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‘Leading Social Change’ asks students to explore the ‘One Big Thing’ they want to change in the world

March 17, 2022

In this pathbreaking course, students immerse themselves in strategy and storytelling to change the world.

In the innovative and interdisciplinary course “Leading Social Change,” University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School students identify the “One Big Thing” that they would like to change about the world. Over the semester, Lecturers in Law Benjamin Jealous and Dr. Ariel Schwartz help them to create a plan to achieve their goal.

Lecturer in Law Benjamin Jealous Lecturer in Law Benjamin Jealous“I have spent a lot of time listening to litigators who are frustrated by their inability to change the world as fast as they had hoped,” said Jealous, who is the president of People For the American Way and the former President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “One of the gifts we try to give students in this class is an understanding of who they are, what big change they really want to see in the world, and what options they have for achieving that change beyond litigation so that, even if they become litigators, they are more clear about what they are trying to achieve and more grounded as a leader in what it’s really going to take from them, as a human, to keep showing up and making that change happen.”

When Jocelyn Walcott L’22, GEd’22 enrolled in the course, her One Big Thing reflected an interdisciplinary focus in both law and education policy: to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that guarantees excellent public education.

“As a dual JD/MSEd in Education Policy candidate who is passionate about education equity, it was incredible to apply the ‘Leading Social Change’ coursework to an education law issue throughout the semester,” Walcott said. “Professors Jealous and Schwartz challenged me to merge what I have learned about U.S. law and education with social impact strategies. After taking this course, I understand how social movements can bolster legal reform. Many students come to law school with social justice goals, and this course provides the tools to reach these goals”.

Strategizing to change the world

Prior to teaching this course, Jealous and Schwartz co-taught a course on social entrepreneurship; however, in the current iteration of teaching students to become changemakers, they have condensed the social entrepreneurship aspect to allow time to discuss additional strategies for running for office and organizing behind a cause. Unsurprisingly, the syllabus for “Leading Social Change” is packed – students read approximately one book a week to prepare for dynamic discussions about leadership and change-making.

With over 30 years’ experience organizing for civil rights across the country, Jealous underscored that scalability is of the utmost importance when planning a change-making strategy.

“Leaders have a responsibility to fix real problems for real people in real time. People are really suffering,” said Jealous. “Leaders also have a responsibility to do that at scale — to help as many people as they possibly can — so we teach the methods that are the most scalable.”

For Walcott, learning how to tackle social issues from instructors with real lived experience making change was highly valuable; she feels this will help her be more effective in effecting the changes she wants to see in education policy.

“When it comes to approaching social issues, a good cause and good intentions only go so far without an effective strategy,” Walcott said. “Professor Jealous’s experiences provided insight into the engineering and stamina that social change requires.”

Lecturer in Law Dr. Ariel Schwartz Lecturer in Law Dr. Ariel SchwartzPursuing large-scale societal change is often a distinctly personal mission, and figuring out the unique career path necessary to make that change can be a challenge. In addition to co-lecturing with Jealous at the Law School, Schwartz is the Managing Director at the Center for Social Impact Strategy at the School of Social Policy and Practice, where she regularly works with changemakers in the nonprofit sector. Recognizing the pressures involved in breaking into change-making spaces, Schwartz emphasized the importance of unpacking which kinds of leadership spaces students aim to occupy and how they might go about entering those spaces as “whole humans.”

“Students express a lot of tension between the hope that they can show up to work as a whole human and the reality that they have never been offered that expectation at school or in the cultural understanding of the profession,” said Schwartz. “I think that COVID has helped universities acknowledge that whatever’s going on in students’ personal lives is not really something they can take off like a hat. That’s just not realistic. That tangle of, ‘How do I show up as a real person but not transgress the boundaries or rules or norms of the setting that I’m operating in? How do I make change but not endanger myself?’ is really hard.”

Learning through listening

Jealous emphasizes the importance of storytelling in social justice change-making through a story about his 105-year-old grandmother, who has used her own background in social work to mentor other changemakers in the field.

“My grandmother, who graduated from Penn’s Social Work program in 1953, raised me on a diet of her stories fighting entrenched power structures and building new government programs… . She taught young leaders to change the world by telling them stories about how she and others changed the world before them, in the way that military academies tell future military officers the stories of great battles,” Jealous said. “Her theory wasn’t, ‘This is the way that you will change the world’ but instead, ‘You will be more successful changing the world if you understand how we won the battles that we won and why we lost the battles that we lost.’”

Each class session includes a visit from a guest speaker, who discusses their personal journey toward changing their own “One Big Thing.” Notably, guest speakers in “Leading Social Change” do not shy away from topics such as struggles, failure, and transitions from one job to another; on the contrary, they focus on them.

“A lot of faculty will bring a guest speaker to class and the speaker will give a really formal presentation, but you never really get to find out ‘how the sausage is made,’” Schwartz said. “The folks who we bring to class talk about their experience with failure, vulnerability, and meandering career paths, which is an interesting, realistic way to articulate career paths for our students. You get a lot more honesty in these conversations than you get from a typical class in the profession.”

In addition to talking to the class as a group, guest speakers in the “Leading Social Change” classroom know that, by accepting the invitation, they are also opening themselves up to receiving follow-up emails from students in the class. Jealous noted that this is by design, as part of learning and growing as a leader is through building networks, both for professional development and personal mentorship.

Empowering tomorrow’s leaders

Both Jealous and Schwartz emphasized that, as much as the course is about imparting pragmatic leadership skills to students, it is also a course about empowering them to become leaders and encouraging them to live their lives in a way that centers their personal change-making mission.

“Having worked with some of the nation’s most talented lawyers for 30 years, I know that the sooner a young person has a vision for what their mission is and how to achieve it, the better off humanity is,” Jealous said. “The real privilege for me in training young leaders in this stage in life is the deep recognition that each of these young people was born for a reason. The faster we can help them figure out what that is and how they can achieve it at scale, the better of the rest of us will be.”

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