Next Step Retreat gathers student leaders to combat injustice

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By Song My Hoang

Union held its second Next Step Social Justice Retreat in College Park Hall on Friday, Jan. 16, 2015, and Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015. The event is held annually at various colleges across the country, including Colorado State University, California State University at Los Angeles, the University of Vermont and Chapman University.

According to the Union website, the Next Step Retreat provides an intimate space for students to “develop the knowledge and skills to become better change agents, leaders and activists in regard to diversity, equity, power, privilege, prejudice and discrimination.”

The goal of the retreat is to “create a safe and inclusive, yet challenging experience for students, staff and faculty where issues of social injustice and oppression are discussed honestly and openly through the experiences and stories of each other.”

It trains students to be effective social justice activists by offering an environment for students to understand their identity, as well as to share their stories with others in the community.

The Next Step Retreat was adapted from The Multicultural Leadership Retreat, which was formed in 1993 by a group of staff and students at Colorado State University “in response to the need for a forum for students to discuss issues of social justice.”

In 2002, two former facilitators at CSU joined the University of Vermont and developed a similar program to MLR, currently known as the Next Step Retreat. At UVM, the retreat lasts for three days and takes place in an outdoor center at a collection of cabins.

In 2008, Union’s Assistant Director of Residential Life A.J. Place, along with other staff members and graduate students from UVM, joined Chapman University and brought the retreat to the campus.

After joining the Union community in 2011, Place worked closely with Chief Diversity Officer and Coordinator of Title IX Gretchel Hathaway to implement a program at Union in the spring of 2013.

Last year, there were approximately 25 to 30 student participants. Attendance rose to 37 student participants and 15 facilitators this year. Half of the participants were students who participated in the retreat last year.

Place noted that the committee intended to select faculty and staff from different departments at Union to promote diversity. Diversity was not limited to race, gender and culture, but also extended to diversity within majors, departments, interest and clubs.

At this year’s retreat, students participated in small, guided groups with a student and staff or faculty facilitator, as well as large group activities that explored the theme of socioeconomic status.

Benitez commented that this year’s theme was decided through a campus climate survey administered last spring. He explained, “We noticed a trend with issues that are arising on campus. These issues seemed to be focused on socioeconomic status and privilege.”

There was a combination of hands-on and reflective activities at the retreat. These activities were purposefully designed to allow individuals to share their experiences with others in the community.

Place said, “The group activities are supposed to bring people together from across the campus to raise dialogue and have conversation about our community and the community beyond Union to see our commonalities and differences.”

The latter half of the retreat focused on action planning. Benitez stated, “The question becomes, ‘Now that you’re aware about some of these issues, what are you going to do to commit to it once you leave the retreat?’ I think that’s where the Next Step Retreat name comes from. Now we know this, what are our next steps to create a more just campus?”

Rachel Refkin ’15 was a student facilitator at the retreat. She is a French and history interdepartmental major. She is a member of Gamma Phi Beta, co-founder of Union College Banner, co-founder of “I”dentity Dialogues and was the vice president of Multicultural Affairs last year.

Refkin participated in the retreat last year and explained it was an “eye-opening” experience. “The retreat includes a lot of activities and simulations that help portray the issue of socioeconomic status. When we hear terms like ‘white privilege’ and ‘social class,’ we develop sympathy and become stuck in the systematic oppression. The retreat helps to instill empathy by allowing participants to understand what social mobility really means,” she commented.

Refkin became a student facilitator because she wanted other students to experience the empathy she developed at the retreat last year. She noted, “I want people to come to terms with social justice. Everybody isn’t perfect. You can make mistakes with social justice by saying a generalized statement, but you can also learn from your mistakes in order to better yourself and the Union campus.”

She affirmed that Union students should not be intimidated by the title of the retreat. “It’s a safe space to talk about sensitive issues and even say something that offends someone. It’s a space to learn from your mistakes.”

Kylie Gorksi ’16 was a student participant at the Next Step Retreat. She is the president of Student Allies for Equality and frequently attends Leadership and Diversity meetings. Though Gorski has attended several retreats and conferences with similar themes, she believed that the Next Step Retreat was the most self-reflective retreat she has attended.

“At first I came in skeptical, but I found myself overwhelmed with emotions throughout the retreat. There were incredible points of the retreat that were impactful,” she stated.

Though Gorski’s involvement with the community has allowed her to meet various groups on campus in a formal setting, she stated that the retreat gave her the opportunity to develop a deeper and more personal connection with each individual.

When asked about what her next step would be to combat social injustice, Gorski responded, “Student Allies for Equality has always been working hard to focus on intersectionalism in the community. However, after the retreat, I felt a renewed energy and will actively raise more awareness and create conversation about intersectionality in our community.”

Place said that the ultimate goal is to bring together students from various clubs and organizations on campus who share the same type of passion so that they can engage in necessary dialogue in order to tackle social injustice.

“The underlying idea behind this retreat is that once these students are connected and have discussed the overall climate of the campus, we can shift the climate of the campus to become more inclusive and comfortable for students of all identities,” he stated.

Benitez added, “It’s going to take a critical mass of people focused on making that change to shift the culture of the campus. As years go by, we hope to increase the group of Next Step alumni, to the point that they can show solidarity, when needed, to change the climate on campus.”

“We would like to get to the point where discrimination and exclusiveness is not welcomed on campus,” he continued.

Benitez concluded, “It’s hard to find any other setting on campus that can replicate this retreat. Students should take advantage of the opportunities that the retreat offers during those two days.”

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