Earlier this week, the Law School’s student-led Coalition for Social Justice (CSJ) launched its new website, sjucsj.org. With robust features, including a blog and a forum for dialogue, the site furthers the CSJ’s mission of providing an open and inclusive platform and outlet for St. John’s Law students and others to learn about, and advocate for, the broad spectrum of social justice issues. It took only three months for the project to go from concept to reality.
Last June, in the wake of the senseless killing of George Floyd, close to 300 members of the St. John’s Law community came together for a virtual Dialogue Day organized by the CSJ, Black Law Students Association (BLSA), Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights, and many co-sponsoring student organizations. The evening’s theme was clear and direct: No More Talking, What Are We Going to Do?
As Dean Michael A. Simons noted, it was a call to action in solidarity with Black students, faculty, staff, and alumni. “This is a moment of real pain—pain that is felt most acutely by our Black colleagues and Black students,” he said. “I don’t pretend to have the authority to speak about that pain. But I do know that, as a teaching-and-learning community, it is our responsibility to care for each other, to be with each other, to learn from each other, to love each other. To bear each other’s pain and lift each other up.”
Taking on that responsibility, during Dialogue Day, 23 different student groups presented their organizations’ commitments—events, petitions, fundraisers, committees, speakers, outreach, research, and more—to making St. John’s Law an actively anti-racist institution and combatting injustice in its many forms. Their pledges of support are now the pillars of an action plan that the CSJ is coordinating and memorializing in a series of publications.
“The idea for the website took root after Dialogue Day, while the CSJ leadership considered our own next steps in the larger action plan,” says CSJ President Pharoah Sutton-Jackson ’21. “We were looking for ways to connect with the community more frequently and informally. At the same time, we were expanding our Executive Board and fielding applications for open positions. One of the applicants, Annalise Leonelli ’22, was a filmmaker before pivoting to law. Her background not only sparked the idea of creating a historian position on the E-Board, it was also the original spark for the website.”
Leonelli didn’t have web design experience, but happily took on the CSJ website build as an opportunity to express herself creatively while doing the work of social justice that brought her to St. John’s Law. “Propelled by the optimism that films could change the world, I pursued a film degree after college,” she shares. “But for the last 10 years, I’ve struggled to reconcile my desire to tell socially conscious stories with my understanding that socially conscious stories should be told by those with the agency to tell them. That inner battle—combined with a new sense of urgency sparked by this moment in America—inspired me to use my skills more effectively for social good. That’s how I ended up in law school. But visual storytelling is something I’ll always be passionate about, and I’ll forever be seeking new ways to exercise that muscle.”
For Leonelli, and the rest of the CSJ E-Board, the new website is first and foremost a place for community building. “At a time where every day brings a new headline, and Covid-19 limits our face-to-face contact, what we really want is for people to have a place to express themselves and engage in open discussion,” says Leonelli. Visitors will be able to access resources for taking action and can offer candid feedback on the CSJ’s programs and initiatives. “In the interest of transparency, we want to be forthright about what we’re doing right and what we can do better,” Leonelli shares, emphasizing that the website is just one component of CSJ’s broader effort to raise awareness of, and accountability for, vital anti-racism and social justice work.
As the website continues to evolve, the CSJ leadership looks forward to extending its reach. “We’d like to grow this coalition beyond a St. John’s Law audience,” says CSJ Communications Chair Ryan Minett ’22. “So I try to find external groups and people outside of the Law School that the CSJ might consider working with. The theory is: together, we are stronger. The website will help the CSJ amplify its mission by providing a hub for sharing and broadcasting diverse ideas and voices.”
For now, the site launch is ample cause for celebration. “We’re really excited to provide this platform,” says Sutton-Jackson. “We hope it can be a space where students, faculty, alumni, and administrators from our school and others can connect, collaborate, and act to dismantle systemic racism and the injustices it creates and perpetuates.”