Lake Michigan College Honors Program hosts social justice forum

BERRIEN COUNTY – Transforming conversations and data into actions was a theme consistent across speakers during Lake Michigan College’s Honors Program virtual Social Justice Forum on Wednesday evening.

The Zoom event was host to a seven-person panel of community organizers at the grassroots level, leaders in community programs and institutional change categories. Two LMC alumni, Chokwe Pitchford and Uriah Baker, represented the grassroots activism category. Gwen Sharp, founder of the SHARP Foundation of Benton Harbor, Mary LaSata-Spiegel, managing attorney with Legal Aid of Western Michigan, and Ryan Thyfault, economic analyst with Kinexus Group, made up the community programs category. Laura Goos, the mayor pro-tem of the city of St. Joseph and director of human resources, diversity, equity and inclusion from United Way of Southwest Michigan, and Michael Nixon, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Andrews University, made up the policy and institutional change categories.

The panel allowed LMC students to submit questions to the panelists, and took polls of attendees throughout the sessions.

Questions of how changes and impact could be made in social justice causes that seemed like such large issues to tackle were asked. Each panelist offered their own perspectives on how their field contributes to things like racial inequality, health care access and qualities and economic inequality.

At times, the forum’s leaders asked attendees in live polls for their own input. One of the questions posed was “how confident are you that any approach to improving social justice in our area will have an impact?” The panel was attended at one point by around 70 people. On a scale from one, being “not at all confident,” to five, “very confident,” 45 percent of attendees responded at a four, and 25 percent responded at a five. Only 5 percent responded with a one.

Baker spoke about how he gets his friends involved in civic matters, like voting.

“We are making sure everyone is getting involved,” Baker said. “It becomes a movement. The more we get each other involved, the more we impact people and the more change will happen.”

Pitchford, who ran for election, and lost, in 2020 to represent District 79 in the Michigan House of Representatives, spoke from his experience as a young political candidate.

“You’ve got to understand that when you are in the public policy realm; you’re not just fighting for your generation or your time,” Pitchford said. “You may not reap the benefit or see the ramifications of what you do. But someone will, and that’s what matters.”

LaSata-Spiegel said with her work at Legal Aid of Western Michigan, she understands how others may not see her daily actions as impacting a greater issue. She sees it as a place where change begins.

“I understand that I’m not like Gwen [Sharp]. I haven’t organized a march. I’m not like Chokwe [Pitchford] or Laura [Goos], I haven’t run for office. But I think off myself more as the pebble that’s tossed in the pond,” LaSata-Spiegel said. “We can all make a difference no matter how small we are. My little landlord-tenant case in Berrien County is not going to change the world, but it will change the world for that family.”

At the end of the two-hour event, Amy Scrima, who oversees the Honors Program and is the social sciences, humanities and educational department chair at LMC, said she was inspired and motivated by what she had heard about in the forum.

“I think [the speakers] were sharing their vision and hopes for how we can all be a part of making things better for our home,” Scrima said. “We at LMC feel really strongly as our area’s community college that this is our mission to help our students and our community come together to figure out ways to make things better.”

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