Retreat offers training in leadership and social justice

by Vadim Lavrusik

After a member from Heidi Hackbarth’s church saw her on a date with another woman, the pastor approached Hackbarth at the following Sunday service and asked her not to return to the church.

“I was perplexed by it because the sermons talked about forgiveness and the grace of God,” she said, holding back tears.

Hackbarth, a music therapy junior, said the experience wasn’t an isolated one, and she’s experienced social injustice many times in her hometown of Kenosha, Wis. But she never knew the definition of social justice until attending a retreat last year.

The Social Justice Leadership Retreat, offered by the Housing and Residential Life department, takes approximately 56 students and 18 facilitators on a three-day retreat to Camp Courage, helping educate students to become social justice leaders on campus.

Hackbarth and 64 other students returned from the retreat Monday.

Because it was her second time attending the retreat, Hackbarth worked as a student facilitator, leading discussions regarding social justice issues and students’ experiences.

The retreat “made me see that it was OK to be who I was, and I shouldn’t have to be oppressed,” Hackbarth said.

In its second year, the retreat continues to grow as more students gain interest.

Grant Anderson, coordinator of residential life, said the retreat is held twice a year, once in November and once in January, with a mission “to have an impact on campus” by making it more accepting of race and gender issues.

The retreat held last weekend took two groups – one group of first-time students and one of second-time attendees.

He said the students who returned for the second time focused more specifically on racism, while the first-time group covered many subjects such as racism, gender, white privilege, sexual orientation and disability through small group discussion and trust-building activities.

Many past attendees became more involved in advocacy groups on campus, becoming allies to groups even though they may not identify with the group themselves.

First-year German and global studies student Adam Hennings said the retreat encouraged him to become an ally to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community on campus.

Hennings, who attended the retreat twice, said he feels many of these groups are under-represented on campus.

“I think I have become more aware of transgender issues, trying to correct people’s language, like ‘that’s gay,’ ” he said.

The retreat also taught Hennings how privileged he was to grow up as a white male in the suburbs.

With the help of grants and other sources at the University, the retreat costs $20 for students, Anderson said.

The retreat is offered to both students and faculty.

Amelious Whyte, chief of staff at the Office of Student Affairs, participated in the retreat three times as a facilitator.

Whyte said the retreats are always powerful because he gets to hear from students who have experienced challenging situations in their lives.

“People bring different things to the table based on their experience,” he said. “I think there are some people at the University who, because of their race or gender or sexual orientation, may not feel that they are valued here.”

For Whyte, he said, it has only been challenging when he is in a meeting and is the only person of color in the room. He said he sometimes feels uneasy raising questions such as, “What about students of color?”

“If I raise an issue about students of color, are they going to look at me and say ‘He’s just saying it ’cause he is (of color)’?” he said.