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This year Xavier rolls out a new core curriculum designed to give students more options to pursue their interests and to explore the breadth of a liberal arts education. While the overall core curriculum hours have been reduced, several new categories of core classes have given faculty an opportunity to create exciting new courses, several of which employ engaged pedagogy, civic-engagement outcomes, and service-learning.

At the 1000 level, two new categories, the Xavier Experience and the New Orleans Experience, offer students unique opportunities to explore themes of Xavier's historic mission within the context of New Orleans and the particular social and economic histories of the communities that make up the city. While the categories are distinct in that one focuses on concepts of social justice and the other on reading New Orleans as text, they also overlap in that both ask students to think critically about connections between their education, their professional goals, and their communities. Xavier and its purpose as a place of learning for many future doctors and scientists, many from historically underserved populations, are not separate from, but rather are a part of, New Orleans and its history of socioeconomic segregation and oppression.  It's impossible to think of the history and success of Xavier without the context of the bitter struggle to integrate New Orleans schools in the 1950s and '60s, and the lasting effects of redlining and selective economic neglect that mark the city's poorest neighborhoods today. While Xavier has been noted as an engine of socioeconomic mobility, as in this study from 2017, New Orleans as a whole remains a hub of multigenerational poverty, as revealed in this 2018 report on "income diversity" in which New Orleans ranked 51st out of 60 large cities.

These courses in and of themselves may do little to close this gap, as I've written in the past about the limits of service-learning. But while many of the students will go on to live and work in other communities, many others will live and work in New Orleans, and in this regard, these courses can absolutely make a difference. For some of the students, addressing the city's needs in health care, education, housing, and employment will become their life's work. And these students may look back on the connections drawn in these courses between their education and their community as a major step stone along their path, if not their starting block.

Below are titles and descriptions of some of these courses:

FREEDOM DREAMS: SOCIAL JUSTICE IN THE AFRICAN
AMERICAN IMAGINATION
Social justice in the African American imagination looks at the historical, ideological, and literary expressions of black liberation throughout their history in the US. We will seek to answer the question: How have people of African descent expressed their dreams for freedom, justice, and equality throughout their history in the US? We will answer this question by examining themes and movements, such as: African American acts of resistance, Black Christianity, African American emancipation, black anticolonialism and Negritude, black feminism, Black Power, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the historically black college and university.

COMMUNICATING SOCIAL JUSTICE
Communicating Social Justice examines selected social justice issues (theme to vary
each semester) in relation to communication activism. Using interdisciplinary
approaches, students will analyze the history, theory, and practice of communication activism. Students participate in a series of communication-based activities. Whenever possible, the course incorporates a service-learning project that directly engages students in a communication activism campaign.

PRODUCTION AND CONSUMPTION OF MARDI GRAS
Students will get hands-on and go behind the scenes to develop a deeper
understanding of diverse Mardi Gras practices and the corporations, cottage industries, professional and amateur artists, and clubs, krewes, gangs, and tribes that produce the Mardi Gras events that help New Orleanians celebrate traditions as well as drawing tourists from all over the world. In this context, students will conduct their own interview research to explore questions of Mardi Gras and parading culture participants' understanding of their roles as artists, producers, and consumers.

HOMELESSNESS IN NEW ORLEANS
New Orleans is one of many cities featuring a significant and visible homeless
population. Working from the premise that homelessness represents both a personal “trouble” and a public “issue”, this service- learning course will give students the opportunity to study the multi-faceted causes and consequences of homelessness in New Orleans. We will work to understand homelessness as not only a condition, but as a social concept and process, including its meaning in other U.S. and global contexts. Through service, reflection, discussion, selected readings, data analysis, and guest speakers, students will learn about and reflect upon a range of individual and collective choices and actions that might reduce homelessness. Students enrolled in this course should be prepared for trips off campus outside class time and be eager to serve and to engage in a respectful manner individuals at service learning sites.

Writing in the Journal of Service Learning in Higher Education in January of 2018, Dr. T. Andrew Carswell of Gannon University, a Catholic university in Erie, Pennsylvania, describes a research project undertaken to discover the capacity of service-learning courses to change student attitudes about poverty. His premise is that we know through other research that Americans are as likely to attribute poverty to lack of effort among the poor as to circumstances beyond their control. Attitudes of attribution also affect views of social programs to address poverty.

Meanwhile service-learning courses have been shown through research to improve student outcomes for citizenship, empathy, compassion, and understanding of social problems. Students are more likely to exhibit greater "efficacy to make the world a better place" (Carswell). Though this type of goal makes sense for a course at a Catholic university such as Gannon, or Xavier, and many liberal arts schools do include such goals in their missions, traditional-classroom courses often bypass such goals in favor of more academically assessable outcomes.

Students in Dr. Carswell's upper-level capstone psychology class engaged in 30 hours of community service working alongside underprivileged people, while studying poverty in the classroom. One of the outcomes of the course was that students would have a more positive view of people living in poverty, and Dr. Carswell set out to measure whether this was achieved.

Students in the course chose from four community groups to work with, including an after-school program, a food bank, a group that worked with immigrants and refugees, and a group that worked with recently released criminal offenders. The option let students decide what type of work they wanted to do, and many worked with more than one group. Classroom contact hours were reduced, (perhaps a luxury of a senior capstone course) and writing assignments asked students to draw connections between scholarly articles on poverty and experiences at the sites. Attitudes were gauged using pre and post-course completion of what's called the Undergraduate Perceptions of Poverty Tacking Survey.

Dr. Carswell found that student attitudes improved toward social welfare programs, and toward their own willingness to take action to help those in poverty. Student belief that people in poverty have limited access to valuable resources also increased. However, there was no real change in student attitudes toward perceived differences between the poor and non-poor. Nor was there an increase in belief in rights to basic necessities. Dr. Carswell discusses several possible reasons for the non-change in perceptions of in-group/out-group differences, including research that suggests this type of intergroup contact best affects intergroup attitudes when the groups are of equal status and the contact is cooperative in nature.

This last point relates to the ongoing movement within service-learning to effect meaningful change and to avoid perpetuating a classist, "service"-based hierarchy. This broad goal may prove service-learning's most elusive. (See my interview with Dr. Randy Stoecker on this problem http://cat.xula.edu/food/conversation-63/.) And we should also keep in mind that Dr. Carswell's sample was 18 students in one class. Yet, his results are encouraging when we consider the degree to which misperceptions about the poor permeate our society and drive public policy. Dr. Carswell's students and many others who complete courses like these will go on to shape policy and help shift perceptions as they move into professional society.

Though there is much work to be done, examples like these affirm the vital work of service-learning and higher education.

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When I read this article from Sara Goldrick-Rab "Basic Needs Security and the Syllabus" from August of last year, it really resonated with me, due to several projects I'm currently working on that have somehow converged--it is that time of year when faculty are asking for tips on creating their syllabi or feedback on items they should perhaps add, I'm collaborating on initiatives to try to save students money on textbooks, our office has been working with graduate students since 2017, and of course, we are always conscious of our mission here at XULA.

Professor Goldrick-Rab decided to include the following statement in her syllabus for a Master's higher education course:

Any student who faces challenges securing their food or housing and believes this may affect their performance in the course is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support.  Furthermore, please notify the professor if you are comfortable in doing so.  This will enable her to provide any resources that she may possess.

empty plate between fork and spoon

Professor Goldrick-Rab said that she decided to add this to her graduate syllabus to acknowledge that students face financial challenges that could affect their performance in their courses, to let them know that she cares about them, and to try to point them in the right direction for resources.

It makes me wonder how many of our own students are threatened with basic needs security.  Would you, as an instructor, add similar verbiage to your own syllabus?  Do you know any students who are hungry or homeless?  I don't, but just yesterday, a parent called me to say that they couldn't afford to send their son back to XULA for the fall--it was just too expensive.  She wanted to find out if there were enough online courses offered so that he could continue his studies while they tried to save and perhaps he could attend in person again in the spring.  Many of our students and their families are struggling, and perhaps they would appreciate it if we do acknowledge their challenges, even in a small way, such as adding a statement to our syllabus and providing resources for them.

New Orleans celebrates its 300th year as a city in 2018, and as part of the festivities, Xavier history professor Dr. Sharlene Senegal DeCuir is leading her Freshman Seminar class in a special service-learning project.

Part of the city's planned activities for the tricentennial includes a four-day symposium called "Making New Orleans Home," to be held March 8 - 11 at various locations around the city. The symposium, presented by the city in partnership with The Historic New Orleans Collection, is free to attend and open to the public. Saturday's program is to be held on Xavier's campus, in the McCaffrey Ballroom of the University Center, from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m., and it's here that Dr. Senegal-DeCuir and her students will participate. The day's featured speaker is Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. Other speakers on the day include distinguished professor of history Kathleen Duval, of the University of North Carolina, Nick Spitzer of the radio program American Roots, and Xavier's own endowed chair in the humanities, Dr. Michael White.

The Freshman Seminar course is part of Xavier's First Year Experience program and is designed to introduce students to concepts of social justice, the purpose of a liberal arts education, and how the two concepts meet in Xavier's historic mission to prepare students to contribute to a more just and humane society. Each teacher of this course brings his or her own areas of expertise to the basic structure and approaches the purpose through a particular theme. Dr. Senegal DeCuir's theme aligns with the theme of the symposium, Making New Orleans Home. Through this theme students will examine the social, political and economic injustice that cripples New Orleans along with many communities nationally, while they explore important issues that can help raise hope and awareness for a brighter future.

For perspective on this theme students are reading The Coldest Winter Ever, the 1999 best-selling novel by Sister Solujah. This cautionary tale set in Brooklyn explores themes of wealth and poverty, criminal justice, and the often fraught and limited avenues toward the American Dream available to those in Americas inner-cities. In addition to reading and writing about, and discussing these themes, students will participate in the Saturday symposium both as volunteers, assisting guests and speakers and helping things run smoothly, and as attendees of panel discussions. Thus, students gain opportunity to consider themes of the novel and of the course through discussion of New Orleans' particular past and present, and to synthesize the material through reflective writings, discussions, and presentations.

Sharlene Sinegal DeCuir received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Xavier University of Louisiana in 1999. She received her Masters of Art degree in 2001 and her PhD. in 2009 from Louisiana State University. Her areas of concentration are in American, African-American, and Latin American history.  Throughout her academic career, she has focused on the New South period of American history through the Civil Rights Movement, with particular interest on African American activism in Louisiana. In 2014, Dr. Sinegal DeCuir was honored as the first faculty alumni to receive the Xavier University 40 under 40 Young Alumni Award. She has been featured in WBOK New Orleans Talk Radio, The New Orleans Times-Picayune and Health Issues with Christopher Sylvain.  Her article “Nothing Is to Be Feared: Norman C. Francis, Civil Rights Activism, and the Black Catholic Movement" appears in The Journal of African-American History, and she has been interviewed for an upcoming documentary titled Monochrome: Black, White And Blue, by Cardinal Releasing.

 

 

Last year I had the pleasure of interviewing for this blog professor, author, and social critic Corey Dolgon. I had heard Professor Dolgon speak at an IARSLCE conference, the International Association for Research on Service-Learning, and I was intrigued by his critique of certain universities' historic and ongoing actions that have disenfranchised or otherwise harmed the very communities the schools purport to serve. The talk was both wide in scope and specific in researched detail, the ability to achieve which is a defining characteristic of public intellectuals I admire, such as Henry Giroux, Robert Reich, as well as Professor Dolgon. The work of these scholars manages to clarify in plain language vast and intricate socio-political-and-economic movements in order to distill their tangible effects on our day-to-day lives.

Now Professor Dolgon has a new book out called Kill It to Save It: An Autopsy of Capitalism's Triumph over Democracy that traces the corrosive effects of recent (read post-Vietnam) political discourse and the public policy that flows from it regarding the civic institutions that uphold democracy, and thus on the common well-being of the citizenry. Such concerns, such considerations, may or may not play a part of any given service-learning course, depending on the discipline and academic level of the course. A capstone course in environmental sociology may well include as primary this type of far-reaching discussion, while a 1000-level English course designed to improve writing ability while engaging with community elementary schools may include such theoretical material in a limited, introductory amount, if at all. Yet whatever the service-learning course, the social disparities, deficiencies, and injustices addressed by community action are likely created or exacerbated by these larger forces operating just beyond our view. While teachers often internalize these realities, while they may inform our work in very close, almost second-nature ways, students may be only first learning about such broad historical contexts. Part of what we teach then in service-learning is not only course content or even the value and necessity of civic engagement, but also a larger awareness of, and a questioning of, the very real series of human choices that led to the situations the class addresses.

Kill It to Save It takes apart several myths of modern American life that have allowed public policy to work against the public good. The first to go is the idea of the rugged individual, free to succeed on his own terms without need of governmental assistance. As policies purport individual freedom and economic opportunity, the vast amount of economic gains go to a smaller and smaller few. At the same time, the sacrifices required to make this upward wealth transfer possible are to public education, public health care, and public resources. The public is sold a bill of goods about the boundlessness of upward mobility in this country, while the shrinking of public resources needed to support such mobility make it less and less likely. All investments in the public good are cast as socialistic handouts to the lazy, while the holders of wealth need only to keep the policy-setting system rigged in their favor to keep the subsidies, negative actual tax rates, and other forms of corporate welfare flowing their way.

We needn't look further than our own communities to see the damaging effects of years and years of such neoliberal policies. The homeless people on our streets are permanent communities within communities, structurally forever shut out of integration. Our poorest neighbors are crammed into the least funded schools, almost ensuring by design their failure. Entire neighborhoods bear the marks of years of redlining, employment discrimination, and racist law enforcement policy, from the war on drugs to stop-and-frisk. Professor Dolgon traces these situations back to the public discourse and propagandized ideologies that shaped the policies that created them.

No matter what aspect of social injustice our service-learning course seeks to address, it's worth remembering that no form of injustice is naturally occurring. Our society was made by us, and can be changed by us as well.

This semester Dr. Treva Lee, Xavier's Director for Institutional Compliance and Planning Initiatives, led a class of first-year students in a service-learning project to mentor local youths in the concept of Pi.

On Saturday, March 11, thirty Xavier students joined twenty other community volunteers and twenty local professionals serving as mentors to teach and mentor around 150 area school kids, as part of  STEM NOLA's STEM Saturday event celebrating Pi Day, at Gernon Brown Recreation Center. Two other Xavier faculty, Carroll Diaz (Math) and Floristina Payton-Stewart (Chem), participated as instructors as well, along with some of their students.

The kids were divided into two groups. The first group, kindergarteners through second-graders, learned the concept of Pi through math problems using skittles, construction paper cut-outs, checkers pieces, and building blocks. Skittles were used to graph Pi. Checkers were used for math demonstration of Pi. Construction paper cut-outs were used to make a chain to infinity, meaning each group of kids as they came to the station added their cut outs to the chain to illustrate how Pi never ends. The same concept was used with the building blocks.

The second group, third through eighth graders, led kids through three activities designed to demonstrate the concept of Pi. The first was measurement demonstrations, comparing the ratio of various-sized circles' circumferences to their diameter. The result of these measurements is always the same: it's always Pi. Next was a mathematical cryptography (word decoding) and mirroring (more word decoding) competition. Last was a kite building demonstration, designed to teach the concept of tetrahedral molecular geometry.
Despite some grumbling about having to meet at Xavier at 7:30 a.m., the students had a great time.
One interesting component of the project was the idea of "tiered mentorship." The area professionals served as mentors to the Xavier students, while the Xavier students served as mentors to the youths. As another component of the project, students also completed four hours of volunteering in the STEM NOLA office to learn about the administrative side of the non-profit. Some students were so successful in this capacity that they have been asked to return and may land spots on the payroll.
STEM NOLA is an organization founded by New Orleans native, and former Tulane University engineering professor, Dr. Calvin Mackie. Its purpose is to expose community members to opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and to inspire them to engage in these opportunities. STEM NOLA designs and delivers activities, programs, and events that bring inspiration, motivation, and training to all STEM stakeholders across the city, specifically focusing on underserved communities. Participants gain skills in communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. STEM NOLA realizes that any effective community-based STEM program must be broad enough to include everyone, yet focused enough to reach people where they are, on their level, and to take them to where they need to be in order to compete and succeed in life.

Treva A. Lee holds a Ph. D. in Counselor Education from the University of New Orleans. She received her B.S. in Psychology and M.A. in Counseling from Xavier University of Louisiana. In her twenty-five-plus years at Xavier, she has served in numerous capacities, including as a teacher in the Freshman Seminar program, in which this service-learning project took place.

-Jeremy Tuman

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Last fall, Xavier faculty member Dr. Mark Gstohl, of the Department of Theology, led an interesting service-learning project in partnership with A Studio in the Woods, a nonprofit artist retreat and learning center located in New Orleans. Working with artist Jacqueline Ehle Inglefield as part of a residency series called "Flint and Steel: Cross-disciplinary Combustion," the two built a shrine to the bottomland hardwood forrest, the purpose of which was to "reignite a reverence for nature." To link thematically with Dr. Gstohl's Comparative Religion class, the shrine referenced religious scriptures and past spiritual practices. The shire was meant to "encourage contemplation of the global impact of habitual consumption and waste and how our spiritual relationship with the natural world may influence our individual acts and determine our collective impact on our environment."

For their part, Dr. Gstohl's students created handouts and posters detailing how various religions approach environmental issues, and presented their research at A Studio in the Woods' "Forestival" last November. The shrine also was displayed at Xavier's Art Village. Thus, this project engaged students with the community on several levels, artistic and environmental, fostered awareness of environmental issues in the community, and contributed to the creation of public art, which nourishes the spirit of the community. The project provided an invaluable cultural experience for the students, introducing them to intersections of art, public space, and environmental justice, while immersing them in theological history, demonstrating the ability of service-learning to achieve unique academic and civic outcomes.

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The "Flint and Steel" residencies, designed by Tulane, who manages A Studio in the Woods, seek to link artists with invested academic partners to "inspire each other in the development of new work, to excite the public, and to fuel social change. creative discourse." The residencies align with the larger purpose of A Studio in the Woods to pair "land preservation with intimate artist residencies centered on environmental challenges and connecting artists to the local community." Originally purchased in 1968, the site, in a remote wooded area in the very eastern corner of New Orleans' "west bank" of the Mississippi River, evolved organically from a site of wetlands preservation to a tranquil artist retreat, where "artists can reconnect with universal creative energy and work uninterrupted within this natural sanctuary."

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Dr. Gstohl serves as Head of Xavier's Department of Theology, and has served previously as Faculty-in-Residence for service-learning, and as Fellow in Xavier's Freshman Seminar program, where his passion for social justice and commitment to Xavier's mission have greatly benefitted the Xavier and New Orleans communities, as exhibited through service-learning projects such as this one.

-Jeremy Tuman

*Quoted text is from materials published by A Studio in the Woods and by Dr. Gstohl.

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Today is election day in the U.S. On college campuses across the country we see a direct connection between the purposes of universities and active and engaged citizenship, as many campuses serve as polling places, and many semester-long student, faculty, and university initiatives to increase knowledge of and participation in our democratic process today bear fruit. But even though a day like today clearly reminds of this connection, today also reminds us that this connection is not meant to be a one-time event, every four years. Our universities do have obligations to contribute to a healthy, functioning democracy, and to prepare students to become active citizens and knowledgeable leaders and participants in our democracy. While these obligations are met in many ways across the campus, nowhere is this role fulfilled more directly and effectively than in service learning.

Secretary of Education John B. King recently noted a need for a, "broader definition of civic duty.... I ask teachers and principals and superintendents to help your students learn to be problem solvers who can grapple with challenging issues, such as how to improve their schools, homelessness, air and water pollution, or the tensions between police and communities of color."

Thus, we see the need for one's education to contribute meaningfully to the betterment of our communities and our national society codified in our national discourse, from the top down, in ways perhaps unprecedented in our history of education. While these purposes may have been imbedded in our educational system at some point long ago, we see now a renewed focus and urgency, as the challenges presented by globalization, wealth and income inequality, systemic racism and oppression, mass incarceration, and climate change are recognized as the existential threats they are.

Yet at this time of renewed focus and conviction, we are faced with a decline in the civic knowledge of of our incoming freshmen. Heather Loewecke, a senior manager at Global Learning Beyond School, notes in a recent blog on the website Education Week, that Only 24 percent of high school seniors scored proficient or higher on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam. What's more, a college education isn't necessarily rectifying the deficiency. Loewecke also points out that "a 2016 Annenberg Public Policy poll reflected that American adults know very little about the US government, with the majority of respondents unable to answer basic questions. For example, only 26 percent of respondents could correctly identify all three branches of the government."

In a way these disparities between our goals for civic education and our results mirror, or perhaps are just another indicator of, the myriad social inequities we now face. Either way, the situation is cast into stark relief on a day like today, when what seems to be a high-functioning democracy is observed in the bustling and frenetic energy of a presidential election day on college campuses nationwide. And while the spectacle and pageantry of Election Day can fill even the most cynical among us with a certain sense of hope, we must hold fast and remember the difficult challenges that lay ahead once the confetti settles. Today is a time to participate, but also a time for we as educators to recommit ourselves to the civic education of our students, and to fully teaching the critical skills in thinking, communicating, reasoning, and problem solving such an education entails.

-Jeremy Tuman

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Download Conversation #50

Corey Dolgon

A conversation with Dr. Corey Dolgon of Stonehill College on the "declawing" of service learning.

Links for this episode:

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This fall Xavier's first-year students are reading Aimee Phan's We Should Never Meet, a collection of short stories tied together thematically and with some common characters. The stories deal with the experiences of Vietnamese people during what America calls the Vietnam War, in the 1960's and 70's, as well during the immediate aftermath, in the 1980's, when children orphaned by the war (and often fathered by American soldiers) attempted to forge lives in southern California.

The students read this book as part of the Freshman Seminar course, a required, one-credit-hour course, whose objectives include introducing first-year students to Xavier's mission of contributing to a more just and humane society. The course has much in common with other required, first-year seminars at other schools around the country, including many other liberal arts schools and HBCUs. But with Xavier being the nation's only historically black, Catholic school, Xavier's version may be more particularly tied to the school's historical mission.

The common reading is a major feature of the course, and the course also includes a service-learning component, in which students are asked to consider the meaning and relevance of the mission through engaging in community actions and addressing social needs, needs that fairness and justice might otherwise negate. Thus, students are asked to consider the meanings of justice, fairness, humanity, through multiple perspectives, including their own, those their various communities, and, perhaps most difficultly, those of the characters in the short stories.

While in the past the common readings have been works of nonfiction, some memoir and some third-person, last year was the first time a novel was offered as a common reading (Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones) and this year marks the first time a collection of short stories has been used. Drawing thematic connections between the readings and community needs addressed by service-learning is always a challenge in the course, both for the students and the teachers. But drawing connections between our experiences in, and perceptions of, our communities and the experiences of fictional characters in short stories set in and around the Vietnam War proves exceptionally challenging.

The first, and maybe most basic, common theme to point to is the shared humanity of us all, which gets neglected, overlooked, devalued in both war-torn times and places, and in communities where systemic unfairness and injustice exists. The characters in the book are marginalized, segregated, cast away, thought of as "others" and as not our problem, much in the way Americans living in pockets of deep, multigenerational poverty are. Both groups are seen at times as hopeless and irredeemable, without inherent worthiness, and in some cases individual actions confirm and reinforce these perceptions. The book's presentation of a young, male character in Los Angeles, Vinh, as a mostly unrepentant violent criminal is especially complicating for readers as they attempt to situate him within a highly oppressive and marginalizing context.

But these same aspects of the text, which make it so challenging for readers, and for students and teachers in this course, also prove its biggest strengths. The characters are absolutely other-ized, seen as outsiders, rejected not just by American society but within traditional Vietnamese culture as well. Their individual actions do not and cannot change that. Their actions cannot be completely removed from the characters' segregated contexts, nor can the characters be excused from, or relieved of, all personal responsibility, life choices, accountability.

In other words, the characters cannot be put into an easy box, or used to simplistically support some ideological bent or political agenda. The issues are more complex. The problems are more complex. In this way these fictional characters are made real, as their complexity, and the complexity of their situations, mirrors that of the people in our communities and the problems they face.

There is unfairness, injustice, and inhumanity in our society. Those at the bottom of our socioeconomic systems face oppression that must be met and fought against by all those who wish to live in a more just and humane society. Recognizing the humanity of others is a beginning, whether in fictional characters of a foreign culture or in our own backyards.  A beginning, but certainly not an end.

-Jeremy Tuman