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Course Spotlight – Advocacy in Action

By Dr. Sara Fry - Course Instructor

Sara Fry

Advocacy in Action is designed as a culminating learning experience for students earning Boise State’s Certificate in Human Rights. The course has an experiential component, where students contribute to social impact advocacy campaigns, and develop relevant skills, while exploring various strategies, actions, personal attributes, external factors, bridge-building tactics, and local community elements that are involved in advocacy work. The vision is for the course to be a capstone that students take after completing other courses in the certificate program. However, with the certificate being new to Boise State in 2019, when I had the opportunity to develop and teach it, I knew that there had to be flexibility in the design because it might be a few semesters before all of the students taking it have completed their other certificate coursework. And, realistically, there will always be students interested in the Certificate whose schedule will require them to take courses out of sequence.

My experience with Advocacy in Action is a reflection of the great qualities Boise State has that have led to Top 50 accolades for innovation. I’m a faculty member in the College of Education, and I got to develop a new course for a new program that is housed in the School of Public Service. I also got to collaborate with the first director of the Shuler Human Rights Initiative, history Professor Jill Gill, in developing the course. I received incredible support – including the chance to audit Professor Gill’s inaugural teaching of another new, required course in the Certificate: History 331 – Human Rights Past and Present. We met numerous times to create a shared vision for how the Advocacy course could reinforce and build on learning from Human Rights Past and Present. My hope was to design the course with a lot of detail and clarity so that other faculty who would one day teach the course could use my design as a starting point and enrich the course with their own knowledge and expertise. I have worked in higher education since 2001, and this is the first time I have had an opportunity for so much support when creating something new.

Professor Gill and I also participated in a webinar series with educators from across the country who were already teaching similar courses. The faculty involved were an amazingly generous group who shared syllabi and assignment details. One of the most rewarding assignments in the course came directly from the webinar – I ask students to find a recent news story about a human rights victory that gives them hope. It needs to be some sort of victory brought about by a group or organization, not some individual action, or simply a good decision by a government body, judge, politician, etc. Students are asked to prepare a two minute oral presentation to class; the time guideline was meant to keep the assignment relatively short so they could feel like they were practicing the oral communications advocates use and feel more confident for a higher stakes assignment at the end of the semester. Instead, almost without exception, students went far longer because they selected human rights issues that matter deeply to them.

The semester I was developing the course, fall 2019, I also was participating in a Faculty Learning Community that focused on supporting success for all students. The readings and discussions led me to design the course in ways that, I hoped, would remove barriers. One author who influenced me greatly is Catherine Denial, who described how she transformed her teaching to focus on believing students and believing in them. The latter means viewing students as potential collaborators, with “valuable contributions to make to the way in which syllabi, assignments, and assessments are designed, and life experiences that should be respected in the classroom.” For Denial, believing students includes flexibility in attendance and deadlines, choosing to take the small risk that some will take advantage of her flexibility instead of the certainty of making “life more difficult for my students struggling with grief and illness, or even an over-packed schedule or faulty electronics. It costs me nothing to be kind.” Her work influenced my approach greatly, and the timing could not have been better.

My first time teaching Advocacy in Action was spring 2020, and partway through the semester, COVID-19 transformed everything. One of my students worked at an essential business, and one of our class meeting times overlapped with when delivery trucks came to her workplace. She was asked to work because there were not enough staff members to help unload the trucks. When she told me this I remember saying, “I can think of no better reason to miss class—there might be toilet paper on those trucks!” In classes I taught prior to Advocacy in Action, and before reading Denial’s work, my expectations for attendance were irrelevant in a learning environment transformed by a global pandemic.

Advocacy in Action is the first time I included family-friendly syllabus language, inspired by Melissa Cheyney. I expanded the language to include care-giving students, a decision that was influenced by knowledge that one in four Millennials serve in a care-giving role for an adult family member and more than half of those young care-givers are African American/Black, Hispanic/Latinx, or Asian American/Pacific Islanders. Every semester I have taught SPS 331, I have had parenting students. One  told me that the language made a huge difference because she felt empowered to bring her children to class the one time she needed to instead of asking permission and trying to negotiate.

Another aspect of the course that has been deeply impactful for students in conversations with Guest Advocates. Each semester, people actively engaged in human rights advocacy have joined the class to share their motivations and journeys to a career that involves advocacy. From local community members like Senator Cherie Buckner-Webb and Phillip Thompson to Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Jody Williams, these guests share their various approaches to advocating for social change, including the tactics and strategies they use to work toward their goals.  All contributed their time, knowledge, and provided compelling insights into their work. One of the students’ favorite questions to ask has been about self-care – insights into how advocates persevere through set-backs reminded us all of the importance of balance and health. I always took notes using the same guiding prompts I provide students so that I can learn along with them as our guests share their unique insights and experiences and support students in making connections to other course experience.

Advocacy in Action will continue to grow and evolve. Professor Lisa Meierotto will teach the course in spring 2022, bringing her talents and knowledge to the design. At the center of the course will remain skill development and experiences that help Boise State students build their capacity to advance human rights. And for Professor Meierotto and any other faculty who get to teach the course, I wish them a spirit of inquiry and learning so they may experience the same gifts I have enjoyed in designing and teaching the course. Learning from and with students about advocacy has allowed me to deepen my own skills, knowledge, and commitments to human rights.