Moving Past The Ivory Tower: Penn Social Change Agents Impel America to Action

09/25/2016 11:55 pm ET Updated Oct 03, 2016
University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice

The Academy is often a place associated with idealistic thinking, left-leaning pedagogies, and perhaps, a metaphorical location that is far removed from the practical reality of most individuals. Some of the world’s brightest have walked the hallowed halls of these institutions, providing insight into the mechanics of life but often stopping short of transcending the ivory barriers and empowering the lay to change the world they experience. The application of knowledge to real world challenges is unfortunately not ubiquitous. However, not all academic work is relegated to journal manuscripts, textbook chapters, and international conference presentations.

Many intellectuals within and among the social sciences (and arguably in the life sciences) have enjoyed the benefits of research to practice initiatives that influenced social policy and social change. The bridging of this gap – imagine a drawbridge from the Ivory Tower to the real world – has been crucial in understanding and addressing concerns of institutional oppression, abject poverty, and health disparities for centuries. At the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice, which is known for its commitment to educating students to take an active role against oppression, a new initiative seeks to not only bridge this gap, but to impel Americans into action.

John L. Jackson, Jr., PhD, Dean, Richard Perry University Professor
John L. Jackson, Jr., PhD, Dean, Richard Perry University Professor

The SP2 Penn Top 10, launched in the Summer of 2016, is a multi-modal initiative that is utilizing a myriad of the Nation’s top social change agents and researchers to analyze and address ten of the most pressing social justice concerns and policy issues in this election year. On the initiative’s face, it may appear that the Ivy League graduate school is taking a traditional approach of the academy – providing data and positing theoretical solutions. However, in introducing the initiative, SP2 Dean Dr. John L. Jackson implores individuals engaged with the initiative (perhaps in an indirect plea to become active participants) to “…take up their challenge to assemble all of the data and expertise and historical context you can muster to make sense of the issues that matter most to you…”. This is the same challenge issued to the faculty, staff, and students at the School: to become active participants in the issues present in their lives. It is a challenge that is being answered, not only through the everyday mission of the school, but through the SP2 Penn Top 10 initiative.

“…take up their challenge to assemble all of the data and expertise and historical context you can muster to make sense of the issues that matter most to you…” - Dean John L. Jackson

One has to only turn on one of the major media networks, scroll through a personal digital newsfeed, or ask “that uncle” at the family gathering, to see the visceral way in which responding to societal issues has taken root. While perhaps not a new phenomenon, it is certainly a troubling one. Passion and emotion does have a place in the way we traverse the world, but should it be the locus of our decision making, especially when those decisions impact the outcomes of so many in the world? It is through the request of Dean Jackson, requiring all whom heed it to think and respond critically, SP2 has moved past the ivory tower and impelled Americans to begin to respond in a different way; not with vitriol, but armed with facts and a methodology.

Now, one might think that the Top 10 Initiative is just a prop towards promoting a liberal agenda. In direct opposition to this assumption, Dean Jackson and the Top 10 contributors ask for challenges to their basic premises, contrasting beliefs towards the conclusions offered, and for nothing more than the critical thinking we could all use a little more of. In a time when institutions of higher education are being lambasted for “refusing to allow for dissenting views”, this is a stark contrast, and one that should be celebrated and internalized.

We all have our own personal “Top 10” lists for the most pressing concerns in our lives. Personally, the opioid crisis, geo-political relations, and crushing student loan debt top mine. The SP2 Penn Top 10 does not seek to supplant your own list of top concerns, but rather begin a dialogue on important issues while providing a framework to analyze and contextualize for others.

Without regard to hierarchal priority, here are the SP2 Penn Top 10 issues:

Each of the issues is discussed and presented on in detail on the interactive web portal for the initiative. Highlighting the commitment to a multi-modal platform, each issue features journal entries, key points, blog posts, and video segments. Each issue has a team of SP2 faculty, graduate students, and fellows that have worked together to provide the contributions (a fact that is a testament to the caliber of change agents available at the School of Social Policy & Practice). The team will also release a digital and physical copy of the work in book format, which can be utilized as a conversation starter and reference tool.

Being a MSW candidate at SP2, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dean Jackson to discuss the initiative in further detail. While I won’t spoil some of the more interesting tidbits (spoiler: the school is only getting started with how it plans to implement action with the initiative), the Dean’s further illumination of how he and the school view the Top 10 is intriguing. I encourage you to read through the remarks, to get engaged, and become a social change agent this election season and beyond.

RDA: Penn Top 10 is different than other 21st century agendas (be those political, academic, or social agendas) in the sense that it actively implores those it engages with to, “not read [them] as gospel, as definitive claims…”; since its official launch this Summer, how has Penn Top 10 succeeded in this perhaps lofty goal? (to get those it engages with to think rather than follow, to form their own conceptions of import on the issues, etc.)

JJ: We are still in the early stage of what we hope will be an effective attempt to get people to think beyond pure “spin” and partisanship to a greater respect for facts and impartial evidence. We had a great launch in DC at the start of the summer, and we hope to build on that by bringing the SP2 Penn Top project to schools, to lawmakers, to people on the street. I think we’ll know we are having an impact if we continue to hear people push back against simplistic answers to difficult and intractable questions. I think we’ve succeeded, early on, in getting our work into the hands of local officials and before national audiences. We’ll continue to spread the word about the project well past the election in November.

RDA: Your own background in cultural anthropology, utilizing ethnography to explore the stories and culture of humankind, seems at play in the Penn Top 10. The inclusion of scholarly essays, visual cues (videos and animations), blog posts, and other multi-media vignettes, seems like a novel approach for an initiative of the ivory tower. Was it your background that inspired the multi-pronged delivery approach, or something more?

JJ: I think multimodal research is the future of us all in the academy. The only question, as far as I am concerned, is do we go into that inevitable future kicking and screaming or proactively poised to seize its full potential? Being a filmmaker, I knew I wanted to use visual genres to help tell the stories that ground the research that our faculty have undertaken on these important social issues. However, even if I wasn’t a filmmaker, I think I would still appreciate the power of the moving image to concretize a study in terms that viewers can embrace, understand and remember.

RDA: Election cycles in the United States, which have become less of an “every 4-year phenomena” and more of an ever-present modicum in our lives, are an invaluable platform for advocating for social impact. The launch of Penn Top 10 to coincide with the 2016 cycle has no doubt been invaluable. However, what will become of the initiative after the 2016 election?

JJ: Even after the November election is decided, we will continue to use the SP2 Penn Top Ten project to engage citizens on these important social issues, especially since many of these issues get ignored in contemporary electoral politics. We plan to publish a companion volume of the studies in October or November, which will be distributed by the University of Pennsylvania Press. And we intend to figure out a way of turning our SP2 Penn Top Ten efforts into curricular offerings that might be useful in social studies and civics classes in area public schools. We have high hopes and grand ambitious for the post-election life of this initiative.

RDA: The Penn Top 10 book will undoubtedly live-on to be digested and thought-provoking to those who read it; more to the spirit of the question though, will the pedagogy utilized in the live on in other ways?

JJ: Moreover, our world-renowned SP2 faculty will continue to conduct new studies and publish important new work on these social issues and many more. So the SP2 Penn Top Ten project will also expand to include newer cutting-edge research produced by our accomplished faculty.

RDA: The anecdotes about Home Box Office (HBO) in your introduction to Penn Top 10 provide an important juxtaposition for “social justice / impact” and “neoliberalism” (the argument could be made that the success of HBO did revolutionize the way households consume and digest popular media); there are other examples of the private markets having positive social impact on humanity. One of the particular areas of import for the “School of Social Justice (SP2)” is the interdisciplinary approach to solving the social issues of our time, and the social issues of tomorrow as well. How do we bridge the divide that often exists between the “capitalists” and “social change agents”, to have the largest and most efficacious impact on humankind?

JJ: There seem to be so many hard and fast divides between members of our body politic these days. The Democrat vs. Republican fault-line is only one of the most entrenched and increasingly disheartening in terms of the kind of vitriolic antagonism that seems to categorize their interactions. I think that the key is to push people to think of themselves as flesh-and-blood human beings not simply somatic extensions of ideological cant and political camps. I can see the power of “the market” to increase economic output, and I also recognize the concerns many have with a version of social life that is only organized by a kind of fetishized slavery to market logics without any sense of the extent to which humanity eludes an exclusively market-based notion of social integration. I think the key is to keep the conversations going, especially with those we disagree with. There are no easy solutions to many social and political disputes, but disengaging and being obstructionist is a short-term response with potentially devastating long-term consequences.

RDA: If there was one thing, not discussed here, that must be known about Penn Top 10, what would it be?

JJ: I would stress that the SP2 Penn Top Ten project is about cultivating a sensible, effective and thoughtful approach to social life, public debate, and cultural change. We could have picked ten completely different topics or concerns to highlight. Or we could have chosen 15 issues. Or maybe 20. The point is to just get people in the habit of looking for evidence-based solutions to the issues they care most about.

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