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The St. Edward’s University Class of 2019 received their first assignment before arriving on the hilltop: Read Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, and come ready for a campus-wide discussion about race and justice. The book, which received the Carnegie Medal in nonfiction from the American Library Association, is the story of an innocent black man wrongly convicted for a violent crime and Stevenson’s unrelenting quest for justice.

Alex Barron, assistant professor of University Studies and director of the Freshman Studies program, says the book was selected to create awareness and prompt discussions about what justice is. “The book asks: If we recognized inequality in our justice system, would we change it? We realized this is a conversation we need to have now,” says Barron.

In addition to reading Just Mercy and hearing Stevenson speak on campus in September, here are a few of the ways in which students are exploring the themes of race and justice.

Inside Books Project 

Before even officially launching a book drive, Barron collected 243 books during Orientation for the Austin nonprofit, which sends books and educational materials to Texas prisoners. Books will be collected throughout the semester, and a group of students will work directly with the nonprofit to sort and send the books to incarcerated people who’ve requested them. Diverse genres are needed including dictionaries, westerns and mystery novels.

Just Mercy Art Installation 

Hollis Hammonds, associate professor of Art and chair of Visual Studies, asked St. Edward’s alumna and artist Jenn Hassin ’12, to collaborate with students on a project linked to Just Mercy. Hassin, who tied for Best Visual Artist in the Austin Chronicle’s Best of Austin list in September, uses numbers to inspire her pieces.

To visually represent Just Mercy’s theme, Hassin cut and mashed prison uniforms into paper, then students rolled them into tubes in multiple workshops. Each paper roll will represent one incarcerated person, and the project should be completed by the end of October.

“When you see Jenn’s work, you approach it as a beautiful, visual artifact,” Hammonds says. “Then when you become interested in it, you enter into a political and social conversation through the aesthetics of art.

Social Justice Living Learning Community 

Freshman students in the Social Justice Living Learning Community (LLC), which groups first-year students who share similar interests in residence halls, are being challenged to define what social justice means to them.

Kris Sloan, associate professor of Education and director of the Social Justice LLC, says most students have their own understanding of what social justice is, but through community service and campus activities, the definition can change. Throughout the year, students participate in university-related service projects such as SERVE 1Day, a program that promotes social justice issues and community service. Students also discuss Just Mercy in book and film clubs, and Sloan is challenging his students to create visual representations of social justice, too, which will culminate in an art display by the end of the semester. 

“Participating in these activities gives students a deeper connection to the community,” Sloan says. “And we’re interested in doing that as much as possible.”  

Texas Prison Museum

In November, Freshman Studies and the Multicultural Leadership Board will take a group of students to Huntsville to visit the Texas Prison Museum, run by a retired death-chamber warden. “We want students to learn about what life is like for prisoners,” Barron says. “People may think they know more about prison life because it’s so present in pop culture right now, but it’s worth taking the students and getting a more accurate picture.”

Erica Quiroz is the PR and social media coordinator for St. Edward’s University.

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