New social justice courses advocate cultural competency, challenge assumptions

June 23, 2017

Price doctoral students Matthew Miller and Jonathan Crisman assist students with equipment to create oral histories of the 1992 LA civil unrest for Dr. Annette Kim’s “Race, Arts and Placemaking” class this past spring. (Photo by Annette Kim)

By Matthew Kredell

When the USC Price School of Public Policy added three social justice courses for the 2016-17 academic year, the life and legacy of its namesake were on people’s minds.

Sol Price leveraged his financial success as founder of Price Club into social innovations aimed at creating a more equitable and just society — an effort that lives on through Price Philanthropies Foundation.

To position USC Price at the forefront of advancing social justice through producing culturally competent professionals, the Price School added Social Justice in Public Policy and Urban Planning (PPD 300) taught by Professor LaVonna Lewis; Race, Arts and Placemaking (PPD 499) instructed by Associate Professor Annette Kim; and Inequality, Policy and Administration (PPD 599) led by Assistant Professor Kathleen Doherty.

‘Disadvantages are real’

Professor LaVonna Lewis (front), Price’s Diversity Liaison

The introduction to social justice, PPD 300, was made a required course for undergraduates pursuing a degree at USC Price.

“We decided as a committee that we were going to make the social justice class a requirement and distinctly Price to honor the commitment of his naming gift,” Lewis said.

The first session of the course focused on understanding the language of difference, and how people deal with issues of racism, classism, sexism, ableism and ageism. The curriculum centered around youth coming out of the juvenile justice system and foster care, and how young people who don’t have adult support navigate those spaces.

“I wanted them to understand that disadvantages are real, and more than just some people making bad choices,” Lewis said. “Public policy creates winners and losers, and we have to acknowledge that. In planning, we create spaces that make some people feel welcome while others don’t. Social justice courses are important to the Price School so that we can consistently graduate students who, wherever they go for employment, it will be noticed that they can deal with contentious issues in a way that keeps the conversation from going where it normally goes — nowhere.”

Lewis noted that the driving force of the class was getting students comfortable discussing sensitive topics in a nonjudgmental way.

The students, who ranged from freshman to seniors, responded enthusiastically to the importance of having this curriculum institutionalized.

“As the incoming co-chief diversity officer for the Undergraduate Student Government and active participant in conversations of diversity and campus climate since my first semester at USC, I cannot stress enough how crucial this class is and will continue to be, not only for Price but for USC as an institution of higher education,” said undergraduate student Ivana Giang.

Cultures and communities

Associate Professor Annette Kim speaks at the “FORWARD LA” conference. (Photo by Tom Queally)

Race, Arts and Placemaking explored the value of the arts in society, particularly among minority communities; it also focused on arts and culture policies in urban space, and the role of arts and culture in rebuilding the city of Los Angeles following the L.A. civil unrest of 1992.

The 25-year anniversary of the uprising was an important theme of the initial offering for the course. Students did a final project collecting oral histories from the community regarding the unrest, which were tied in with the “FORWARD LA: Race, Arts, and Inclusive Placemaking after the 1992 Civil Unrest” conference that took place at USC in April.

“The anniversary helped give a historical context to the issues today,” said Kim, who also directs the Spatial Analysis Lab (SLAB) at USC Price. “A lot of students found the class to be a very timely place to discuss a lot of the disturbing public discourse about issues of police brutality and race, plus immigration concerns following the presidential election.”

Kim indicated that she will be applying to make Race, Arts and Placemaking, which was split among undergraduate and graduate students – and even audited by four doctoral students – a permanent course.

“Addressing the general public through the cultural realm is an area ripe and fertile for exploration in the planning and policy disciplines,” Kim said.

Questioning systems, challenging beliefs

Assistant Professor Kathleen Doherty speaking at a Price post-election forum in February. (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

Inequality, Policy and Administration explored inequality in the policy process and how inequality in political representation is related to public policies that advantage some citizens at the expense of others. The course delved into the role of money, education and race in the responsiveness of elected officials and administrators to citizens.

“Because it was a small seminar, the students felt comfortable talking about what are difficult issues,” Doherty said. “At the end, most of them communicated to me that they found the material overall to be compelling, and that it forced them to think about their beliefs, the political system and process, and efficacious policy solutions to addressing inequality.”

Doherty hopes to teach the course again when she returns from spending a year as a visiting professor at New York University. In the meantime, other faculty members expressed interest in leading a social justice course.

“If I do my class well, students will want more social justice content and go into those advanced classes,” Lewis said.