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Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies

Students Promote Social Change and Conflict Resolution

​​​Mindful Activism Course

DePaul alum Raika Nuñez remembers when she first came to DePaul from Bryn Athyn, a suburb of Philadelphia. She had been involved in various community service activities in high school, but was unaware of DePaul’s Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies (PAX) degree.

"When I learned more about it, I knew it was what I was looking for,” she says.  Nuñez, who double majored in PAX and relational communications, had service learning experiences that exposed her to diverse Chicago communities and led to her academic focus on racial conflict.

...the program appeals to many students who are already
engaged in social issues.

The PAX program at DePaul aims to provide students like Nuñez with the skills that help them reflect on the origins and causes of violence and introduces them to non-violent approaches to social change and the resolution of conflict. The program has more than 80 majors and over 130 students, including students who are minoring in PAX.

Professor Mary Jeanne Larrabee, director of  PAX and a professor of philosophy, says the program appeals to many students who are already engaged in social issues. “On the whole, I’ve found that students who become PAX majors are practical-minded people,” she says. “They are idealists who are able to create a path for themselves, step by step.”

Professor Susana Martinez, incoming director of PAX and a professor of modern languages, has a long career working with students in activism around issues of human rights and immigration.  She notes, "it’s so exciting to see how the service learning experience prompts students to ask important questions about social justice and what they can do to create change." A veteran service learning professor in both Modern Languages and PAX, Martinez brings to the role years of international experience traveling with students to Colombia for a peace-building conference, as part of a human rights delegation to Honduras after the 2009 coup, and as director of social justice-oriented study abroad programs in El Salvador and Mexico.

PAX is filled with faculty like Martinez, instructors who model for their students what it takes to create positive social change.  Professor Ken Butigan who has worked as a social movement organizer since the 1980s states, “our students reflect on their vision, direction, values and skills – and where they really want to go.  The skills you learn in PAX classes fill a toolbox for students.  They learn about communication, how to understand particular environments and issues.  We need these skills, and if the right opportunity doesn’t exist for you – you can create it.  I see this work as incredibly necessary. Our job is not only to be reacting, but to build structures and methods to support this work.”  Butigan recalls taking students to see the violence prevention program CeaseFire. “The people there were unflappable – they were simply going to keep at this work, one step at a time,” he says. “My students were moved by that.”

DePaul students have worked with a wide range of community partners through a partnership between PAX and the Steans Center.  In Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation works directly with youth, providing a safe place for males between the ages of 14-24 who are vulnerable to violent conditions in their neighborhoods. Precious Blood “is definitely working on peace and justice issues. We get together with young men in our program and talk about the issues they face in their community like poverty, racism and police brutality,” says Donna Liette, a restorative justice practitioner with the organization. “Most of all, these young men really need to belong,”

Liette adds that “when DePaul students in the PAX program come to our program, it gives young people we work with the chance to engage with someone who is very different – and for our kids to see a college student actually caring about them.” One DePaul student, she says, traveled with participants in the program to a college visit in Indiana and  also engaged with them on art, sports and other activities. “It has been a wonderful experience on both sides,” she says.

In the Uptown neighborhood on the city’s north side, RefugeeOne works to create opportunities for refugees.  Jan Douglas, director of human resources for the organization, says PAX students have typically worked two days a week with the human resources department – and often later gain experience in employment, development or case management and immigration programs at the agency.  “We had a student here who filled in as a receptionist at a time when we had an unprecedented number of refugees arriving.  He answered phones, dealt with clients as they came in and was just enormously helpful.  He got to observe our entire process and helped people from Syria, Iraq and various African nations.”

DePaul student Laura Clark majored in Intercultural Communications but took PAX courses while employed at an after-school literacy mentoring program for youth experiencing homelessness at Chicago Hopes for Kids. Through the program, she worked with students in the PAX program who did service learning at the organization. “Students were so dedicated  - they were very energetic and formed great relationships with kindergarten through fifth grade students served by the program. She identified an advantage of the PAX program: “People who  come grounded with knowledge about social justice issues are better capable of understanding the context of the lives of our students,” she says. “They’ve learned something in the program about what it means to be in a marginalized community.”

Hillary Hitt graduated from DePaul in 2015 and majored in PAX, Anthropology and Spanish.  She says the PAX major can “take many branches of liberal arts and help you analyze international conflict, nonviolence intervention and history.”  All PAX students are required to take an internship course and in Hitt's case, she applied for the McCormick Community Internship Program and was funded to intern with the Chicago Innocence Center.

Through the PAX major, I’ve learned hands-on ways to do education and research,
and to analyze issues.

The Center  explores and exposes possible wrongful convictions and Hitt worked as an investigative journalist for the Center. “It was a great opportunity to develop hands-on skills,” she says. “You start putting together the puzzle of cases and learn multiple perspectives.  I wouldn’t have been able to do this without my PAX degree, and I continued it for months after I graduated.”

Hitt says that she learned skills in the PAX program that have helped her understand social issues. “Through the PAX major, I’ve learned hands-on ways to do education and research, and to analyze issues,” she says. “I’ve learned how to deconstruct big issues, like the prison-industrial complex.”  Hitt went on to become the program director for the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms, which seeks racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession by collaborating with its law firm and corporate membership.  She says there are many ways for students with PAX majors to be “successful and socially conscious.  With this degree, you have knowledge and experience that can make a difference in many settings.”

“I think the PAX program gives students a way to rethink the world in which they live,” says Olivia Steuben,  another DePaul alum.  Steuben came to DePaul from Tennessee and first learned about PAX after taking a class on nonviolence through DePaul's First Year Program.  She went on to double major in PAX and International Studies. “It presents a great space to learn how to handle issues, deal with conflict and manage things in a way you can’t get from other majors.”  In one course, she recalls, “we acted out an issue with our classmates and learned how to communicate in the most effective manner to de-escalate and resolve conflicts in ways that can be sustainable,”

Steuben completed her internship at the Scalabrini Centre in Capetown, South Africa, where she led a course on computer literacy and taught English once a week.  The Centre’s clients, she says, were primarily asylum seekers from throughout the African continent.  “Probably the most powerful thing for me was to see how eager the women I worked with were to learn and make South Africa their home – because they had no home. They were adamant about diving into anything that could give them a leg up."

As she looks to the future, Steuben says she would “love to do international development  work” and is also considering graduate schools. “I’ve learned that opportunities are wide and broad – you can do a multitude of things with the PAX major.”

Raika Nuñez says service learning experiences through PAX were “super-eye-opening and helpful to see how community issues look in real time – and then be able to come back and share an experience or ask questions of my classmates.”  She says the PAX program helped “open me up to things I could be doing in Chicago and other parts of the world.  The program has taught me about social change and approaches to conflict resolution. I have learned that conflict is everywhere – and every system needs people who can help resolve it.”