From IWU Magazine, Spring 2014 edition

Alumni advocates speak on challenges and rewards of careers in social justice

Story by KIM HILL

A panel that included (from left) Ade Olayinka ’11, Molly McLay ’06, Catherine Geehan ’14 and Deborah Adams ’79 discussed educational and career paths in social justice at the annual Council for IWU Women Summit.
Social justice career panel

Through a variety of academic courses and programs, Illinois Wesleyan encourages students to consider human rights and social justice in a global framework. Among those students who went on to pursue careers in social justice were alumna who spoke at a campus panel in February entitled “Advocating for Social Justice.”

The panel was part of the annual Council for IWU Women Summit, which seeks to build self-confidence in female students by connecting them with successful alumnae who have built careers in a host of occupations.

One of the social-justice panelists, Molly McLay ’06, spoke about her work at a rape crisis center during her graduate school internship at the University of Illinois. She counseled children and adults who had been sexually assaulted and served as an advocate during survivors’ medical treatment immediately following an attack.

“Sitting with people through one of the hardest things they will ever go through, and learning how to listen and let them tell you what they need is truly a humbling experience,” McLay told her student and alumni listeners. “It’s horrible case after horrible case and you ask yourself, ‘How do I keep myself alive and feeling inspired to do this work, when it seems like things aren’t changing?’

“The work I do now primarily focuses on prevention,” added McLay. As assistant director of the Women’s Resource Center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, her responsibilities include training students to teach a two-hour course on sexual violence required for all entering students.

During the panel discussion, Deborah Adams ’79 shared her journey from directing domestic violence shelters for women and their children to chairing a statewide coalition on domestic violence in Missouri. Now an associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, Adams’ research focuses on asset building in the lives of women and children. She advised her listeners on the importance of “putting a human face on the problems of the world. As good as that work is, you will burn out if you’re not also putting some energy and time into systemic change.”

A desire to influence systemic change has led Ade Olayinka ’11 to pursue a Ph.D. in public policy at Duke University. Visits to her family’s home in Nigeria and study abroad in Chile drove home the vast differences between first-world and third-world problems, she said in her presentation. Governmental or societal edicts such as “every child needs to go to school” have little meaning if the school has no electricity, running water or computers, she explained.

More valuable, Olayinka says, are changes at the institutional level to ensure local communities come up with ways to solve their own problems, whether that is unreliable energy sources or inconsistent access to health care.

Olayinka also discussed the variety of options open to today’s students with a liberal arts education in working for social justice.

“Any path has the potential to be an opportunity to work in social justice to make sure for people right around you, or in the world far away from you, or animals — whatever may be your passion — that social justice is being furthered,” she said.

“Whether in our public lives, meaning the work we do for money, or in our private lives, whether that’s giving money or volunteering, we all have the opportunity to affect the lives of others.”

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