(Re)Envisioning the Social Justice Institute at Philander Smith College A Landscape analysis


Commissioned from Auburn Seminary by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, this assessment offers recommendations regarding the re-envisioning of social justice work at Philander Smith College and the greater Little Rock region through a faith-rooted lens. Based on extensive research and focus group conversations with over 60 members of the PSC community, including students, faculty, alumni, and staff in June 2016; individual interviews with justice leaders in the Little Rock community; planning sessions in New York and Little Rock with core faculty, staff, students and WRF partners; and Auburn Seminary sponsored trainings and workshops that helped bring some of the participants deepest concerns around social justice issues among all affected communities to the surface.

Proposed Partnership Goals

● Re-envision and relaunch the Social Justice Institute and support Little Rock as a faith-rooted social justice hub in such a way that respects the integrity and history of PSC, names the history of injustice in Little Rock, and leverages the strengths that community leaders bring to the current and future challenges.

● Take full advantage of the strengths and skills each party (PSC, Auburn and WRF) has to bring to the table.

● Develop a concrete, actionable plan with clear accountability, a clear vision, and attainable, concrete steps to realize this shared vision.

● Develop and articulate strategies that will help ensure success through mutually supportive and transparent processes.

Philander Smith College Social Justice Institute: A Brief Historical Overview

Founded in 1877 under the name of Walden Seminary, Philander Smith College has a long history as a leader in social justice education. Originally established to educate freed slaves west of the Mississippi River, the college was renamed in 1882 in recognition of the financial support of Adeline Smith, the widow of Philander Smith. In 1883, PSC was chartered as a four-year educational institute and conferred its first bachelor's degree in 1888.

PSC was recognized as a pioneer during the civil rights movement as many of its students engaged in organized resistance against segregation laws in Little Rock and the nation.

This re-imagined mission has led to a range of important activities at PSC, including:

● Creating of the Ozell Sutton Medal of Justice

● Focusing on social justice themes in the Freshman Colloquium

● Increasing the number of justice-related internships for students

● Creating the student-led "Social Justice League"

● Including of special guest speakers and justice themes for opening convocation

● Bringing to campus “Bless the Mic” lecturers renowned for their noteworthy activism

● Changing the college's address to honor social justice activist Daisy L. Gatson Bates

Signature programs in support of this renewed focus on social justice included:

Body Justice Project

Launched in Spring 2011 with Sex Week activities to initiate conversations about responsible choices, the project was renamed Body Justice in Fall 2011 and relaunched with a broader focus on overall health, including exercise, proper diet, impact of drugs and alcohol.

Platinum By Design

Started in Fall 2008, this program was conceived as a way to engage and empower women students through exposure to topics concerning the development of women.

Black Male Initiative

Started in Fall, 2007 in response to a need to increase retention for male students, the program’s first speaker was Kevin Powell (from the 1st MTV Real World). Today, the program continues to provide a wide range of programs for all male students

Bless The Mic

Started in September 2005, the program exposes students to leading social justice thinkers and activist.

Under the leadership of current president, Dr. Roderick Smothers, the Social Justice Institute has aspired to transform the college into a social justice institution of higher education through an integrated approach to community engagement, student development. research and academic activities.

Themes and Observations

Philander Smith College

● What is social justice?: A discussion among students, faculty and alumni on arriving at a definition of social justice resulted in as many answers as there were participants in the conversation, including a few who felt they didn’t have a good grasp on how to describe social justice.

● Alignment between internal culture and public work: Students, faculty and alumni all felt some tension between the outward focus of social justice and the great need to address social justice internally within PSC. All groups interviewed agreed there was a disconnect in the school between a focus on social justice that was driven by events in the world outside the school and the need to understand how social justice affected the students in their own lives.

● Student-Faculty relationships: Students are seeking the wisdom and guidance of faculty as it relates to their lives beyond Philander Smith College. Faculty members desire to connect with students but may feel hampered by the demands of their work.

● Pride of place: Students, faculty and alumni all have pride in the idea of PSC but their pride in the institution has been shaken. Although they arrive at the conclusion from different perspectives, each group feels that the institution is not doing what it could to nurture and support community growth and development.

● Untapped resources in Alumni Network: In addition to frustration with the perceived lack of communication between PSC and its Alumni Network, all groups felt that the college was not doing enough to harness the resources and potential support of alumni.

● Desire for a Social Justice Institute was strong. While all groups felt that the commitment to social justice had declined in recent years, they also believed social justice to be part of the college’s DNA and they would like to see a more robust social justice emphasis on campus.

● Place matters: PSC is located in one of the poorer sections of Little Rock that has experienced much disinvestment. There is a sense for those interviewed that this provides a great opportunity for PSC to be a catalyst for local community change and revitalization.

● Opportunities for improved communication: While there are some solid communication efforts in place at PSC, there are still opportunities for more up-dated communication tools such as public video monitors, use of social media, digital engagement etc., to communicate and engage around PSC social justice efforts.

● Need for institutional rapid response planning in crisis moments. There was a sense that the involvement of students in action (such as in Ferguson and Staten Island), can have an impact. There was also a sense that these actions were more reactionary and less tied PSC’s larger social justice intentions.

Greater Little Rock

● Critical Issues: There are a wide range of issues that present opportunity for the the SJI to make a difference in the region. These issues are related to education, health care, poverty, economic empowerment, environmental sustainability, LGBTQIA rights and enfranchisement.

● Geography: Little Rock seems to be in silos and an isolated region in which communities are fractured across racial and economic lines, and have been harmed by generation after generation of systemic racism.

● Race Matters: Everyone that we interviewed wanted to see systemic changes where inequity would be addressed across the board. It was also clear the critical role that race played in their analysis. By contrast, the Latino/a interviewees and a few of the African American interviewees largely focused on educational opportunities. The Latino/a interviewees expressed concern that community members know rights and be aware of the resources that are available to them.

● A re-envisioned PSC Social Justice Institute has an opportunity to fill a leadership vacuum: While there are some organizations that are doing good work with little resources, by and large people felt that the churches and nonprofit justice organizations were either ineffective, too timid, or under-resourced. As a result, a robust, re-envisioned social justice institute that could address the systemic injustice was seen as very necessary. The growing influence of Northwest Arkansas. Based upon our conversations, it appears there is a material influence of wealthy Northwest Arkansas on the public and private sectors of much of Little Rock. At this time, this is most keenly felt in contentious actions as they relate to the direction of public education in Little Rock.

● Fragmentation among faith-rooted justice leaders is common. With the exception of a handful of collective organizing and advocacy efforts, there is a sense that those committed to justice work, particularly within the faith community, seem to work in isolation.

● The myth and reality of social justice engagement in Little Rock. As a flashpoint for the desegregation movement in the 1960s, Little Rock has often been painted internally and externally as a location for robust social engagement within faith-rooted and secular communities. The reality is that there is little local capacity and leadership dedicated sustained, collective social justice engagement.



Based on our observations and analysis, we recommend an expansion of the re-envisioned Social Justice Institute at Philander Smith College (PSC) and the establishment of a Little Rock Faith-Rooted, Social Justice Hub (the Faith in Action Roundtable) with a clear mission to work on “healing structural inequity.”

The Re-Envisioned Social Justice Institute

While the Institute would engage the larger community, its primary focus will be students, faculty, administration, and alumni. It would coordinate all aspects of social justice engagement at PSC and in the community.

Goals and Workplan for the Re-Envisioned Social Justice Institute

Create an integrated experience among students, faculty, administration, alumni and community members


We believe that for the Re-Envisioned Social Justice Institute to be successful, we will need a fully integrated educational approach that will include:

A freshman colloquy that orients students to social justice both internally and among their student cohorts and externally as a PSC mandate for how students engage in community.

Integrating Social Justice into each classroom experience

  • Although social justice advocacy can be its own field of study, for students to have a well-rounded understanding of social justice they need to see social justice incorporated into all disciplines. We recommend, therefore, that each credited class dedicate at least one class period to exploring how social justice might intersect within the discipline.
  • A Social Justice major and minor: In addition to integrated classroom experience, we recommend that the college develop a social justice major that will include theoretical exploration of social justice as well as hands-on practical experiences.
  • Practicum: As part of the Social Justice major, we recommend an approach to social justice community engagement that is modeled off of Auburn’s theological community engagement work. Access to Auburn Seminary justice-focused trainings and workshops. As part of our partnership, students would have access to our trainings and workshops on such topics as storytelling, digital communication strategies, writing an effective oped, and much more.
  • Auburn Seminary trainings and workshops for student organizations. In addition to offering training and workshops for students, we will want to make sure that such trainings are also available to student groups such as fraternities and sororities, student government association and so forth.

A Resource Center with the Re-Envisioned Social Justice Institute in order to:

  • Keep the PSC community informed about larger social justice issues and their impact on PSC
  • Connect the PSC community to external social justice efforts
  • Serve as an incubator for innovative ideas and provide assistance to take them to scale as sustainable social justice efforts

A Rapid Response Task Force comprised of students, faculty and administrators including a representative from the President’s office to enable the PSC community to convene quickly in moments of national crisis to create a communication and action strategy for PSC.

Faculty and Administration

All faculty and administration would be required to undergo an intensive two-day power analysis workshop that would:

  • Create need to know (why equity)
  • Establish common language (race, racism, white, people of color, etc)
  • Explore structural power model (stories, rules, resources and people)
  • Encourage recognition and application of structural power model at PSC

Faculty and administration would be encouraged to take advantage of Auburn trainings including:

  • Media training
  • Storytelling training
  • Digital storytelling training

Alumni and Community Connection

Through the re-envisioned Social Justice Institute we recommend extending the reach of PSC to the larger community.

Across Communities

● Address trauma: In addition to addressing trauma with incoming freshman, the PSC community would work with Auburn seminary to ensure that healing practices are part of the social justice curriculum.

● Communicate: The new Social Justice Center will need to examine how it communicates both internally and to the larger community.

● Evaluate: The Resource and Research center within the re-envisioned Social Justice Institute will be responsible for evaluating the work happening at PSC.

Connecting Spirit and Service

Given the deep religious heritage of Philander Smith College, the SJI will create space for individuals and groups to do intentional spiritual reflection as a means of informing daily practice, vocational discernment, and civic engagement.

Goals for the Little Rock Faith-Rooted Social Justice Hub

In addition to a center housed on campus, we recommend establishing a Little Rock Faith-Rooted Social Justice Hub off-site but close to PSC. A Little Rock Social Justice Hub outside of campus would work closely with PSC but would be accountable to the larger community and would be able to advocate for positions that may be difficult for PSC and would serve as a much-needed space for communal engagement.

This Hub would:

● Establish a faith-rooted justice table

● Provide a “power analysis” of systemic inequities in Little Rock and the effects these inequities have for navigating communities.

● Establish forums and convenings

● Offer Auburn sponsored trainings

● Equip faith leaders and leaders of moral courage

Complimentary Organizations

While the Social Justice Institute (SJI) and Faith-Rooted Social Justice Hub (SJ Hub) will be independent entities, the fact they share a fundamental purpose will provide opportunities to partner. Each will have its own governing board and staff accountable to those boards. The SJI and SJ Hub will each build capacity for faith-rooted social justice advocacy, but do so by different methods and focus upon different constituencies.

Social Justice Institute:

Specific Recommendations for Auburn

● Leverage existing donor and foundation relationships to support the work of the Little Rock Faith-Rooted Social Justice Hub and the re-envisioned Social Justice Institute

● Invest staff resources and time in the coordination and implementation of future Social Justice Institute collaborations

● Hire staff for the Social Justice Hub

● Coordinate the Community Advisory Council

● Provide an Auburn-led training each time staff meets to develop the plan for the Social Justice Institute.

Specific Recommendations for the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation

● Thoroughly review this landscape assessment

● Prioritize which of the recommendations laid out above WRF is invested in seeing implemented

● Describe other recommendations not captured here that Winthrop Rockefeller would like to see implemented

● Develop funding strategy to fully onboard a PSC social justice institute director

● Work with Auburn to develop funding strategy to fully onboard a director for Little Rock Faith-Rooted Social Justice Hub

● Define level of engagement the foundation would be able to commit to as this plan is actualized.

Specific Recommendations for the PSC

● Thoroughly review this landscape assessment

● Prioritize which of the recommendations laid out above PSC is most invested in seeing implemented

● Describe other recommendations not captured here that PSC would like to see implemented

● Commit to the timeline (or agreed upon revised timeline) for the scope of work described in this landscape analysis.

● Provide space and staff resources for the Social Justice working group

Immediate Next Steps:

● Solidification of work plan by the PSC working group

● Appreciative Inquiry process followed by an asset mapping process

● Implementation of process to develop a Strategic Plan

● Winthrop Rockefeller and Auburn will use the work plan to gain financial support

● Create a community advisory council



The core team: there may be others who will join this working team but the list below reflects the core team at this time. The list from Philander Smith includes students, faculty and staff. The list is alphabetical.

Philander Smith College:

Dr. Phillis Anderson

Dr. Etta Carter

Ms. Sericia Cole

Dr. Hazel Ervin

Rev. Ronnie Miller-Yow

Mr. Joseph Peters

Ms. Aleah Randolph

Dr. James Rush

Dr. Roderick Smothers

Dr. Zollie Stevenson Jr.

Mr. Tristan Wilkerson

Mr. Russell Williams

Bios and information about PSC are available on website

Auburn Seminary:

Rev. Jennifer Bailey

Rev. Sterling Freeman

Dr. Sharon Groves

Rev. John Vaughn

Bios for team

Further information on Auburn and other bios also on website

Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation

Rev. Cory Anderson

Mr. Brad Cameron

Dr. Sherece West Scantlebury

Bios and information about WF available on website

Preliminary report prepared by Auburn after first trip to Little Rock


Questions for Focus Groups and Community groups


Notes from Winthrop Rockefeller after the meeting in New York


Auburn/PSC/Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation Social Justice Institute Planning Session Aug4-Aug. 5


Social Justice Institute Planning Working Group, Sept. 20


Re-Imagining Social Justice at Philander Smith (PowerPoint prepared by Winthrop Rockefeller


Philander Smith Social Justice History


Model for Justice Ministry Education: http://auburnseminary.org/jme/

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