Student request, involvement leads to Mason Core class on racial justice


As part of President Gregory Washington’s establishment of the Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence (ARIE) Task Force in July 2020, students called for broader curriculum changes related to racism, diversity and inclusion, building on requests and discussions since the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

The Black Lives Matter movement and the increased attention around the murder of George Floyd intensified these efforts, and students and faculty collaborated to create UNIV 381: Foundations for Building a Just Society. The course has been scaled up using recommendations from ARIE. The three-credit class fulfills two Mason Core requirements—global understanding and social/behavioral sciences—and is projected to evolve over time into a required course for all students.

“Once implemented, this course will be part of a greater educational plan that allows Mason to be a national exemplar of inclusive excellence,” said Bethany Usher, associate provost of undergraduate education. “Beyond that, our students will have the skills and knowledge they need to tackle the complicated problems they’ll encounter in the classroom and the world in a just and constructive way.”

UNIV 381 evolved from a 2019 pilot program created by an interdisciplinary team with a framework for a course that would help students engage with these complex issues in a meaningful way.

Sarah Osman, a rising senior studying community health with a concentration in clinical science, was one of the students in the pilot class in Fall 2019. Osman said the course helped her understand how her own implicit biases made a strong impact on how she views others, their situations and their behaviors.

Osman said the course gave her a greater understanding of what implicit biases she carries, why others think the way that they do and what institutions have influenced their viewpoints on race.

“We live in a world where the color of one’s skin determines every opportunity they receive and whether or not they will live to see tomorrow,” Osman said. “[But] diversity goes far beyond the color of one’s skin. Although the issue of racism is something embedded in this country, we have the power to challenge the perpetuation of the social hierarchy that currently defines our nation.

Lauren Cattaneo, associate professor of psychology, helped create UNIV 381 and is one of five faculty members teaching it this fall. She noted that the course has the potential to engage students in critical thinking with a goal of learning not to respond to others judgmentally but instead to understand others’ experiences and what they are trying say about them.

“I hope students emerge with the foundational knowledge, vocabulary and skills to connect across differences and to set their intentions on how to build on those foundations,” said Cattaneo, who co-chaired the Task Force’s Curriculum and Pedagogy Committee. “That mental shift is so important to learn. I want students to learn how in the past people have moved the levers of change to shift the ways society functions, to learn from examples current or historic about how changes happen, and then decide where they want to go with their new understanding.”

The course begins with basic civic questions: What do we mean by a just society? And what gets in the way of its realization? From there, students delve into their own experiences, address their personal identities, and define words such as race and ethnicity. As the course progresses they will explore how these concepts are related, how people perceive others on the basis of race or ethnicity, and how this impacts their own identities.

Shauna Rigaud, a PhD candidate in the Cultural Studies Program and the course’s curriculum supporter and instructor, said UNIV 381 will help promote campus diversity because it will provide students with a foundation for understanding race, ethnicity, gender, and social class.

“The class will allow students the opportunity to have difficult conversations with each other,” said Rigaud, who also served on the Curriculum and Pedagogy Committee. It’s an opportunity to apply what they understand to parts of our world, society, and then provides them with the bedrock to think critically about that as they go on into their fields of training.”

“With the help of this course, Mason will create a generation that not only appreciates diversity but works hand-in-hand to combat the issue of racism,” Osman said.