New class teaches the importance of Ethical Leadership through Spirituality

Marilyn Figueroa / Contributing Writer

With all of the issues that plague our world today, can spirituality be a motivating factor in the fight against injustice, especially as many young people are moving further away from traditional religion? Does spirituality have a place in modern day social justice?

This brings to question as to how much efficacy young adults can actually have in changing their college, their community and, ultimately, the world. More importantly, can students here at FIU actually be the catalyst to the change they wish to see?

Our own University is now working to create a space where students can answer these questions for themselves and engage more actively in their communities, whether faith based or not. This is also an opportunity to learn how spirituality has been used throughout history to overcome injustice.

The Religious Studies Department is encouraging students to engage with faith-based organizations as well as helping to prepare students to become future moral leaders.

A new class, REL 4937, titled Faith in Social Justice, taught by Professor Jeanette Smith, had its first run spring 2015 and will be offered again this upcoming spring 2016 on Tuesdays from 5 to 7:40 pm.

Smith serves as the Executive Director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice, one of almost seventy affiliates around the country working on issues that affect workers, particularly low-wage and immigrant workers.

Smith along with Dr. Erik Larson, the Chairman of the Department of Religious Studies, created the course in order to provide students with a unique, hands on learning experience.

“I wish that there had been a class like this when I was an undergrad,” said Smith, who identifies as a Quaker, and feels fortunate to be able to work on issues of social justice that matter to her.

During its pilot semester, each class presented a diverse curriculum including a local Social Justice advocate from a different religious or spiritual affiliation and sometimes a leader who was not religious at all.

Each guest, whether a Unitarian Universalist Reverend or a Buddhist community organizer, was able to provide a unique perspective that was tied into the work of activists from diverse faiths working on different social justice issues around the world.

Conversations in the class included stories of overcoming injustice, developing moral leadership and taking a stand in the face of adversity. Students were able to engage in the class in numerous ways, crafting projects that addressed issues of social justice important to them.

“It’s important that students have the opportunity to work on projects that personally move them in order to realize their own ability to make change,” Smith said.

The Faith in Social Justice course provides the space and foundation for students to explore their own faith, self-efficacy and engagement in social justice advocacy while opening their minds to the historic and contemporary issues that other social justice advocates have tackled.

More and more frequently, there are reports of another uprising around the world where people are speaking out, protesting and fighting against injustice, often with spiritual or faith-based support.

Faith and spirituality has often been used as a means to sustain and motivate people, particularly from minority or oppressive backgrounds, into social justice movements. One of the greatest examples of using faith as a motivating factor in a social movement is Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

As a leader, King combined spirituality with community organizing, using his religious commitment to inspire thousands of people in the fight against inequality and lack of racial justice. Many scholars argue that it was this incorporation of spirituality into the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement that was able to bond people together into non-violent protests and to eventually make the movement a success.

While many young people may be drifting away from organized religion, ethical leadership is about knowing that you have a personal responsibility to speak up and take action on the issues that plague our communities.

At FIU, we promote the idea of a Worlds Ahead education, respect for diversity and responsibility as citizens of the world.We cannot dismiss the importance of religious education and our own spiritual endeavors, particularly when it comes to being current and future social justice activists of our time.

The change we wish to see in the world lies in our hands and, more importantly, in our hearts. Exploring the role of spirituality in leadership can help us to become more ethical and proactive leaders at the University, in our communities and in the world.

[Image from Flickr]

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