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Nine General College travel-course students around a bronze statue of Gandhi at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center in Atlanta.

The road-trip class around Gandhi's statue at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

Road trip to empowerment

The theory and practice of nonviolent resistance

By Gayla Marty

From Access, fall 2005

Little Rock, Arkansas. Jackson, Mississippi. Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham, Alabama. Atlanta, Georgia. Memphis, Tennessee.

It sounds like a travelogue of the U.S. civil rights movement. And in May term 2005, that's exactly what it became for nine General College students, their professor, and a baby named Sam packed into a 15-passenger van.

GC 1350, Political Power and Social Change, took to the road after two full-day class sessions about the theory and practice of nonviolent resistance. For the next 11 days, the group walked in the steps of students who helped to desegregate Little Rock's Central High School in 1957, went to church where Martin Luther King, Jr., once preached, and met survivors of the movement, like Hollis Watkins and Edwin King, who are still working for change.

Nonviolent resistance walks a path between violent resistance on one hand and compliance on the other.

Nonviolent resistance walks a path between violent resistance on one hand and compliance on the other. It is the intellectual passion of General College assistant professor Katy Gray Brown, who organized the course and the trip, then got behind the wheel and made it happen.

"No amount of reading and studying can match the experience you gain from traveling," said junior Jennifer Nguyen. "I had never learned in school that children had a huge impact on the movement."

Back in Minnesota, 3,500 miles later, the course wasn't over. Based on their experiences, the students wrote about the Little Rock Nine, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evars, the people they met, Freedom Summer (1964), and Bloody Sunday (1965). They added photos and captions, and printed copies.

"It is so pleasing to be reminded that true change begins with a simple idea," said one student, who goes by Francis. "Big things need to start out small before anything can happen. This can be scary, but it's also extremely empowering."

General College associate dean Dan Detzner has witnessed the power of experiential learning found in travel courses, field learning, service learning, and internships--which are showing a strong impact on retention. That's why he located General College scholarship funds that enabled many of the students to go.

"This kind of experience is life-altering," said Detzner. "It makes a huge difference in how learners see themselves. It provides motivation for everything they're studying."

This fall all the students are back in regular classes, and Gray Brown is teaching a non-traveling edition of the course, using photos and other materials developed on the trip. She's also teaching logic and a graduate seminar on immigration for the MacArthur Interdisciplinary Program on Global Change, Sustainability, and Justice, for which she is an associated faculty member.

"There are two forms of nonviolent protest," Gray Brown says. "One is of principle; the other is strategic--used because it can work in a given situation. The travel course was a study of a movement where nonviolence worked."

Gray Brown's education began in Indiana at Manchester College, affiliated with the Church of the Brethren and home of the oldest peace studies program in the United States.

"I constantly had professors who made us engage in the world in this whole-body sort of way," said Gray Brown. "They would get us to look at theories and say, 'Okay, what can this theory really do?' Here's what John Locke or Omar Jamal says... how can this help us come up with creative solutions?"

"In this era of terrorism we can see that the nature of war has changed...We need to think in a completely different way about war and what we can do about it."

After a master's degree in peace studies at Notre Dame, Gray Brown studied political philosophy at the University of Minnesota and earned a Ph.D. Her research areas included not only theories of nonviolence but civic engagement in philosophy and American Indians in higher education. She taught at the University of St. Thomas and Metro State University and worked for the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs (HECUA) before joining the faculty of General College in 2002.

"The call [for applications] was interdisciplinary," she remembers. "I saw a fit with the mission here of access in education and a passion for diversifying. This was a place to live out the land-grant mission."

There are now more than 200 peace studies and related programs across the country; some are minors. In Minnesota, they are offered at schools including Gustavus Adolphus, Hamline, and St. Thomas. Last year, Gray Brown was on a committee with faculty members from General College, the College of Human Ecology (CHE), and the College of Liberal Arts that developed a social justice minor at the University of Minnesota, approved by the Board of Regents in June.

"She's the most knowledgeable person on campus on peace studies and nonviolent social movements," said Lisa Albrecht, associate professor in the School of Social Work, academic home of the new minor. Gray Brown is helping to develop one of the core courses, Introduction to Peace Studies.

Over the next two years, the School of Social Work--part of CHE--and General College will move into the College of Education and Human Development. There, Gray Brown and other faculty members working on social justice and peace studies look forward to working more closely together.

"In this era of terrorism we can see that the nature of war has changed, and conventional notions about it don't work any more," said Gray Brown. "We need to think in a completely different way about war and what we can do about it. Generations from now depend on it."