Panels shine light on social justice

Sociology department hosts first symposium on inequality in US

In recent years, the term “social justice warrior” has become a common phrase, becoming a derogatory term towards those who raise concerns about the plight of others in American society.

But social justice is nothing new. It was not born out of political correctness — it has historically been the means of which change in America has occurred.

The LU department of sociology presented the inaugural Social Justice Symposium, Oct. 6,  which featured a segment on women in politics and two panels — criminal justice reform and public health.

The symposium open-ed with an address from LU President Kenneth Evans who talked about higher education as a social justice issue.

“Those who complete a college degree, on average, make a million more dollars than someone who completed just a high school degree,” he said. “Higher education changes the lives of people, and their children and their children’s children, and they provide a more robust life experience for future generations to come.”

Evans said that the disinvestment in post-secondary education by state and federal governments hinders a society’s ability to succeed.

“Our future and our children’s futures rely on a sound secondary educational system,” he said. “I ask you to find a way to assume an instrumental role in making a difference.”

Margot Gage, LU assistant professor of sociology, introduced the symposium’s first segment.

“I spent some time studying women in politics, and what the research overwhelmingly finds is that the more women that you have running government, the better the population does,” she said. “Women have more ideas about what needs to be done.

“So, what we see is that women in politics is good for population health, and in this past year we’ve seen an explosion across America with more women running for office, making monumental breakthroughs.”

Gage introduced Adrienne Bell, 2018 Democratic nominee for U.S. Congress, Texas 14th district (as well as being the first woman and the first African American woman to run for the seat), who spoke on the issue of women in politics.

“Women have to bring their own chair to the table,” Bell said. “When a woman is undervalued, when we see what’s going on in the news, we realize that we have got to stand tall for women and we need to speak for women. We need to stand up for women’s rights, because we are more than half of this population and everything we do is valuable.”

Bell talked about women’s issues and spoke on the unfairness of the criminal justice system towards people of color, leading into a panel on criminal justice reform, moderated by Port Arthur Mayor Derrick Ford Freeman.

Robert Worley, LU interim director of criminal justice, presented an overview of the U.S. criminal justice system, also known as “The Dubious Distinction.”

Worley quoted statistics by the International Centre for Prison Studies, which said that the U.S. houses 22 percent of the world’s prisoners and has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

“(America) has so many prisons because of the economic benefits,” Worley said. “If you’re a city like Port Arthur, where the prison system is a major employer, then the employees get their paychecks and they’re paying into the tax revenue.

“Think also about some of the companies that sell food to the prisons, and the  millions and millions of dollars that goes to everyone from the workers to employees — that’s the problem.”

Tim Winberg, former JIV — justice involved veteran — peer coordinator at the Spindletop Center, and Mary Williams, Jefferson County veteran treatment court director, gave presentations about the mistreatment of veterans by the criminal justice system.

“What are we doing in this nation, as a country and state? What are we doing to help veterans transition out of the military?” Williams said. “We have to be there for them. Freedom is not free, it came at a price.”

Jesse Garcia, LU assistant professor of sociology, talked about the issues surrounding immigration in the current political climate.

“Why are you afraid of people who come from other countries?” he said. “What is causing you to feel this way? How do you address and change that? By listening and understanding.

“Put yourself in that person’s shoes. Your ancestors came here for a better life, and that’s what people are doing today.”

Stuart A. Wright, LU department of sociology, social work and criminal justice chair, closed out the panel with a presentation about how social movements changed the course of history and continue to do so.

“Social movements are key social forces in the modern world, because when access to institutional channels of authority are blocked or unresponsive to the needs of grievances, non-institutional vehicles are necessary to redress their grievances,” he said. “Social movements are mechanisms that allow citizens to take their grievances directly to the court of public opinion.”

Wright talked about the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Occupy Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, and others, to prove how social movements have changed public perception and the human condition.

The Symposium’s second panel focused on how public health impacts and is directly related to social justice.

Jeffrey Guidry, Texas A&M department of health and kinesiology faculty, presented “Why Study Health Disparities in 2018?”

Guidry addressed the role of economics in health disparities and lack of access to adequate healthcare for poorer populations.

“We have to find out why certain people are doing better than others health-wise, and what factors influence those outcomes,” he said.

Praphul Joshi, LU associate professor of health and kinesiology, localized Guidry’s points in his discussion about health disparities in Southeast Texas and the initiatives being brought up in order to combat them.

“People always ask me why I left practicing dentistry in India to come to America and teach,” he said. “Yes, I would’ve made more money practicing but that’s not why I went into this field. I want to solve the problems that people are facing — I don’t care about the money.”

The public health panel concluded with the presentation “Yale University Air Quality Study” by Jillian Howell, a graduate student in the master of environmental management studies program at Yale University.

Howell presented the study, that she did along with other Yale students, that tested the air quality in the Charlton-Pollard neighborhood of Beaumont. The neighborhood borders an industrial plant.

Howell said that she and her colleagues discovered the neighborhood through a Title VI case against ExxonMobil that alleged discrimination based on race in violation of Title VI and EPA regulations.

“A more thorough investigation would prove to what extent the air quality in the Charlton-Pollard neighborhood is diminished,” Howell said. “But we do know that the effects of the industry near the neighborhood are harming its residents — they told us so themselves.

“More can be done by the EPA to make sure that the air quality is properly monitored and attended to.”

A reception for the estimated 150 attendees concluded the symposium.

Story by Olivia Malick, UP managing editor

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