Cyndi Rickards, EdD, associate teaching professor in the Department of Criminology and Justice Studies (CJS) at Drexel University, always learns from having cross-curricular students in her classroom. Their diverse perspectives will inform the readings she assigns, the questions she asks and the curriculum she sets.
But following a “Places of Justice” class (CJS 262) previously offered to Pennoni Honors College students and taught side-by-side with members of the local Mantua and Powelton Village communities, Rickards heard from several students about how they wanted to do more to explore their chosen disciplines through the lens of social justice. In turn, she wanted to do more than just make tweaks for the next time she taught the class. Instead, she wanted to start something new.
Enter the Justice Studies minor now being offered to all undergraduate students by Rickards’ department and the College of Arts and Sciences.
“This minor seeks to merge both the lived experience of community members and the value that comes from civic engagement and partnership with a solid academic and foundational base,” Rickards said. “It’s for students who want to learn outside of the classroom with community partners and to develop tools for justice to address complex issues by developing skills to make positive social change.”
The minor consists of four required CJS courses with community-based learning elements. Like CJS 262 which is now one of the four requirements of the minor, students will find themselves in these classes learning alongside community members, incarcerated individuals and their fellow Dragons from a variety of backgrounds.
“We really appreciated the fact that this has to be a community engaged pedagogy,” Rickards said. “To suggest that you can explore issues of justice without the partnership of those who are affected by issues of injustice, it just seems hypocritical to me and not academically solid and certainly not engaged with any amount of integrity.”
To achieve the minor, students must also complete four approved elective courses from an extensive list with topics ranging from anthropology to entrepreneurship to urban planning. So far, students who have expressed interest in declaring the minor have come from backgrounds in art history, business, chemical engineering and public health. Rickards said this is indicative of how unique and diverse perspectives are needed to solve complex issues in the criminal justice realm.
“Really, to problem solve, you need an introduction to an array of disciplines so you know who to include in the conversation. So that was the motivation for our pretty extensive elective course options,” she said. “If we want to make social change, we need lots of perspectives and experiences, so we need different disciplines and we need different people, which is why we're so very intentionally connecting with community.”
Beyond the coursework, Rickards said students in the minor will be able to enjoy the benefits of a cohorted model, entertain opportunities to be a Drexel community scholar or a community-based learning teaching assistant, or obtain a justice-related nonprofit co-op.
The COVID-19 pandemic could dampen some of Rickards plans for the first cohort. For instance, the “Applications of Justice” (CJS 303) required course may not be able to be offered within prison walls as it is intended, but there is already a plan B being carried out remotely and effectively this term.
"Students will learn with returning-citizens and four incarcerated students at Bucks County Jail each Thursday via Zoom," she said. "While these required courses are unable to be based in the community, they remain community engaged with students who bring a lived experience to the courses."
Another “plan B” remote learning scenario that turned out quite well for Rickards was converting the once side-by-side “Justice in Our Community” class (CJS 260) into a global classroom with partners at the University of Amsterdam. For the newly declared minors, she plans for the course to continue with these partners and the global aspect, with even some exciting travel opportunities built in, pandemic permitting.
“The plan is that Dutch students will come over the week before fall term for a study tour,” she explained. “We will take the class together in the fall, where we meet each week for two hours and explore issues of social policy and issues asking what is a just city? And then we will go there for a week and do a study tour. So it's a bookend, they come to us and we come to them and we learn together for 10 weeks in between.”
Students interested in the minor can reach out to Rickards directly for more information, and to discuss their area of study and interests in community partnerships and issues. And just like how it started, Rickards is excited to hear feedback and ideas from students, and see how this new offering can inform their undergraduate experiences and future careers.
“It was our students that inspired me to say, ‘let's look at this,’” she said. “These are students that want to take action. They want to do it responsibly. They want to do it in partnership. They remind us professors that we are not the keepers of the knowledge, and that if we're going to make equitable social change, it has to be done in partnership with community members. They recognize that community members have a lived experience that is just as valuable as ours in the classroom.”