Seton Hall University

High school students, educators and Seton Hall faculty convened at the “Be the Change Makers” conference hosted by the Center for Community Research and Engagement.

High school students from six cities in New York and New Jersey convened at Seton Hall University to take part in “Be the Change Makers,” a teen social entrepreneurship conference that focuses on empowering area youth to find solutions to societal problems.

All together 155 students came from Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, East Orange, Paterson and Newark to Seton Hall’s South Orange, New Jersey campus for a day of instruction and inspiration.

The initiative was hosted by Seton Hall’s Center for Community Research and Engagement (CCRE) and led by its Community Practitioner in Residence, Jamila T. Davis.

“A change maker is someone who makes things happen for society, for community,” said Davis. “They see something wrong and they roll up their sleeves and get to fixing it. That’s what this conference is about: teaching young people how they can be a part of innovative initiatives and businesses that can create social change now.”

Professor Juan Rios, director of Seton Hall’s Master of Social Work program, led the students on a tour of campus. For many students it was the first time they had been to a college and for some, the first in their families to do so. “Part of implementing social change involves personal empowerment and an experience of possibilities,” said Rios, himself a first generation college student. “And I know from experience that it’s hard to imagine possibilities that no one you know has experienced. This day was about manifesting possibilities – and for a good many of these kids college is one of them.”

Within the Change Maker program, students were led through exercises designed to allow them to discover their purpose, identify and explore issues that concern them and were taught how to tap into local resources and create and launch an effective social campaign that can impact the world – something that area high school students working in Seton Hall led programs have experienced.

Working with Jamila Davis and Professor Juan Rios in the East Orange Summer Work Experience Program, high school students last year won Best Documentary at the Newark International Film Festival with their student short, “Beyond the Barrel: An East Orange Story.” The students’ documentary, which turned a spotlight on the after effects and personal impact of gun violence, delved into the deep-rooted loss that students felt when a gun was turned on family, friends and even a teacher.

The year before, East Orange students in the same program made international news with their peaceful protest demanding justice before the law for an unarmed Black man shot by the New Jersey State Police.

Angelo Pinto, Esq., activist in residence at the Yale School of Public Health, gave students a lesson in social justice campaigns designed to show them the inner workings of effective initiatives. He used the success of the East Orange students as an example as well as his own work with Until Freedom, an organization dedicated to civil rights which he co-founded. Until Freedom led strategic planning around organizational engagement in the George Floyd uprisings and provided key thought leadership, assistance and mobilization around the passage of legislation during the Justice for Breonna Taylor Campaign.

“It’s no wonder that Yale asked me to come and replicate the work we’ve been doing here at Seton Hall and within the community,” said Pinto. “We’re entering our third year here and the progress is palpable. The students come to class now knowing that they too can have impact, knowing that their voices can be heard. It’s nothing short of enfranchisement— and in a democratic society, there may be nothing more important.”

CCRE Director Timothy Hoffman, Jamila T. Davis, Angelo Pinto, Esq. and East Orange high school student Nneze Eze during Seton Hall’s “Be the Change Makers” conference.

This conference at Seton Hall is part of a larger initiative that has brought community members – both youth and adults – together with professors, elected officials, organizers, activists, and other community stakeholders, to solve societal ills and has included a number of presentations by civil rights icons and a Social Justice Certificate Program. Co-led by Professor Juan Rios and Jamila T. Davis, the Social Justice Certificate program is a collaboration between the Center for Community Research and Engagement, the South Orange Community Care & Justice program and Newark’s Office of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery.

Timothy Hoffman, director of CCRE, has worked to shepherd these programs at the University. “With the help of Dr. Jamila Davis, Professor Juan Rios and Angelo Pinto, the Center for Community Research and Engagement has reached further into the community to enact our mission,” said Hoffman. “Civic engagement and social justice are cornerstones of a fair and equitable society and the University is pleased to be working with our community stakeholders to empower voice and solutions in the next generation of leaders. As Jamila Davis always says, ‘the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution.’ Seton Hall is happy to bring those closest to the problems the insights and tools necessary to help fix what needs to be fixed.”

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