Thinking About Social Justice

High school students explore complex issues through a variety of media at Penn Summer Academy.

This summer, 90 high school students from all over the world gathered virtually to participate in Penn’s Social Justice Research Academy. It is one of seven Penn Summer Academies administered by the School of Liberal and Professional Studies (LPS) as part of the broader Penn Summer program.

Pablo Aguilera Del Castillo, a Ph.D. student in anthropology who focuses on environmental anthropology, joined the Social Justice Research Academy (SJRA) as one of six teaching fellows this summer. He is passionate about teaching, but found this experience especially rewarding. “The class is specifically aimed at thinking about social justice, which is not a topic I usually get a chance to teach as a Ph.D. student,” he says. “And I was excited to add some of the environmental justice concerns that I had hoped to bring to the course.”

Established in 1998, the Summer Academies give selected high school students the opportunity to engage in college-level research, interact with faculty and guest speakers, and take advantage of University resources such as the Penn Libraries. Except for the SJRA and a session on American Sign Language and Deaf Culture, the Summer Academies are STEM-based, including chemistry, neuroscience, physics, mathematics, and biomedical research. Classes run for three to four weeks, and normally are held on campus. However, for the past two years, due to the pandemic, the sessions went virtual.

This shift to a virtual format brought challenges as well as opportunities.

One benefit was increased reach. Nearly 500 students participated this summer. The SJRA alone drew 90 students—more than double the normal enrollment—and included young people from the United States, Korea, China, India, Mexico, and Australia.

Dr. R. Scott Hanson, a lecturer in history at Penn, has served as director of SJRA since 2016 and is responsible for recruiting speakers, tapping Penn faculty and staff and notable public figures and social justice activists from outside the University. “It’s an energizing and creative month of time to interact with some really bright young people who already are doing amazing things in their own schools and communities,” he says.

The SJRA students meet twice daily for large group sessions, Hanson explains. “Mornings begin with a mini-lecture or activity led by me and members of the teaching staff to set the scene for the day and open a discussion on a social justice topic. Then we’re joined by a guest speaker. After lunch students meet for small group discussion with an instructor before coming back together to close out the day—all on Zoom this year and last year.”

Each student completes a final capstone project, traditionally a written paper. But SJRA assistant director and teaching fellow Sarah McDowell says students are also encouraged to use a variety of media for their projects. “We’ve had powerful art displays with commentaries on social justice issues, wonderful and complex comics and films, along with more traditional written capstone projects,” she says. “Using various forms of media gives students a great deal of flexibility in expressing themselves. The students can experiment and push their ideas into areas that allow them to grow, which is always wonderful to see.”

Aguilera Del Castillo agrees. “It made the students more excited about their work, and, especially for students whose mother tongue is not English, it allowed for greater possibilities.” Students in his cohort took the challenge and ran with it, and he was impressed with their sense of purpose and by seeing how students taught each other about the issues that concerned them. “The interests of the students were directed specifically at concrete things that they want to influence in the world—a particular experience that they see,” he says.

Notable projects included a podcast about climate change that examined how historic redlining has resulted in greater climate-related health impacts for low-income communities—where, for example, less tree cover means hotter summer temperatures. Some students built websites, one of which explained the role of prosecutors in the criminal justice system and how they could help address inequities, and another examined the prevalence of Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers (also known as TRAP laws), and their disproportionate impact on low-income women.

Another student made a video about the culture of machismo in Mexico and its relationship to violence against women in the country. “One thing that made this project so strong for me,” says Aguilera Del Castillo, “was that she tackled the topic in a very rigorous way, academically, but also in a very intimate way. It was the same for many of the other projects, where the students actively made themselves part of the story.”

The Summer Academies traditionally include field trips, and this year and in 2020, Hanson took advantage of Zoom to make them happen virtually.  Students “visited” the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, among others.

The use of Zoom also facilitated a wider range of guest speakers. Aguilera Del Castillo says one speaker who stood out was Noura Erakat, a Palestinian-American activist, human rights attorney, and assistant professor at Rutgers University. “It was interesting to see the interactions that were going on between top public scholars and high school students,” he says. “I think it's an opportunity that they would rarely have—to engage and ask questions from famous professors in a friendly environment.”

Aguilera Del Castillo was gratified, too, to see that the students thought of ways to ensure that their work would have a life beyond the Penn Summer Academy, like sharing digital projects through other platforms. “It’s exciting for me to see how these projects are going to live on and continue to move through the world,” he says.

McDowell adds that students often form bonds with each other that last beyond the summer. “One of the most important things students take away is a sense of a community of people who are passionate about and committed to social justice issues,” she says, “both in the student community and the speakers and faculty.”

The SJRA model lives on beyond Penn’s campus as well. Last year Hanson worked as a consultant for the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, school district to help them design a social justice studies course for high school students; it is being offered this fall.


By Jane Carroll