserved.

“Almost all the work I’ve done in reproductive justice, I really owe to a lot of the connections I gained through the D.C. Social Justice program and the connections I made through the Street Law Program,” said Weinreb.

A breakthrough came about when, through Marimón, she got connected to the Georgetown Street Law Program (SLP), which provides professional development for law students while they actively engage with the D.C. community by teaching law to high school students. With the help of SLP Director Charisma Howell, Weinreb connected with Georgetown Law student Anna Reed, who was looking for help in developing a reproductive justice curriculum. Weinreb joined her team of 13 students and faculty members to develop the Reproductive Justice and Rights curricula for over 300 D.C. high school students based on students’ survey responses and implemented a strategy for increasing civic discourse in classrooms. While each team member was assigned a different aspect of reproductive justice, Weinreb focused on the laws of consent. As part of the research team, she published the consent aspect of a Reproductive Justice (“RJ”) flagship program as open-sourced online material; and taught to Howell’s third-year law students to prepare for a mock trial sexual assault case.

“Addison has been exceptional,” said Howell. “Flexible, inviting, engaged — she was the ultimate team player.”

This year, she added, SLP created a parallel mock trial program, with Weinreb’s lessons on consent starting off the mock trial packet. The lesson plan served as an “incredible launching pad to get the high school students and law students to understand the complexity of the issue.”

“She created a lesson plan on consent that has been a hit everywhere we’ve taken it,” Howell said, adding that the collaboration that Weinreb supported was the first in the nearly 50-year history of the SLP. “One of the first lessons was converted into a virtual platform so students could still participate in the reproductive justice curriculum even though D.C. schools had adopted distance learning (in response to the COVID-19 pandemic).”

“(Weinreb’s) materials have been used and adapted by a research team and will be used by D.C. public school districts and disseminated widely to teach about law,” said Marimón. “Her direct deliverable almost immediately turned into a direct action. That’s pretty impressive for someone who’s not even a law student.”

According to Weinreb, the D.C. fellowship was pivotal in determining her career path. After completing the fellowship, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she is currently a business practice development assistant at Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP. She said she wants to eventually attend law school, and that her understanding of political, economic and racial issues has been broadened by the experience.

“It was a big growth process for me during the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship,” Weinreb said.

“Ultimately, this changed my entire perspective about life, and my everyday actions, as I learned it is possible to always come from a place of understanding."

Discovering a passion for advocacy

Walker, a 2020 graduate of the College of Education with a bachelor of science in elementary and early childhood education, and minors in special education, education policy studies and theater, also is among the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship alumnae who claim to have been profoundly impacted by the experience. Walker, the spring 2020 College of Education student marshal, who now teaches second grade at Goshen Post Elementary School in northern Virginia, participated in the fellowship in 2018.

Group partners, from left, Joanna Carrasco, April Blackburn and Shannon Walker taught at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. in spring 2018 as part of the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship.  Credit: Photo courtesy of Shannon WalkerAll Rights Reserved.

“It has shaped who I am as a teacher now and I don’t think I would be the same teacher without it,” she said. “The experience as a whole is something I couldn’t imagine not having done.”

Walker’s group in the fellowship tackled the topic of “Identity and Narratives in Education.” The members explored topics such as housing discrimination and how that plays into the economics of education, and how schools are awarded funding. After developing a curriculum at University Park, Walker and her classmates taught those lessons to mostly sophomores and juniors at Woodrow Wilson High School, the largest high school in D.C. that prides itself on the diversity of its student body.

The Penn State students integrated different subject matter in the course, such as redlining, white flight, housing discrimination, human rights, and how students’ identities can impact educational opportunities and experiences. Walker said that knowledge and experience will help her in her current role in communicating to young children about race, gender, and topics related to social justice in “helping elementary students learn about themselves and others, and how they can play a part in creating inclusive communities that celebrate diversity."

One of the most powerful experiences that Walker had in the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship, she said, was that her interactions with the high school students made her examine the impact of her personal background (white, female, cisgender) on her beliefs and biases.

“It’s really helped me as a teacher to make sure that my lessons are meaningful and relevant to my students and really focused on them,” she said. “It really was cool to see how as a teacher you can be an advocate and how you can encourage your students to be advocates as well.”

That knowledge and experience will help her in her current role in communicating to young children about race and gender, and “helping elementary students learn about themselves.”

“People think elementary students are too young to talk about race and gender but they understand (those issues),” Walker said. “How can I give them the language to talk about it?”

A ‘social justice lens of life’

Lewis, a senior in the College of Education majoring in early childhood education, echoed Weinreb’s and Walker’s statements that participating in the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship was a transformative experience, both personally and professionally.

Deja Lewis, a senior in the College of Education, participated in the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship as a student member in 2018, and as a peer mentor in 2019. Credit: Deja LewisAll Rights Reserved.

“(The program) taught me how to have a critical social justice lens of life to the point where I can’t turn it off, I can’t just relax about it,” she said. “It’s almost like a new way of thinking that I really appreciate.”

Lewis had the privilege of gaining experience through the D.C. fellowship two years in a row: as a student member in 2018, and as a peer mentor the following year. During her initial foray in the fellowship, she was part of a group that focused on public policy in education and planned lessons on how race and gender play into upward mobility. Teaching their lessons to students in two different D.C. high schools, each with a distinct racial makeup and culture, gave the group members further opportunities to teach in an unfamiliar environment with students from various socioeconomic backgrounds.

“I would say the program gives a really good idea what it is to be your best self, to be a great teacher,” Lewis said. “It’s really a beautiful thing to guide students through learning and then watch them take that skill and create their own skills or strategies to help them learn on their own.”

One of the most rewarding aspects of the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship, Lewis said, was providing a space for students to “talk about issues that students rarely get a chance to express their opinion on.”

“It was really fun to build rapport with students in the short time I had,” she said. “You brought something worthwhile for them to talk about. It really reaffirmed my love of teaching.”

Challenging the status quo through education

For Marimón and Patterson, directing the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship is one of the various ways they exemplify their commitment to promoting diversity, equity and inclusivity as foundational elements of higher education.

Prior to starting his position in the College of Education, Marimón served as a teaching fellow and adjunct professor for the Street Law Clinic at Georgetown Law. At the Street Law Clinic, Marimón selected, trained and supervised juris doctor (J.D.) students who taught curricula to high school students throughout Washington, D.C. He also co-taught a summer clinic at Georgetown Law that supervised instructors teaching adults in various settings: correctional facilities; treatment centers for alcohol, drug or HIV; homeless shelters; halfway houses; and other community centers.

Efraín Marimón Credit: Lily Tian Laregina / Penn StateCreative Commons

Upon arriving at Penn State, Marimón tapped into his legal education and advocacy resources in Washington, D.C., and formed partnerships that allowed Penn State students to benefit from those connections. He is the founder and director of The Restorative Justice Initiative (RJI), a group of faculty members, graduate students and stakeholders dedicated to restoring and empowering individuals that are incarcerated by providing programing and educational opportunities in multiple correctional facilities in Pennsylvania.

Marimón also teaches, supervises and supports law students in Penn State’s version of the Street Law Program, where law students teach law-related lessons on the constitution and human rights to middle school students and high school students in the State College Area School District and Bellefonte Area School District. 

“I see myself as an advocate and I see teaching as a form of advocacy,” he said. “I want to create a socially just world by challenging existing paradigms of education and getting students to think about how we can start thinking of things through a social justice lens.”

Patterson's work in the educational field began as an elementary level inclusive special educator in Frederick, Maryland. Her research is focused on looking for instances of inequity in schools and learning spaces, and proposing solutions that will decrease or eliminate those inequities. To this end, Patterson serves as a co-coordinator with Marimón for the newly (2020) established Social Justice in Education minor available to students across the University.

Ashley Patterson Credit: Lily Tian Laregina / Penn StateCreative Commons

“My mission is to encourage people to develop the necessary skills to be a beacon of equity,” she said. “My definition of equity is when everyone is provided the resources they need in the way that they need them in order to be successful in the space they are in.” 

Simultaneous to her role as research director of the D.C. fellowship, Patterson is running a research project that examines how participation in an experientially based social justice course impacts the way students think about themselves. As part of the project, she is interviewing students who have participated in the fellowship a year later “to see if they’re tracing anything they’re doing to experiences specifically had in the fellowship classroom.” In conversations with Walker, Weinreb and Lewis, she heard stories about how the fellowship helped them to confidently handle explicit conversations and awkward questions from students regarding issues of race and gender.

“Even when conversations become difficult or challenging, they don’t hold back," said Patterson. "All of them have said the fellowship is a strong reason why that happens.”

One of the underlying philosophies of the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship, Patterson said, is that breaking down the systemic racism that plagues educational institutions and society at large requires focused effort as well as empathy.

“Our societal organization was systematically built upon injustices and requires systematic disruption and deconstruction in order for equity to become its foundation. If we keep going the way things are, it’s not like the system is going to crumble randomly,” she said. “It’s going to take agitation to put it onto another course, and programs like the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship are just one way to start.”

Last Updated April 15, 2021