What Do You Have to Offer? Establishing A Social Justice Vision That Matters! By: Gregory Fontus, M.Ed.

Being in an office that focuses on all things social justice, diversity, and inclusion can be quite challenging, all things considered. Right now, there is a president in the White House who blatantly seeks to daily infringe upon the civil liberties of underrepresented groups, thus causing social justice offices to have to focus on addressing and responding to the rise in student mental health issues and student activism that’s becoming the new norm of the collegiate experience. Additionally, there is, of course, the everyday invisibility that historically marginalized groups continue to face while trying to survive in a society that often relegates them to its margins. With all of this, how does one implement a social justice vision that addresses the white supremacist culture embedded within the fabric of our country, invites meaningful and fearless dialogue of opposing views, and creates opportunities for underrepresented groups to feel welcomed?

It wasn’t until I began to champion the philosophies of the late Howard Thurman that answers to these questions began to appear. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman asked a provocative question regarding religious institutions that I found to be metaphorically quintessential to the foundational impetus of developing a framework for a social justice or multicultural office. Thurman wrote:

“The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life?” [1]

Thurman challenges and invites us to self-reflect not upon what we are doing as an entity, but rather what we are offering to communities that identify as the disinherited. It’s my argument that social justice and multicultural offices at higher education institutions need to establish visions that focus on what they are offering the communities they are purposed to serve. At Vanderbilt University, the Office of Inclusion Initiatives & Cultural Competence (IICC) offers a comprehensive service model vision that focuses on 5 competencies of A.C.C.E.SS.

A: Advocate

The first competency of A.C.C.E.SS. is to Advocate. To advocate is to intentionally advise and holistically support the needs and issues surrounding and affecting multicultural, international, and underrepresented students and groups. Being at a PWI that serves over 40 undergraduate multicultural organizations and has increased its efforts and resources towards social justice and identity, the obligation to advocate for students is critical, both academically, politically, and socially. Often times, the work of social justice is rooted in dismantling the negative representations, historical legacies, and institutional patterns and practices that have been perpetuated and upheld by generations of white supremacy. To advocate within the A.C.C.E.SS. model is to focus on celebrating diversity while confronting ideological frameworks that have rendered groups of people invisible in efforts of fostering a campus community of recognition and respect.

C: Critical Dialogue

The second competency of A.C.C.E.SS. is to engage the campus community in Critical Dialogue. Within the IICC office we offer a catalogue of cultural competency trainings, modules, and workshops to the entire campus community in efforts to deepen the level of authentic and inclusive dialogue across difference. This need for critical dialogue is key for social justice and multicultural offices to participate in because it is through this modality that the self-exploration of ideologies and identities can be addressed. The ability to dialogue promotes and nurtures the practical communication and leadership tools necessary to effectively navigate diverse communities with sensitivity, empathy, and confidence.

C: Culturally Relevant Programming

The third competency of A.C.C.E.SS. is to offer Culturally Relevant Programming. It’s imperative that social justice offices create programming initiatives for various identities of race, faith/religious traditions, nationality, class, gender, sexual identity, ability, and other social identities to meaningfully engage with one another. Relevant programming initiatives allow for multiple communities to be heard, opportunities for faculty engagement, personal storytelling, and the social/identity development of students to take place. The more we offer culturally relevant programming, the more we validate and humanize the voices and experiences implanted within our various campus communities.

E: Environments of Reprieve

The fourth competency of A.C.C.E.SS. is to offer Environments of Reprieve. What can be forgotten in the work of social justice is the space for people to kickback and take mental breaks from the racial, political, and academic fatigue often times presented. Social justice and multicultural offices should be identified as environments that engage in healthy wellness and well-being initiatives for their students. Offices need to be spaces where students don’t have to be victims of pretension or in competition with their peers. Social justice and multicultural offices should be a place where the full and complex humanity of each individual is acknowledged and authenticated.

SS: Strategic Success

The final competency of the A.C.C.E.SS. vision is to offer Strategic Success. As offices are charged with sharing the narratives of various cultures and dismantling the notions of white supremacy, we need not forget that practitioners are here to serve the holistic student need. Therefore, strategic success plans should be established in which offices collaborate with university and community partners to build a diversity network that offers learning and leadership opportunities for all students. This allows for underrepresented students to have access and exposure to opportunities that they would otherwise be slighted from because of the unfortunate realities of white supremacy (i.e. internship opportunities, exposure to job recruiters, and networking with key university alumni). Instead of students seeking out opportunities, our offices should be bringing the opportunities to them!

When Howard Thurman inquired about what religious institutions had to offer the disinherited, he did so with the mindset of re-envisioning what community means. Leading from a mindset of what your office is offering allows for underrepresented students to centered and validated within your office. We should be willing to offer them the access to opportunities, experiences, and resources that their human right has granted them. When we begin to do so, the work of social justice then becomes reality.



Greg Fontus (he/him/his) is the current Assistant Director for the Office of Inclusion Initiatives and Cultural Competence (IICC) at Vanderbilt University. He began working at Vanderbilt in June 2012 after graduating from the University of South Florida where he received both a Bachelor of Science in Finance and a Master of Education in Instruction and Curriculum. During his time at Vanderbilt, Greg has received certifications from the National Coalition Building Institute as a diversity and social justice workshop facilitator (Fall 2012), was named the Dean of Students New Professional of the Year (2012-2013), attended the Social Justice Training Institute (Fall 2013), and was named the OHARE Staff Member of the Year (2014-2015). Greg has conducted many social justice workshops for all parts of the Vanderbilt and Nashville community in hopes of contributing to a community where all people understand the importance of celebrating other groups of people. His passion for diversity and social justice stem from his desire to dismantle systems of oppression that have historically rendered people invisible. To connect further with Greg, please use the following:

[1] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 3.

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