USC Price diversity program underscores ‘role of social justice in public service’ careers

August 8, 2018

Professor LaVonna Lewis addresses the class at the second annual USC Public Service Weekend in June. (Photos by Deirdre Flanagan and Sarah Esquivel) See more photos on Flickr »

By Matthew Kredell

Building upon the momentum from last year’s inaugural USC Public Service Weekend program, the USC Price School of Public Policy introduced 27 undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds to the impact that careers in public service can make on social justice and equity.

In partnership with the Public Policy & International Affairs Program, the Price School hosted its second USC Public Service Weekend in June around the theme of “Defending Our Communities: The Role of Social Justice in Public Service.” The program was led by USC Price Professor LaVonna Lewis, Sarah Esquivel, the associate director of recruitment and admission at Price, and USC Rossier School graduate student Susana Marquina.

“We need these kinds of programs so people know what the opportunities are for people from underrepresented groups,” said Professor Lewis, director of diversity and inclusion initiatives for the Price School. “We’re trying to provide the launching and networking support for individuals to be successful at the next level. It’s important for students to see people like them at the next level, either in master’s programs or in day-to-day jobs, and to see they have peers going through some of the same issues.”

Finding, exercising your voice

MPA students Victor Cruz and Ashleigh Smallwood

Lewis and current USC Price Master of Public Administration students Victor Cruz and Ashleigh Smallwood participated in a panel discussion on the role of social justice in public service.

As the first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Chair for the USC Graduate Policy Administration Community, Smallwood is working to develop student-led conversations and panels on campus addressing issues such as unconscious bias. She spoke of overcoming shyness to find her voice, and the power of developing a mantra.

“Last week, I reminded myself that you don’t want to be a wasted opportunity, so take the resources you have and seek out the resources you don’t have,” Smallwood said. “Some people are born able to be natural advocates, and some people have to work at it. When you find yourself feeling scared, try to find different ways to push yourself.”

Lewis added that it’s important not to get frustrated over how people respond to your truth, explaining that she has no control over how people receive what she says, but she has total control over what she says.

“Part of my job as a human being is not to let somebody else’s problem become my problem,” Lewis said. “And by that, I mean if you have a problem with me being here, that’s your problem not mine. Maybe I don’t fit your traditional profile — that’s your problem, not mine. I’m not going to do things that make me uncomfortable just to make you comfortable.”

Cruz contended that there is a privilege in attending an institution of higher learning, and the students have the right to exercise that privilege by speaking up against injustices they see.

“Don’t feel guilty about your existence,” Cruz said. “Whatever your existence might be – as a woman, as queer, as first-generation immigrants – we have to realize that our existing is a powerful thing and the cultural expression of you existing is a political act in itself in a world that’s constantly trying to assimilate us. None of you should feel guilty for being here. You deserve to be here.”

Lewis urged the students to believe that they belong in the room and their voice is important.

“If you’re thinking something needs to be said and you’re wondering why it hasn’t happened, that’s because you’ve been deputized and you need to exercise your voice,” Lewis said. “Are you going to do it every time? No. But if we keep giving people a pass, the danger is someone can come to any institution of higher education and just leave with a degree, still being asleep as it relates to issues of justice.”

Illuminating the path forward

Recent USC Price alumni, along with other local practitioners, participated in a panel discussion on careers in public service. Afterward, Price Career Services Director Valerie Savior and Associate Director Dominic Alletto advised the students on how they can prepare for such careers.

Panel featuring Price alumni and other public service professionals

With many of the participants being first-generation college students who have already gone further in education than anyone in their family, pursuing a master’s degree can be a difficult decision that isn’t understood by family members. Esquivel, from Price’s admissions and recruitment office, helped make the process clearer by leading a discussion on applying to graduate school.

Participants from last year’s Public Service Weekend formed a Facebook group and remained in contact over the past year. Five local former participants returned to speak in a panel about how the workshop affected them and influenced their efforts over the past year.

The weekend culminated with the students making presentations with their interpretations of a case study regarding the mental and emotional effects of “stop and frisk” practices.

“Social justice, for me, was something I only learned about through hashtags and Twitter,” said Nadira Khan, an undergraduate student who traveled from Arizona to attend the program at USC. “The opportunity to learn about it in an academic environment from professionals was really appealing to me. The experience was incredible. Just being surrounded by like-minded people all weekend, to be able to learn from everyone else’s experiences and share my own in what I felt was a safe space was incredibly valuable.”