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Students learn about diversity and social justice

Students attending a lecture on diversity learned that it is not always easy to judge the value of someone’s life, especially when determining whether a life is worth saving.

Jessica Pettitt, a social justice and diversity consultant, spoke to students Wednesday in the Marshall Student Center Ballroom about the difference between having diversity for the sake of representation and having equality between diverse groups during a seminar titled, “Social Justice: When Diversity is not Enough,” sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA).

At the beginning of the event she asked attendees to split into groups of their choice and gave them the following scenario on paper slips: “Fourteen people are on a roof, 10 people can fit in a boat. I’ll give you the people and you pick which 10 get to be on the boat.”

Sheralee Leonardo, a sophomore majoring in pre-nursing, said her group struggled with deciding whether the life of a pregnant black woman was worth more than that of a 15-year-old twice convicted of robbery. She said her group chose an HIV positive individual, a drag queen, an illegal alien and a welfare recipient to board the boat.

Pettitt said the exercise forced participants to examine the ways they naturally make judgments and justify them to themselves.

“It’s the actions and inactions that make connections with the conversation in our heads and that’s where we really need to focus to see if we’re living in congruence with our values,” she said. “We need to listen to the voices in our heads.”

Pettitt said such internal dialogues are necessary for social justice to occur externally.

“Diversity trainings have taught us to not listen to the voices in our heads,” she said. “Diversity training has taught us if we have voices in our heads, we need to be medicated. Diversity trainings have taught us we are never supposed to make judgmental assumptions.”

Leonardo said she came to the event thinking that she had a fair idea of diversity, yet didn’t realize how judgmental she was before starting the exercise.

“Diversity goes beyond color and race,” she said. “It’s pretty much just your own uniqueness.”

Pettitt said that it is not enough for students to be aware of diversity, but to attempt to create social justice, by not creating assumptions about other people.

“Why is it bad to assume? We make an a– out of ‘u’ and ‘me,'” she said. “So we sit on our a—- and do nothing instead of being social justice workers. That’s how systems of oppression remain in place. The thing is that you’re alive right now and social justice work happens right now.”

Evaluating one’s progress toward achieving social justice draws parallels to Pettitt’s personal battle with giving up smoking, she said. She said she used to smoke up to 60 cigarettes per day. Instead of “beat(ing) herself up” over the three cigarettes she would sometimes smoke while she was trying to quit, she said she learned to celebrate the 57 she gave up.

“That’s how we need to think about social justice,” she said.

Stacy Koshko, assistant director of OMA, helped bring Pettitt to USF after hearing her speak at a conference and being “blown away by the experience.”

“Especially for our office, we want to make sure that our space is open and inclusive to all students,” Koshko said. “The hard work we can do to show that (we’re) reaching out to all populations and creating that space of safety and inclusion, shows students that they too are part of the social justice movement.”

Pettitt said inclusiveness is essential when working toward social justice.

“It’s not, you, me, us, and them … it’s we,” she said. “We are all in this together. We pretend that someone else is going to solve all the problems, but we are the ones we’ve been waiting on. We’re it. We’re hot messes. We’re a——-. We’ve got s— to do. We’re overworked. It’s really quite a shame, but we are all we’ve got. We are the ones who have to do the work.”