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Mississippi State Univ student Kylie Dennis found inspiration from the Institute for Transforming Social Justice, part of Hampshire's Summer Academic Programs.
When Mississippi State University student Kylie Dennis was approached by her school’s dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. R. Gregory Dunaway, about launching a social-justice program there, she was ecstatic. But first she needed to develop a plan for the program to pitch to faculty and others who would need to support it.
So Dennis searched for a summer academic experience during which she could learn the practice of social justice through hands-on experience, like an internship. She enrolled at Hampshire College’s summer Institute for Transforming Social Justice, a four-week intensive on the study and practice of creating social change, led by a group of instructors, among them including Hampshire Professor Marlene Gerber Fried, a nationally prominent activist leader.
Dennis said the institute provided an eye-opening perspective on activism. “People think about loud protesting in the street and picket lines, but the institute taught me that activism can be whittled down to a single conversation with anyone,” Dennis said. “That’s really empowering. If activism were talked about in that way, then more people would be empowered to do something about issues facing their community, because they’d realize they have the tools for that.”
Starting a social-justice program at her college could present obstacles. “We’re working within the parameters of a university that’s saddled in a deeply conservative state,” she said. “One of the things Marlene Gerber Fried said at the institute was ‘Don’t fight for what you think you can achieve, fight for what you need.’ I felt so empowered to do that when I got back to MSU.”
Hampshire’s Institute for Transforming Social Justice is designed around a core curriculum incorporating policy analysis, social change, community-based research and practices, and participatory action. As the institute enters its second year, Gerber Fried sees the program as an introduction to a national and global network that students can leverage. “Our goal and hope is to introduce students to a new level of thinking, learning, and engagement they can bring back to their communities, on whatever issues they’re passionate about,” she said. (Read more about registering for Hampshire's Summer Programs including the Institute for Transforming Social Justice.)
On campus at Mississippi State this year, Dennis is developing plans for the College of Arts & Sciences Social Justice Initiative, and is hoping to serve as the program's first student director. She envisions the program merging campus activism with a social-justice curriculum and community engagement. The next few months will be crucial to the fledgling program, as Dennis works with Dean Dunaway and others to get it off the ground. She’d like to transform Mississippi State into a university committed to social issues facing all of its students. “MSU is called the People’s University, and we think this initiative will bring a lot of truth to that name,” she said. Her hope is that the program will last far beyond her time there.
Meantime, Dennis and Gerber Fried have stayed in touch. Dennis calls her new mentor “a superstar.”
“Learning from Marlene as an academic and activist who’s been on the ground with these issues, I was seeing for the first time that I could use academia as a tool for empowering communities and inciting sustainable change,” Dennis said. “Marlene has directed me to several national organizations that provide research, internship, and activist opportunities for our students to pursue.” As one example, Dennis is now in contact with the Women's Health Clinic in nearby Jackson, which serves women in the state. “I’m hoping to build a strong relationship there,” Dennis said, “so MSU students can have a presence in issues facing women locally.”
For more info about the Institute for Transforming Social Justice, click here.