Diversity

SPU’s “Justice Speaks!” leadership event: Pausing to reflect, listen, and share

Selamawit Bariamichael '11, a science teacher at Seattle Urban Academy, one of many young alumni guest speakers.

In the spring of 2017, Seattle Pacific held the first Justice Speaks!: a leadership event for high school and college students. Hosted by SPU’s John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development, the event created space for students to experience their motivations for social justice, and help foster their ability to engage and impact their communities.

Ashanti Ilek (center) responds to a question.
Senior Ashanti Ilek (center) shares her response to facilitator Dar Paet’s (left) question “Where are you?”

“Where are you?”

My initial responses to this inquiry, posed by our breakout session leader, seemed only to be more questions:

“Did he mean where am I in life?”

“With my career?”

“With my spiritual journey?”

“With my skin color?”

“Is this a trick question?”

“Do you mean geographically?”

My brain must have run through countless other questions and thoughts. I don’t think I was the only one hesitant to answer this question, because no one in our breakout group seemed ready to speak up … let alone look up from their hands.

I had been looking forward to this conference for a while, and since it was the first of its kind at SPU, I didn’t know what to expect. As an introvert, I spent the week leading up to this event mentally and emotionally preparing for the “unexpected.”

Emmanuel Mancilla '13 addresses students at Justice Speaks!
SPU alumnus Emmanuel Mancilla ’13, a teacher and post-high school transition coordinator at Seattle Urban Academy, shares about justice and faith.

From a college student’s point of view, the “unexpected” may often just be a blanket term for funky games that require participation for a certain point to be made, or oddly framed questions, whose answers point to some larger, philosophical question that makes us all think about life in a new light. This is typically what happens in the classes I’ve taken, and at the conferences and lectures I have been to. In my mind, I was ready for this conference, and yet, this question threw me.

Perhaps it threw me was because I truly enjoy these types of questions — ones that require us to pause — but I am usually the one asking them. Or maybe it threw me because this question could lead to rich conversation, which I didn’t expect to have with these strangers at this conference.

“Where are you?” doesn’t have a particular answer that is expected of the questioned. It is a conversational question similar to “How are you?” or maybe even “Why are you?” It’s a short, three-word, question without hard boundaries an answer must stay within. The question wasn’t “Where are you on the political spectrum?” or “Where are you and your people from geographically in the world?”

Senior TJ Sawyer talks with other students in a group discussion at Justice Speaks!
Senior TJ Sawyer, who performed a spoken word piece during Justice Speaks!, shares during a group discussion.

Being more of an open introvert, I didn’t know how vulnerable to get with my answer to this question. After some moments of silence, our breakout session leader explained this question’s significance to him.

“‘Where are you?’ is the first question that God asks Adam and Eve in Scripture. Some people think it reveals the ignorance of God, but I think that God, being relational, asked this of Adam and Eve to get them to speak to what had happened in their relationship with God, from their creation to the Fall. So, where are you? In relation to things? To people? To God? To yourself?”

One at a time, people in my group began to open up windows into their lives — sharing stories about discoveries, struggle, confusion, and frustrations — while others spoke into the lives seated in our circle of chairs: encouraging, challenging, and lifting people up.

Many times, both arranged and spontaneously, I engaged in meaningful conversation with people I wasn’t familiar with. I didn’t expect to hear as many stories as I did in those two days, nor did I expect to be heard, affirmed, and lifted.

I didn’t expect intimacy to be had at this conference.

Yet, this was exactly how Justice Speaks! was for me. It wasn’t merely a gathering for people to come, take, and leave. I don’t believe it was geared that way. The conference was more of a pause. Time stopped enough for community leaders, SPU alumni, and students to come together to share music, poetry, realities, questions and truths.

Coming back to the question of my breakout session, the question that leaves us with much upon which to reflect: Where are you? Where are you in your life? With regard to your community? Where are you in relation to God?

Ashanti Ilek is a third-year student at SPU majoring in political science.

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