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Social Justice Innovation Initiative: Realizing Years of Impact

University of Tennessee college of social work logo inside orange outline

The Social Justice Innovation Initiative (SJII) has been shaping and elevating the conversation surrounding social justice issues through creative partnerships between faculty, students, and community organizations since 2018. Thanks to a generous five-year donation from longtime College of Social Work (CSW) supporter Susan Cooper, the SJII fund established a platform to effect change that has realized years of impact in the college, the university, within the Knoxville and Nashville communities, and throughout greater Tennessee. SJII offers a unique framework of seed funding for faculty, staff, and students to partner with community organizations to address local needs, giving students opportunities to put their knowledge and skills into practice while making a difference. This innovative approach has allowed the college to be at the forefront of addressing many of society’s most pressing issues around education, health and well-being, civic engagement, and social and economic prosperity.

“I am proud that the SJII partnership, envisioned seven years ago, continues to have an impact in Tennessee and beyond,” Cooper said. “The vision to provide members of the College with opportunities to make a difference has far exceeded my expectations.”

Over the initial five-year timeframe, comprised of $75,000 per year, the fund enabled faculty, staff, and students in the CSW to promote many aspects of social justice, specific to a new theme each year. During the inaugural launch in 2018, the focus area was to challenge racism. Funded projects included increasing voter engagement among Knoxville’s young adults of color and developing the Coalition of Black Social Workers, a student organization aimed at increasing diversity within the college while developing relationships that address racism. Additionally, the CSW used the fund to support two nationally recognized speakers: Austin Channing Brown, author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, and Nikole Hannah-Jones, award-winning investigative reporter and writer for the New York Times and author of the renowned 1619 Project.   

As students, faculty, staff, and community partners witnessed the initial impact of the SJII, interest grew and applications for project funding increased. In 2019, the focus expanded from challenging racism to include challenging sexism. Faculty, staff, and students attended the Nancy A. Humphreys Campaign School at UConn, a project that teaches social workers how to campaign for themselves, how to work on a campaign, and how to effect change in the Tennessee Legislature and beyond. The campaign school was a huge success, and the partnership with the Campaign School continues today. Another project sponsored a group of CSW students to attend the Student Action Committee on Racism and Sexism at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity (NCORE) in Portland, Oregon.

A third project supported a three-weekend training at the Highland Center for students and community organizations to further approach their work from a transformative justice and intersectional perspective with skills for social change. The SJII also hosted two insightful lectures: “Images of Intersectionality” by Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person elected to the Virginia General Assembly; and “Food, Bodies & Liberation,” by Syd Yang, a mixed-race, queer, non-binary writer, healer, and intuitive counselor who taught participants to use an intersectional, feminist and liberation-centered approach to whole body wellness for people of all genders.

As the world shut down due to the pandemic, the Social Justice Initiative projects used technology to meet their objectives. Two podcast series were launched — one within the college, hosted by faculty and students; and one with Knoxville community partner, The Bottom, a Black community space and bookstore. A youth photovoice project enabled high school students from across Knoxville to tell their stories through photography and address the racism they experienced within their lives. Another faculty and student team partnered with a mental health provider network to create a website, “Providers Supporting Immigrants,” and training for providers to support immigrants in immigration court hearings. “Despite the pandemic and all the challenges that came with it, I am proud that those dedicated to the SJII stayed steadfast in their work,” said CSW Dean Lori Messinger. “Rather than use the pandemic as an excuse to back off, our supporters became even more diligent in getting the initiatives fulfilled. This speaks directly to the level of commitment of social workers in general.”

In 2022, the field faculty hosted an Anti- Bias Learning Collaborative for field instructors, students, faculty, and staff. SJII also supported the city of Knoxville, who adapted the SJII structure for a new Mayor’s Social Innovation Challenge for collaborative projects supporting youth and community resilience. There was also a student-led voter registration project on Nashville and Knoxville campuses.

That same year, two of the previously funded projects were established as statewide 501c3 nonprofits: The Coalition of Black Social Workers, and (providers) Serving Immigrants (SI).

When 2023 started to return to (a new) normal, the SJII was once again going strong with five funded projects. A new Campaign School for Social Workers presented a two-day workshop on becoming politically knowledgeable and active as a candidate, staff member, or volunteer. A one-day, in-person training on “Inclusive Practices for Serving Youth” highlighted issues of gender and racial bias in services to youth and trained attendees on inclusive practices for serving youth, especially youth of color and LGBTQ+ youth. Another project, “VAC Impact-New Directions Health Care Solutions,” worked to improve vaccine access to underserved communities. “Empowering Youth” aimed to mitigate the barriers of systemic racism, acknowledging the need for a social-emotional learning curriculum that is trauma-responsive and culturally competent. And the “Aging Rainbow Coalition” worked to improve healthcare knowledge and reduce disparities for older LGBTQ+ persons living in the Knoxville area.

As Cooper’s initial investment in the SJII saw a rich and productive fulfillment, CSW supporter Phil Lawson made a generous gift of $100,000 to foster continued growth of this important work. “The Social Justice Innovation Initiative addresses critically important issues in our society,” Lawson said. “I’m happy to support the collaboration of social work students, faculty, and staff as they partner with community organizations to create meaningful change.”

While the college heads into 2024, new initiatives will continue with a broad approach to social justice, focusing on racism, sexism, and intersectionality. Tony Murchison, Director of Outreach and SJII Coordinator noted, “There is much work still to be done, but with the help of donors, students, faculty, and staff, the Social Justice Innovation Initiative remains committed to many more years of fighting injustice at the grass-roots level.”