Community Learning Day (CLD) was created to bring School of Social Welfare students, faculty and staff together to explore a significant and timely social justice issue of the day. It not only offers an introduction to the world of advocacy, but also gives students a glimpse of the challenges social workers face every day.
“Social work is about working with people to address the challenges they face in their lives, and also to address the inequities that create many of those challenges,” said Carolyn Peabody, clinical professor in the School of Social Welfare at Stony Brook. “With CLD we try to give the students a sense that they’re part of a much bigger community.”
CLD is actually not a single day, but four days spread over two semesters; two days in the fall and two days in the spring. The days in the fall are dedicated to setting the groundwork for the projects that take place between fall and spring. In the spring, students present the work they’ve done. The goal is to provide a comprehensive experience that incorporates both social justice and professional development.
“We’re bringing people together to help reinforce what it means to be a social worker,” said Peabody. “It’s about connecting them with the fact that they’re part of a community that has many, many voices that create the possibility for much more power.”
The process begins in the summer, when student volunteers who participate in the planning work with faculty members to identify the issue to focus on. In addition to Peabody, the School of Social Welfare’s Shelley Horwitz, assistant dean of Manhattan operations, and Richard Morgan, clinical professor, also worked with students. After brainstorming, climate change was chosen as the topic for the current academic year.
Peabody said the challenge is to both learn about how climate change is going to impact the people that they work with, many of whom are from underrepresented communities, and then engage in an advocacy activity.
“The direction is completely driven by the students, which makes it much more relevant and also engages the students in participating in creating a great learning event,” she said. “The students are tapping into issues that have a spirit of generalized concern around a particular issue. We challenge them to think about how they’re going to proceed. We take what we learn from these discussions and provide them with the fundamental information they’ll need.”
Last year when the faculty announced that they were looking for volunteers for the following year, Courtney Braun, a second-year graduate student in the School of Social Welfare, knew that she wanted to be involved.
“After completing my coursework surrounding policy, I wanted to put my skills to the test in terms of organizing, developing and presenting an advocacy-based project to the larger community,” she said.
Starting in June 2021, Braun and the rest of the CLD Planning Committee met biweekly to develop the program.
Peabody said that in the beginning, some students didn’t understand how climate change intersected social work, but it became clearer when they saw how communities were going to be impacted.
“Climate change brings with it a sense of cognitive dissonance, that this is not the way that a society that is sane and logical should act,” said Peabody. “What we do is pose the problem. We’re providing them with information they need to engage in thoughtful discussion and then think about how it’s going to impact the people and communities that they work with. And then they are tasked with developing a strategic plan to undertake an advocacy project.”
Peabody added that no matter what the subject is in any year — in 2021 it was voter suppression — the focus is about ensuring that the students have an opportunity to reflect on how the problem represents particular challenges for communities that have historically been oppressed and underrepresented.
“In the end we have a massive effort of more than 600 students who are all simultaneously engaged in an act of advocacy,” said Peabody. “And then after experiencing what they did during the year, students come back in the spring and share it with the group.”
With climate change the subject, projects ranged from writing letters to editors and legislators to beach cleanups and TikTok videos.
“A number of advocacy projects highlighted the fact that wealthier people can move in the wake of the potential threat of flooding,” said Peabody. “Poorer people can’t do that so easily because they’re renters and they don’t have the money to do it.”
“I worked on developing an opening presentation with a mix of news clips showing wrenching moments throughout the world where environmental justice was needed to classic tunes about change, hope, and the need for togetherness,” said Braun. “Climate change is an important topic because there are steps that each one of us can take personally to advance environmental justice as a whole. We need to advocate and act not just for our generation, but for the ones to come over the next 100 years.”
Graduate student Amber Ayala, who is finishing up her first year in the program, organized a beach clean-up.
“I saw that a local business hosted a beach clean-up last year,” she said. “When the CLD project was announced, I thought it would be a great opportunity to get involved. I work at a small non-profit and was able to use their influence in the community to help plan and promote a beach clean-up. We reached out to local elected officials and other people in the community and got a great response. This is a great collaboration, and I am grateful to be a part of it.”
Join us to clean up our beaches! May 1st 9am-1pm @ west meadow beach in stonybrook!
Peabody said that while climate change is going to affect their future and the future of all of the clients that they work with, there is a larger lesson to impart on the participants.
“I think that what CLD does in a broader sense is help students know that they need to have a voice and then pay attention to the things that are affecting the people that they’re going to work with,” she said. “They can help to shape decisions that are made and then hopefully teach their clients to know that they also have a voice. It’s part of our ethical commitment to encourage people to participate in shaping the decisions that affect their lives. Otherwise, as they say, if you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”
— Robert Emproto