John R. Lewis College: Providing the tools to stand up against injustice and create change

John R. Lewis College students take on social justice issues while pushing for positive growth and progress in society

Provost Flora Lu
College Nine and John R. Lewis College Provost Flora Lu.
College Ten residential halls
John R. Lewis College residential halls.
Mural by artist Joann Moreira
This mural, created by Joann Moreira (John R. Lewis College '18, psychology and business management economics), brings together various words to represent the social justice theme explored at John R. Lewis College.

John R. Lewis College students believe in speaking up and taking action.

They do not back down from difficult topics that some people would rather not discuss, but instead engage in open dialogues about the most pressing social injustices of our time, including racism, poverty, and violence. 

These young scholars don’t just “talk it out”—they also believe that educating themselves and taking action is the only way to make change. 

“Our students are so passionate,” said College Nine and John R. Lewis College CoCurricular Programs Coordinator Erin Ramsden. “They are willing to stand up for what they believe in. Because of the focus on community, this passion is not isolating. Instead, students are focused on educating each other in compassionate and understanding ways that value relationships.” 

A culture of social activism 

Located at the heart of campus, John R. Lewis College backs up to a tranquil redwood forest, with access to mountain biking, hiking, and jogging trails.

Although John R. Lewis College is the newest addition to the UC Santa Cruz residential college system, its vibrant and passionate student culture does not go unrecognized. John R. Lewis College students are an active group, incorporating the motto, “Justice for all,” in both their academic and personal lives.

Students appreciate the campus’s longstanding tradition of multidisciplinary thinking and problem solving. John R. Lewis College affiliates take courses outside of their fields of study to further their knowledge and perspectives. They also learn the value of a nurturing community that encourages open dialogue in and out of the classroom. 

Many students find this blend of community, activism, and critical analysis inspiring. Recent graduate Jon Coelho (John R. Lewis College ‘20, legal studies and politics) had such a positive and meaningful experience on the John R. Lewis College campus that he ended up living there for all four years of college. 

I found friends and community with similar interests that challenged me to engage in critical dialogues about society and history, supported me, and made me feel like I belonged,” Coelho said.

Involvement: A common denominator at John R. Lewis College

Social justice is part of the John R. Lewis College culture. Students can take advantage of events, programs, and organizations that embody this spirit, from Multicultural Weekend to Teaching Social Justice Workshop. 

Often, a curious student will attend an inspiring event that leads to a deeper involvement with campus initiatives and organizations. 

Annika Duquet (John R. Lewis College ‘21, psychology, education minor) found her inspiration at the Multicultural Community Weekend (MCW), which celebrates the diverse backgrounds of community members. The two-day event helped Duquet find her footing at John R. Lewis College. 

Eager to engage with the college community, she started planning and facilitating events for the CoCurricular Programs Office (CoCo), an organization created by College Nine and John R. Lewis College to foster students’ exploration of both colleges’ themes through experiential learning.

“I was able to connect with others in the John R. Lewis College community, make lasting friendships, and put myself in the shoes of other people to learn from their experiences,” Duquet said.

Social justice training

At John R. Lewis College, interested students can receive on-the-ground training that helps them become effective social activists. The Students for Social Justice (S4SJ) organization explores social justice issues while building community and leadership skills. Through activities, discussions, and events, participants learn to identify and combat injustice.

Similar to the goals behind S4SJ, the Teaching for Social Justice Workshop brings students together in small cohorts to explore the themes of John R. Lewis College and learn how to deepen their community involvement. 

Students also have a chance to volunteer their services through PRAXIS, a club for students to participate in community volunteer work, housed under the Apprenticeship in Community-Engaged Research [(H)ACER] program. 

PRAXIS students undertake day-long service efforts with local nonprofit organizations, such as Second Harvest Food Bank, Santa Cruz Homeless Services Center, and Habitat for Humanity, to name a few.

Students also have a socially conscious alternative to getting sunburned on some overcrowded beach during spring break. Instead, they can choose an “Alternative Spring Break” (ASB)—another program housed under the efforts of (H)ACER—where they work with local organizations centered on educational equity and environmental and economic justice in Watsonville.

During the winter quarter, ASB students attend a panel of Watsonville leaders and a retreat to learn about social justice issues and ways to bring about social change. For five days during spring break, students engage in a variety of activities, from gardening at Calabasas Elementary School to painting a mural and cooking alongside food entrepreneurs at the El Pajaro CDC’s Community Kitchen Incubator.

During fall and spring quarters, the (H)ACER program offers a unique experience for students to work in an after school, community garden-based enrichment program, where they facilitate activities with third, fourth, and fifth graders at Calabasas Elementary School in Watsonville. 

Additionally, the (H)ACER program offers a suite of classes to undergraduates that focus on critical service learning and community-engaged research methodologies. 

Classroom-assisted activism

John R. Lewis College courses provide a rich context for student activism. Flora Lu, college provost, Pepper-Giberson chair, and professor of environmental studies, co-developed one of those essential courses, Transcommunal Peace Making, which offered undergraduates an extraordinary learning opportunity. 

“Drawing on the scholarship of Professor Emeritus John Brown Childs and the efforts of Barrios Unidos, the course brought UCSC undergraduates to Soledad Prison to learn with and from incarcerated men who have committed themselves to non-violence and social justice. Students at UCSC and Soledad did the same readings—which included the writings of MLK Jr. and Indigenous philosophy—and met multiple times during the quarter to discuss the readings and share their individual experiences,” Lu said. 

“Courses like this, which bring together faculty and students from across the campus to partner with nonprofits and institutions, represent the kind of innovative learning experiences that are the forte of John R. Lewis College,” she continued.

John R. Lewis College students collectively embody the inclusive, empathetic, and change-agent mindset needed to make great strides in fighting social injustice at home and abroad.

“Our students teach and hold us accountable to not only the concept of social justice, but any movement or issue," said Sarah Woodside Bury, Colleges Nine and John R. Lewis College senior director for college student life. "We are constantly learning and growing along with them, and through that iterative process, we are trying to even more truly and fully embody our theme.”