Higher education

University of Iowa launches 'social justice' theme semester

Associated exhibit features racist, sexual, and violent images

Director of the Pentacrest Museums Trina Roberts leads a tour through the new exhibit at the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. The University of Iowa launched a new Theme Semester exploring social justice, called Just Living. The first marquee event is the opening of a new exhibit in the museum titled “Them: Images of Seperation.” (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
Director of the Pentacrest Museums Trina Roberts leads a tour through the new exhibit at the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. The University of Iowa launched a new Theme Semester exploring social justice, called Just Living. The first marquee event is the opening of a new exhibit in the museum titled “Them: Images of Seperation.” (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Despite being difficult “to look at, to think about, and to discuss,” it’s something the University of Iowa community needs to experience, said freshman Donovan Roberts.

“THEM: Images of Separation” is an exhibit on loan from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia that has been set up in the campus’ Old Capitol Museum in conjunction with the university’s “Just Living” theme semester. The theme of the semester is focused on social justice.

“I hope it can kind of open up their perspective,” Roberts, a student ambassador for the theme semester, said Wednesday during a launch event.

The museum exhibit features racist cartoons, homophobic propaganda, a graphic photo of a lynching, and gender-bias images. The exhibit is blocked by a wall that contains a warning about offensive and violent content and an explanation about why the university chose to display it.

“We think acknowledging and confronting these past and current attitudes is necessary to understanding their influence and changing their impact,” according to the statement displayed at the exhibit’s start. “We think these objects and images, which highlight so much intolerance, can help us see what acceptance looks like.”

The university last year launched its theme semester program, which aims to focus on a “vital field of study” across campus, engage the community in a semester-long conversation on the chosen topic, build partnerships, and pursue initiatives that emerge from the semester.

The university offers courses tied to each semester theme — along with activities and events, like guest lecturers. The first theme semester last spring was “Food for Thought,” which looked at varying perspectives on food, including its relationship with culture, health, and the economy.

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Organizers began planning a social justice theme for this spring back in fall 2014 — before a UI visiting professor sparked controversy on campus by installing a Ku Klux Klan-likened statue on the Pentacrest without permission.

At the time, protests were erupting nationally in the wake of high-profile police shootings, and UI officials said Wednesday the topic of social justice has remained extraordinarily relevant.

“I don’t know how you can be awake in this world and not be engaged in these topics already,” said Lindsay Jarratt, UI diversity resources manager and a member of the “Just Living” planning committee.

“I think they’re deeply personally relevant for each of us,” she said. “Whatever you believe and whatever your answers are to these big questions, you’re absolutely being asked to answer them.”

Instead of shying away from that conversation, Jarratt said, this semester’s theme invites the UI community to confront difficult realities in an educational environment.

“This is a really great platform and a way for the university to elevate that conversation and to invite in all these differences of opinion into better dialogue and hopefully better answers,” she said. “Because I think sometimes we feel like we’re stumbling with the world as it is today.”

Faculty have identified more than 130 academic courses tied to this semester’s theme, UI community members have tagged more than 100 related events and activities, and organizers have planned 20 marquee events.

Those events include lectures from Laverne Cox, an openly transgender actress and LGBTQ advocate known for her work on the Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black,” and Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice.”

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Roberts, as a student ambassador for the semester, said he and his colleagues will be reaching out to other students this spring to facilitate conversation and healthy discussion by encouraging them to participate in some of the classes, events, and activities.

“There is such a diverse amount of different people that social justice is impacting,” he said, “Not only race and sex, but age.”

The theme semester launch Wednesday comes a week after UI Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President Georgina Dodge announced the university is moving forward with a Bias Assessment and Response Team.

The team will address incidences of bias on campus that do not violate policy or constitute a crime. Planning sessions and stakeholder meetings will occur this semester in hopes of developing a process by May.

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