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.