The Gathering: Bringing Students to a Deeper Consciousness of Social Injustice

SSW student participants in The Gathering's Ableism panel, left to right, doctoral candidate Ramon Guerrero, MSW candidates John Durden and Jess Perk, and undergraduate Danielle Hotaling.

ALBANY, N.Y. (April 15, 2016) — In 2014, two members of the School of Social Welfare (SSW) community believed the time was right for a platform in which raw, honest, and respectful dialogues on social injustice in its variety of forms could take place in an open and safe way. And thus, “The Gathering” was born.

Dawn Knight-Thomas, SSW assistant dean of student affairs, and Samantha Fletcher, an SSW doctoral student, began convening students, faculty and staff for conversations in the fall of 2014. A number of guest speakers — social workers, social activists, and community providers among them — were brought in that fall and spring. The Gathering was then awarded funding from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion for the 2015-16 year.

“We used the funding to recruit students enrolled in the School’s bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. programs to present on specific topics of social injustice — such as race, LGBTQ, and disability — to the larger University community in 2015-16, and produce a video series that can be shared in social media,” said Fletcher. Assistant Professor Keith Chan joined the group in 2015, helping to facilitate discussions on the Downtown Campus and overseeing the video productions.

Each of three panels comprising 12 students critically addressed one issue: Race, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation, or Ableism (the privileging of those with able bodies over those with disabilities). The panels’ videos, meant to raise awareness and promote interventions on behalf of social justice action, will be shown on Tuesday, April 19 at 7 p.m. in the Standish Room of the Science Library. Following a buffet dinner, students will field questions.

According to Fletcher, The Gathering has been received with “overwhelmingly positive feedback” from student participants and attendees of the panels’ discussions. “A few faculty members have invited Dawn and I to speak in their classes about social injustice,” she added. “We have been told that the value of The Gathering is that it offers students, faculty and staff a safe place to discuss sensitive issues and to be able to ask questions that one would normally not ask in other situations.”

Student participants appreciate that The Gathering is not a place for “colorblindness.” It applies a critical framework to focus upon real conditions within the social environment and to examine intersections in disparities due to race, gender/gender identity, sexuality, ableism, religion, immigration status, nationality, class, and place.

“I was immediately hooked on The Gathering’s ability to have open and safe communication about such critical topics,” said MSW candidate Jess Perk. “I feel I was able to recruit at least a couple of other frequent flyer participants. Having a space for these discussions that is so grounded in the social work core value of social justice, and having it facilitated by Dawn and Sam, who promote pure respect among the event participants, created a recipe for critical thought, introspection, and an inspiration for activism.”

“I think that on some fundamental level we all want to connect with other people and The Gathering is all about that,” said John Durden, also a master’s candidate. “I think it's even more valuable as it gives an opportunity to be exposed to people who may have very different backgrounds and experiences and hear about the issues that are primary to their lives. It's the kind of education you can't reproduce in the classroom or in a textbook.”

Athena Mizero, MSW student and a member of the Race panel, has watched The Gathering grow and evolve the last two years. "However you define yourself, it’s a space where you come to listen, to share, to question, and learn — a place where your voice is heard…and you realize you’re not alone," she said.

"I truly believe the work that Dawn, Sam, and Keith are doing is necessary and has transformed the way I think, the way I see myself, how I relate to others, and is ultimately helping me define what my role is in moving toward a more socially just society and world."

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