SPU's “Justice Speaks!” Leadership Event: Pausing to Reflect, Listen, and Share

By senior Ashanti Ilek

On April 28-29, Seattle Pacific held the first Justice Speaks!: a leadership event for high school and college students. Hosted by SPU’s John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development, the event created space for students to experience their motivations for social justice, and help foster their ability to engage and impact their communities.

Justice Speaks

Senior Ashanti Ilek shares her response to facilitator Dar Paet's (left) question "Where are you?"

“Where are you?”

My initial responses to this inquiry, posed by our breakout session leader, seemed only to be more questions:

Did he mean where am I in life?

...with my career?

...with my spiritual journey?

...with my skin color?

Is this a trick question?

Do you mean where I am geographically?

My brain must have run through countless other questions and thoughts. I don’t think I was the only one hesitant to answer this question, either, because no one in our breakout group seemed ready to speak up …let alone look up from their hands.

I had been looking forward to this conference for a while, and since it was the first of its kind at SPU, I didn’t know what to expect. As an introvert, I spent the week leading up to this event mentally and emotionally preparing for the “unexpected.”

Justice Speaks

SPU alumnus Emmanuel Mancilla '13, a teacher and post-high school transition coordinator at Seattle Urban Academy, shares about justice and faith.

From a college student’s point of view, the “unexpected” may often just be a blanket term for funky games that require participation to help make a certain point. It might refer to oddly-framed questions whose answers point to a larger philosophical question that makes us think about life in a new light. This is what usually happens in classes I’ve taken, and at the conferences and lectures I've attended. In my mind, I was ready for this conference. Yet this question threw me.

Perhaps it threw me because I truly enjoy these types of questions — ones that require us to pause —but I am usually the one asking them. Or maybe this question threw me because I knew it could lead to a rich conversation: something I didn't expect to have with these strangers at this conference.

“Where are you?” doesn’t have a particular answer that is expected of those questioned. It is a conversational question similar to “How are you?” or maybe even “Why are you?” It’s a short, three-word, question without hard boundaries our answers must stay within. The question wasn’t “Where are you on the political spectrum?” or “Where are you and your people from, geographically, in the world?”

Justice Speaks

Senior TJ Sawyer, who performed a spoken word piece during Justice Speaks!, shares during a group discussion.

Being more of an open introvert, I didn’t know how vulnerable to be with my answer to this question. After some moments of silence, our breakout session leader explained this question’s significance to him.

“Where are you?" is the first question that God asks Adam and Eve in Scripture. Some people think it reveals the ignorance of God, but I think that God, being relational, asked this of Adam and Eve to get them to speak to what had happened in their relationship with God, between the time of their creation to the Fall. So, where are you ... in relation to things? To people? To God? To yourself?

In the midst of our silence, a few people in my group began to open up windows into their lives, one at a time sharing stories about their discoveries, struggles, confusion, and frustrations, while others spoke into the lives seated in our circle of chairs: encouraging, challenging, and lifting people up.

Many times, both spontaneously and during the different sessions, I found myself engaged in meaningful conversation with unfamiliar people. I didn’t expect to hear as many stories as I did in those two days, nor did I expect to be heard, affirmed, and lifted.

Justice Speaks

Selamawit Bariamichael '11, a science teacher at Seattle Urban Academy, one of many young alumni guest speakers.

I didn’t expect to experience intimacy at this conference.

Yet this was exactly how Justice Speaks! was for me. It wasn’t merely a gathering for people to come, take, and leave. I don’t believe it was geared that way. The conference was more of a pause. Time stopped enough for community leaders, SPU alumni, and students to come together to share music, poetry, realities, questions, and important truths.

I keep returning to the question from my breakout session; a question that leaves us all with much upon which to reflect: Where are you? Where are you in your life? In your community? Where are you in relation to God?

Ashanti Ilek is a senior at SPU majoring in political science.