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Think tank at Butler University connects students with community

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When Gabby Douglas took a social sciences class with Butler University professor Dr. Siobhan McEvoy-Levy, she felt a connection to the professor and the subject matter. That connection coupled with her passion for working with youth led Douglas to join the first cohort of students involved at the university’s Desmond Tutu Peace Lab Think Tank, directed by McEvoy-Levy.

Started in 2018, the think tank allows undergraduate students to get a start in activism and change making in their communities. The roughly 100 students who have participated in the lab since its opening have organized on-campus lectures, events and have partnered with community organizations.

Students involved in the think tank focus on a wide range of issues, including disability justice, mass incarceration and environmental justice. Douglas, who graduated in 2020, led the think tank’s youth engagement sector and worked frequently with the Martin Luther King (MLK) Center.

“We held activities on campus where Butler students would engage with young people from the MLK Center, and we had a lot of good discussions about current events and social justice,” Douglas said.

Douglas said many Butler students live in the “Butler Bubble,” something she said is common in private universities. The goal of the think tank is to connect students with the greater community.

“We’re young and have voices, connections and resources,” Douglas said. “We should be getting involved with the community and local organizations.”

Last year, members of the think tank organized a speaking event about the work of Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Beyond the lecture, students put together a list of resources for other students including readings on mass incarceration and national organizations working toward prison reforms.

Beyond on-campus and local events, students in the think tank travel to historical sites from the Civil Rights Movement as well as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which pays tribute to victims of lynching. These experiences help students put what they’re researching into context and helps them understand how America’s history has shaped the country today.

“I’ve heard students say many times they feel as if the traumatic history of slavery and racism is not taught well in school, and that this is the first time they’ve encountered history as something that’s living today and has consequences,” McEvoy-Levy said.

The founding director said while the pandemic kept students from traveling in 2020 and 2021, the ability to host virtual events has grown the organizations reach and furthered the message of its namesake, Desmond Tutu. The anti-apartheid leader, who died in December, preached nonviolence and reconciliation.

“Our virtual events have brought people together from all over the world,” McEvoy-Levy said. “I think with the increased polarizations in the country, we have to challenge ourselves to think about how we cannot just preach to the choir but reach across barriers and walls. Desmond Tutu’s message was to see the humanity in your opponent, and we all have to work on that.”

Starting Jan. 31, the think tank will host a series of virtual speakers to pay tribute to Archbishop Tutu. The events are open to the public. For more information, click here.

Dr. Terri Jett has been a faculty fellow for the think tank for four years and has seen a positive impact on the students.

“I’ve seen students become empowered to tackle some challenging issues head on, and grow very curious, even more so than they already are about a number of problems we face,” Jett said.

Now working full time at education nonprofit, Building Tomorrow, Douglas said the things she learned during her time at the think tank helps her today.

“That activism mindset is still instilled in me,” Douglas said. “The think tank helped me develop relationships with [Butler] departments and community organizations, and it taught me how to get engaged with my community. Through my work, I’ve traveled to Uganda, and the peace lab certainly helped prepare me for this career.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848 or email at BreannaC@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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