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New master's program has impact in Valley, beyond


May 01, 2009

Contemporary slavery, women’s rights, crime along the border, and the rights and needs of refugees are just some of the issues being tackled by the first cohort of students in ASU’s Master of Arts degree program in Social Justice and Human Rights (MASJHR). Since they arrived at ASU’s West campus last August, the 22 students and their faculty mentors have focused campus and community attention and action on critical societal issues, says MASJHR faculty director William Simmons.

“It’s been something of a whirlwind experience,” says Simmons, an associate professor of social and behavioral sciences in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. “In less than a year we have recruited students from across the United States and around the globe, implemented a one-of-a-kind learner-centered and community-embedded curriculum, and sponsored more than 20 events involving human rights experts from around the world. Additionally, a group of students traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, as part of a class research project.”

The Oaxaca trip was a highlight for eight students in JHR 510, "Economic Crimes and Alternative Economic Theory and Practice," taught by Julie Murphy Erfani, a New College associate professor of social and behavioral sciences. Murphy Erfani and the students spent several days in the region of Oaxaca City during Thanksgiving break. Their activities included interviewing an association of fair-trade organic coffee growers, meeting with local artists who create graffiti stencil art in pursuit of social change, and visiting a village in the Sierra Juarez mountains where a foreign gold mining operation is affecting the environment.

Students used their findings from the trip in their culminating JHR 510 research papers.

“It was a wonderful opportunity,” says student Katie Norberg. “In addition to our fascinating and rigorous agenda, we literally got a taste of local culture. The cuisine included a smattering of chapulines, or grasshoppers, a local delicacy that often arrives tossed along with the salad!”

MASJHR students recently established one of the first three chapters of the national organization Free the Slaves. Free the Slaves is dedicated to ending slavery globally and helping those coming out of bondage to reclaim their lives and destinies.

The spark for establishment of a Free the Slaves chapter came from students’ involvement in JHR 511, "Contemporary Slavery and Human Trafficking." This community-embedded seminar, taught by Michael Stancliff, focuses on investigating slavery and trafficking internationally, nationally and in Arizona.

Stancliff, an assistant professor of rhetoric in New College, says he has enjoyed collaborating with students in the seminar course.

“Together, we have worked through issues including who can speak in advocacy work and how we speak as antislavery advocates, to reach a point of taking action,” Stancliff says.

In addition to forming a Free the Slaves chapter, students staged a “freeze-in” on campus to draw attention to the slavery issue and conducted a Free the Slaves fundraiser.

The launch of the MASJHR program also has enabled ASU to form stronger ties with community groups in metropolitan Phoenix, including the Arizona League to End Regional Trafficking (ALERT) and the Light of Hope Institute. In December, ASU's West campus conducted, for the fourth time, the Light of Hope Institute’s annual conference, which this year focused on refugee rights. Students who attended the conference had the opportunity to work with refugees in the Washington Elementary School District.

“The Washington District has scores of refugees who have needs – anything from working a stove or a microwave to finding employment,” says C. T. Wright, founder and executive director of the Light of Hope Institute.

MASJHR offers students two tracks. Those interested in becoming leaders with organizations such as Light of Hope, Free the Slaves, or any of thousands of other groups around the world addressing social justice issues can choose to pursue the non-governmental organization (NGO) management track. This track combines training in the substantive area of social justice and human rights with intensive practical training in nonprofit management, to prepare graduates for leadership positions in the rapidly growing NGO sector.

Meanwhile, the social justice and human rights research track prepares students for careers requiring research skills in governmental and non-governmental agencies, or for doctoral programs in the social sciences and law.

Applications are being accepted for the MASJHR program’s second cohort, which will begin work in August.