‘Building Healthier Communities’ to Advance Equity and Justice
“Housing is a fundamental human right, along with access to nutritious food, appropriate healthcare and a quality education. We must build a better, more just world for our children and youth.”
Those are the familiar words of Stetson Professor Rajni Shankar-Brown, PhD, the Jessie Ball duPont Endowed Chair of Social Justice Education. And she is backing them up. Again.
The 2021 Poverty and Homelessness Conference, an event Shankar-Brown founded in 2013, is scheduled to take place virtually on July 10, 9 a.m. to noon (Eastern time). Registration currently is open, and all are welcome to join.
The conference is a collaborative effort among Stetson, Volusia County Schools, Volusia United Educators and, most recently, the Florida Educators Association. Also, the conference partners with the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), where Shankar-Brown now is a vice president and continues as a longtime executive board member.
The NCH is a national network of people who are currently experiencing or who have experienced homelessness, along with activists and advocates, community-based and faith-based service providers, and others. Its singular mission: to end and prevent homelessness while ensuring the immediate needs of those experiencing homelessness are met and their civil rights are respected and protected.
Since its debut, the PHC has held a similar mission while steadily being recognized throughout the state and nation as an exemplary model for equity-centered community-engagement and social justice.
“The conference is a grassroots movement that prioritizes child well-being, and our initiatives are deeply rooted in equity and designed through impactful campus-schools-community partnerships, with the goal of building healthier communities and advancing justice in our world,” Shankar-Brown said. “We must disrupt injustice and mindfully focus on equity.
“The conference is a true embodiment of Stetson’s mission and values, especially as it actively reflects social responsibility.”
While the conference is being held virtually this summer — to continue promoting public health and to expand access during these challenging times — the hope is for the conference to return to an in-person format on the Stetson campus in spring 2022.
The 2020 conference was canceled the day before it was scheduled last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the 2019 conference, DeLand Mayor Robert F. “Bob” Apgar presented a proclamation and thanked Shankar-Brown for her transformative vision and leadership to fight poverty and homelessness.
The number of adults, families, children and youth living in poverty and experiencing homelessness has doubled in the past decade and continues to surge across the nation, especially in the state of Florida. Meanwhile, the pandemic has “magnified and exasperated social inequalities and an already dire housing crisis,” Shankar-Brown said.
“Housing instability and lack of basic human rights were daunting realities long before the pandemic due to systemic and structural issues that enable and perpetuate injustice, but COVID-19 has further pushed millions into poverty and homelessness. Economic and racial justice merit our immediate attention,” she explained.
In addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate courses at Stetson, Shankar-Brown is deeply immersed in public policy and civic engagement efforts at the federal level, state and local levels. The PHC continues to mobilize a wide audience and intentionally bring together diverse stakeholders, including but not limited to district leaders, preK-12 teachers, school administrators, counselors, social workers, nonprofit leaders, congressional members, child advocates, students, academics, community thought leaders and others.
Each year, the conference invites key experts to lead educational workshops while also amplifying the voices of individuals with lived experience of homelessness, including children and youth, and discussing intersectional connections to race, gender, sexuality and the environment.
“Poverty and homelessness are deeply connected and rooted in racism, and anti-racism efforts must be centered if we are to end and prevent homelessness,” Shankar-Brown noted. “It is imperative to understand intersectional connections too, such as the fact that LGBTQI+ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness, and that there are critical connections including homelessness and environmental justice, homelessness and disability justice.
“In addition to illuminating human rights issues connected to poverty and homelessness, courageously and collaboratively brainstorming innovative solutions, and actively working to support the academic and social-emotional well-being of our children and youth, the PHC aims to affirm diverse voices and cultivate empathy.”
Shankar-Brown believes that affirming diversity and growing empathy are vital to this work. “It is imperative to bending the arc toward justice,” she commented.
Shankar-Brown has dedicated her life to addressing injustices through getting in “good trouble” and living her values. A past recipient of Stetson’s Hand Award for Distinguished Faculty Achievement and Stetson’s prestigious McEniry Award for Excellence in Teaching, she thoughtfully models civic engagement and actively supports students, along with her own two children, in developing multifaceted skillsets and being positive change agents as she finds inspiration in the teachings and wisdom of legendary civil rights leaders. They include Congressman John Lewis, who says, “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
This year, the conference features alumnus Matt Morton ’06, PhD, as the keynote speaker. He holds a doctorate degree and Master of Science in evidence-based intervention and policy evaluations from the University of Oxford, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Stetson.
Morton has expertise in youth development, youth homelessness and the evaluation of complex interventions and evidence-based practice. He has led the youth homelessness agenda at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. He has worked as an adviser in the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, and he was a key contributor to the development of the U.S. government’s national strategy to end youth homelessness and efforts on addressing child trauma. Additionally, he has worked on youth, poverty, gender and labor programs and policy as an economist and social protection specialist at the World Bank.
Further, Morton’s prior work experience encompasses teaching graduate-level courses at the University of Oxford, consulting for the European Commission and other organizations on policy evaluation, and serving as a Congressional Fellow in the U.S. Senate and as a Policy Fellow at the Eckerd Family Foundation.
Shankar-Brown and Morton have crossed paths for years, even before Shankar-Brown joined Stetson’s faculty, both sharing a passion for humanity, sustainability and social justice. They are in the process of collaborating, with plans to engage in research and civic engagement projects together, especially with Morton and his family recently moving back to Florida.
Christina Garcia is another featured speaker. She is Taina/Chicana, originally from San Francisco. When she was a child, her family experienced homelessness and housing instability. And, with both of her parents struggling with drug addiction, she was subjected to sexual and physical abuse and neglect. She grew up in the foster system and subsequently with gangs in the Mission District
As an adult, Garcia spent years living on the street addicted to drugs. Ultimately, she was sent to prison, where she completed two consecutive rehabilitation programs upon release. Today, she serves as the senior director of housing assistance at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, with the focus on helping to get others off the street.
Among the other conference speakers is Donald Whitehead, NCH’s executive director. Whitehead brings more than 20 years of serving and advocating for persons experiencing homelessness, including five years of experiencing homelessness himself.
“Donald is my colleague, friend and co-conspirator in justice, and he also served as a keynote speaker for the PHC previously,” Shankar-Brown noted. “NCH has recently launched a national campaign focused on ending homelessness, and I am looking forward to having Donald share more at our conference.”
Also notably, two of Shankar-Brown’s mentees — both Stetson alumni — serve on the PHC steering committee and will be conference speakers: Chan’tial Vasquez ’16 and Autumn Hope Johnson ’20.
“I am incredibly proud and grateful for Chan’tial and Autumn,” Shankar-Brown said. “They are both multi-talented, resilient, dedicated, and amazing advocates and human beings. They embrace multidisciplinary knowledge. They embody compassion and lead purposeful lives as engaged global citizens.”
Both Vasquez and Johnson describe Shankar-Brown as a “lifelong mentor” and an “inspiring role model” who continues to genuinely support their journeys and serve as an enduring light.
“The PHC is truly a collaborative enterprise. I am grateful to each member of the PHC leadership team, each dedicated and passionate community trailblazers who I also have the joy and privilege of calling my dear friends,” Shankar-Brown added.
That description also fits her former student Gina Calbeto ’19, chair of the Student Leadership Committee.
Calbeto, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, teaches in Volusia County and is pursuing a graduate degree in the higher education program at Florida Gulf Coast University. Calbeto shares that Shankar-Brown, whom she met at a presentation and talked with during Hatter Saturday, was one of the primary reasons she chose Stetson.
“Gina was selected as the 2021 First Year Teacher of the Year for DeBary Elementary School during this uniquely challenging year. I am proud of her, and this award is extra special, as DeBary is where Gina attended elementary school. And now here she is giving back in the school and community where she grew up and actively enriching the lives of children,” Shankar-Brown said. Partnering with FGCU, Shankar-Brown serves as Calbeto’s graduate internship supervisor and remains her mentor.
According to Shankar-Brown, education and social justice are her “life’s work and daily alarm clock,” along with her children, Valen Siddhartha and Romila Sitara, of course.
It is evident that she abundantly invests in her students.
Even after graduating from Stetson, students continue to stay in close contact with her — a powerful testament to Shankar-Brown’s impact as a teacher-scholar and as a leader making a difference on a global scale.