Explorations in Social Justice Conference Promotes Inclusion and Empowerment
September 26, 2023 — “Access and Ability” was the theme of this year’s Explorations in Social Justice conference, which drew hundreds of students last week to the Murray Student Center to help promote a more inclusive community at Marist. The annual conference began in 2019, and this year’s event was wider in scope than ever before.
"Access is a concept that goes far beyond the physical realm," said Dr. Edward Antonio, Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. "It encompasses not just the physical accessibility of spaces, but also the accessibility of opportunities, education, employment, and inclusion in our society. It is an integral part of social justice."
Dr. Antonio spoke in the Nelly Goletti Theatre to a standing-room-only audience consisting mostly of students as well as faculty and staff who had gathered to watch the screening of the film Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. The 2020 documentary centers on Camp Jened, a summer camp for teens with disabilities that helped to galvanize the disability rights movement in the 1970s.
The film Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is screened in the Nelly Goletti Theatre (photo by Nelson Echeverria/Marist College).
The screening was followed by a panel discussion about the film, and a full slate of workshops, discussion sessions, activities, and exhibitions highlighting the conference’s theme. Subjects of discussion included digital accessibility, advocacy and empowerment, and the representation of disability in comics.
One interactive portion of the conference featured a wheelchair scavenger hunt, in which non-disabled members of the Marist community were given various tasks around campus that they needed to complete while using a wheelchair and without assistance from others. The activity was facilitated by the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program in the School of Science. Before and after completing the scavenger hunt, participants were asked if they thought Marist was accessible for those with physical disabilities, and what sorts of challenges they found during the activity.
Alex Nicholas '27 taking part in the wheelchair scavenger hunt (photo by Nelson Echeverria/Marist College).
"What I found difficult was that the bathroom stall wasn't big enough. The wheelchair just couldn't fit," said Alex Nicholas '27, a business marketing major who took part. "Overall it was tiring. I had to take my sweatshirt off."
Kallie Mariani and Hope Hayes, two first-year DPT students, helped run the activity, which is based on a similar exercise that they have done in class.
"Using a wheelchair takes a lot of energy expenditure, way more than just walking does," Mariani said. "So just the energy of trying to find a bathroom — you're tired, then you have to stop, now you're late to class. It's not that feasible."
“As DPT students we’d like to see more inclusivity on campus,” Hayes added. “And I think this proves that it’s not very inclusive. It’s ADA compliant, but not as inclusive as it could be.”
Elia Klempin '27 takes part in wheelchair scavenger hunt, accompanied by DPT students Kallie Mariani (left) and Hope Hayes (right) (photo courtesy of Julie Fineman).
Elia Klempin '27, a first-year student who also participated in the activity, felt those challenges firsthand.
“It was definitely tough,” Klempin said. “I think Marist has come a long way, but I think we as a society have a long way to go.”
The “Advances in Adaptive Fashion” exhibit was one place where students pointed the way to the future. The interactive display showcased the work being done by Marist’s recently chartered chapter of the Runway of Dreams Foundation, an organization working toward a future of inclusion, acceptance, and opportunity in the fashion industry for people with disabilities.
“Adaptive clothing is designed around the needs and abilities of people with varying degrees of disability,” said Mia Siano ’25, who serves on the executive board of Runway of Dreams. “Our mission is to empower people with disabilities to have confidence and self-expression through fashion and beauty inclusion.”
The exhibit featured presentations by Marist fashion merchandising and design students including designs and renderings for new ideas in adaptive fashion. “I think fashion is a form of self-expression and a disability should not be a reason you cannot access this,” said Siano. “Our goal is to educate people on how they can help and get involved and create this understanding of support and awareness around disabilities and differences.“
Advances in Adaptive Fashion exhibit (photo by Nelson Echeverria/Marist College).
The 2023 Marist College Social Justice Award was presented at the end of the conference to recent graduate Kumba Nyang. During her time as a student at Marist, Nyang '23 served as Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the Student Government Association (SGA), creating events and programs promoting DEI initiatives on campus. She also served as president of the Muslim Student Association, and co-leader of the Mon-Afrique Committee.
In accepting the award, Nyang recognized the collective efforts it takes to foster change.
“While I am very grateful for this award, it is not mine alone,” she said. “I didn’t do the work alone, and never have. This is an award to share. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for empowering me and being in community with me.”
Kumba Nyang '23 accepts the Marist College Social Justice Award, presented by Assistant Provost for Academic Affairs and Co-Director of the social justice minor, Dr. Addrain Conyers (photo by Nelson Echeverria/Marist College).