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Turn Bystanders into Upstanders with Social Justice Teamwork

How a semester of civic engagement helps passive students discover social justice and their power to effect positive change in our world.


Katy Oliveira, MA

Adjunct Professor, School of Arts & Humanities, St. Edward’s University

MA in History with certificates in Women’s Studies and Public History, BA in History, minor in Classics

Founder of Collegehood Advice podcast

Katy Oliveira, MA, recalls getting a letter from a student who had taken her American Dilemmas class, which is a sophomore-level course in the Cultural Foundations curriculum at St. Edward’s University. This liberal arts institution in Austin, Texas, has a large population of relatively affluent students.

“The student is African-American; a lesbian; [and] from a lower-income, single-parent home,” Oliveira says. “She had to work really hard to afford college. She wrote to tell me how impactful the class was. She hadn’t realized that there were systemic reasons behind her own individual experience. When we were talking about issues around race and gender and class—accessing work and accessing opportunity—she could see her own life being played out. [She learned] that there were [existing barriers that were] separate from personal choices she and her family had made.”

The student involved herself with an organization called Any Baby Can, which assists children and families in Central Texas by providing parenting classes, childcare support, and other services related to early child development. She observed, firsthand, the effect that the organization had on clients experiencing inequality, as well as issues related to gender and sexuality.

The following summer, the student (a social science major) decided to apply to research programs in public health. In her application essays, she credited Oliveira’s class for altering her life path toward work aimed at reducing the barriers to quality public healthcare.

Challenge: Students feel like bystanders in society

Oliveira believes it is the mission of the American Dilemmas course to teach social justice, including such concepts as class, inequality, sexual identity, and power dynamics. One of her concerns, she says, is that most students do not realize that they are capable of making an impact.

“Often, students see themselves as passive bystanders to what’s happening around them, and they don’t feel important enough to actually do things,” she explains. “I believe everyone has the power to make his or her college experience better. And students don’t have to see injustice and inequality and just accept it. They have agency; they can do something, even if it’s something small, to change the world. But the only way to know that is through firsthand experience: by getting to know someone who is affected by inequality, [seeking out] people who are working to alleviate [their problems], and getting involved personally.”

Innovation: Requiring students to become “upstanders”

In previous versions of the American Dilemmas course, the curriculum was more conventional and writing-intensive. Oliveira was on the committee that developed the civic engagement version of the course, which she hoped would address her concerns about students’ lack of hands-on experience as influencers of social justice. In fact, Oliveira was one of the first professors to incorporate civic engagement into the class. Her innovation was to instruct each student to select a disenfranchised social group, then team up with other students interested in helping that group make forward strides toward social justice.

“My objective for the class is to make it as experiential as possible, and to use it as a tool to teach students that they don’t have to just accept inequality,” says Oliveira. “They are empowered to change things.”


Course: CULF 2321 American Dilemmas
Frequency: 75-minute sessions, twice per week
Class size: 20
Course description: This course presents the principles and methods of sociology, as well as those of political science and economics, to analyze current social problems. It is complementary to The American Experience (CULF 1320) in that it continues the theme of social pluralism and consideration of social and political ideals as it explores the problems and issues our society faces in the present. Class discussions and assignments are structured to encourage students to address the meaning of individual and public responsibility as well as to define the common good. The importance of identifying conflicting values in defining social problems and their solutions is an integral part of this course.
In her words: “The course is intended to provide myth-busting context and information about the power structure, privilege, and inequality in the United States through the lens of social justice, and to teach students that they have the power to change those features of the society. I try to teach them how to effect positive change.”

CULF 2321 American Dilemmas

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Lesson: The Civic Engagement Assignment

Each semester, St. Edward’s encourages students to complete 15–30 hours of civic engagement and requires 20 pages of writing on social justice topics. The faculty are given full discretion on how to help students reach these goals. Instructors share their techniques, and students take advantage of the university’s extensive relationships with organizations in the community.

In Oliveira’s American Dilemmas course, The Civic Engagement Assignment is the experiential component, and it meets both of these criteria.

Here is how she brings students from the headspace of being a bystander to that of an adult who believes in his or her power to influence change.

Empower students to choose their “cause”

Rather than having all students work on one topic at the same time, Oliveria asks each person to research a social group that is experiencing inequality due to gender, race, sexuality, or other factors. “Part of our goal in this course is to develop a critical approach to exploring dilemmas within our own communities,” says Oliveira in the written guidelines for the assignment. “As such, it is crucial for you to engage with this project deeply from the beginning. You are responsible for selecting an opportunity that aligns with your interests and your values, which means that you should research before you carefully select an opportunity.”

Group students on “cause-based” teams

Next, Oliveira creates student teams based on the social group that each person wants to help. Together, the team members will select and volunteer at a local organization that is already working toward social justice for that group. Each student spends at least 20 hours engaged in this service work. According to Oliveira’s written guidelines, “The goal is to take what you have learned about contemporary social problems and issues of social justice and put your knowledge into action by helping solve a problem about which you care deeply.”

Have students journal about their observations

Throughout their time volunteering at the organization, students keep a journal about all aspects of their experience. To ensure that the entries are meaningful and useful, Oliveira provides detailed prompts, such as:

In this journal, in addition to describing your work at the organization, consider how effective the organization is. How effective is the organization at solving the related social problems? What resources would the organization benefit from having? Does the organization effectively use the resources it has available? What improvements could be made? How have your experiences working with the organization reflected or challenged what you’ve learned in class, specifically in terms of solving social problems?

Encourage students to generate their own solutions

During the time that students are completing their volunteer work, their team is jointly researching the social justice issue addressed by the organization they joined. At the end of the course, each group creates a written Issue Guide, which is an illustrated report that encapsulates the entire semester’s learning. “The Guide is really the culmination of the group’s work over the course of the semester,” Oliveira explains. Afterward, students engage in a class-wide, end-of-semester roundtable discussion, with each team presenting their topic, sharing their observations, defending their reflections, and—possibly—brainstorming ways that the system could be improved.


American Dilemmas is a course with an undeniable, progressive viewpoint, with which some students take exception. However, at St. Edward’s University, a Catholic institution, social justice is conveyed as an underlying principle, separate from any specific class.

The course can be taught either through the study of legislation or through civic engagement. Oliveira has taught it both ways; she prefers the civic engagement approach, with a focus on bringing people together to confront issues without necessarily expressing a political agenda.

“When the focus is on the legislative process, you can get bogged down in the politics of passing legislation, and it’s harder to focus on human problem-solving,” she says. “Using whole-class civic engagement, it actually is easier to separate from the politics. I try to keep the class as apolitical as possible, so students won’t see [it as their instructor] pushing a specific agenda. But I can’t win them all.”


American Dilemmas offers students from difficult backgrounds an insight into the larger causes, as seen in the student story at the beginning of this article. For those who come from more affluent, stable households, who have never received social services and haven’t experienced the worst of racial, gender, or income inequality, the course provides what may be their first face-to-face exposure to these issues.

“It may give them their first opportunity to see the difference between charity and advocacy,” Oliveira says.

One change that Oliveira has made is in allowing students more freedom of choice. In the past, she has sometimes suggested that all the groups share a common theme. One semester, all the projects came under the heading of food insecurity, though each student team focused on a different aspect of that. However, her most recent iteration gives students more leeway in selecting a group that matters to them, which she believes makes it more likely that they will continue their civic engagement even after the course is completed.

Student feedback

Oliveira shares these quotes from students who have taken her American Dilemmas course:

“The civic engagement was rewarding and taught me more about my community and the world.”

“The content of the course is something everyone should experience and prof. Oliveira was one of the best professors to do it.”

“This course was really effective. I never came to class dreading it, even though it was an 8 am. I knew I was going to learn and Professor Oliveira always made me feel welcome and in a safe environment. I really appreciate the way she conducted the course and assignments. Best professor, hands down.”

“I really enjoyed the class, although occasionally I left the class emotionally drained because of the topics we were discussing and their importance.”

“I loved this class! The discussion based classroom really helped me understand and go in depth into our topics. It was really nice to discuss gritty topics in a safe environment and the discussions were facilitated really well by Katy. She is an amazing professor and this class really made me think about these big issues.”

“Overall, I had an extremely rewarding experience throughout the course. I was able to apply what I learned.”

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