Social justice program to address structural violence

Allison Ribick

Change U, a social justice program at Grand Valley State University, had its first activist assembly of 2015 on Jan. 23 and 24. The event highlighted various forms of structural violence in society, including the prison industrial complex. Structural violence involves social arrangements of individuals or groups of people due to political and economic means that can cause them harm.

The program is offered through the Milton E. Ford LGBT Resource Center at GVSU. Participants discuss systems of oppression and individual injustices through large and small group presentations.

“Visions of Abolition: From Critical Resistance to a New Way of Life – Part 1 Breaking Down the Prison Industrial Complex” was shown on Jan. 23 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Room 2263 of the Kirkhof Center.

“I hope people will walk away from the film and our large group discussion with a deeper understanding of the prison industrial complex,” said Emily West, a coordinator of the program. “Specifically, I hope people walk away knowing that prisons (and) the systems surrounding them do not reduce violence or keep us safe. In fact, we need a space like Change U to start a conversation about creating a world without the prison industrial complex.”

The film offered viewpoints from individuals who have written about the prison industrial complex and others who have been incarcerated. Racial and gender violence in the prison system were among the topics discussed.

“I believe it is important for people to understand that the prison industrial complex is a system of oppression,” said Jeff Smith, a Change U coordinator. “It is not designed to rehabilitate, but to punish and manage populations that are seen by the power structure as both undesirable and a threat.”

“Confronting Structural Violence: Our Fight is Against a White Supremacist, Militaristic, Capitalist, Cis-Heterosexist Patriarchy” occurred on Jan. 24 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Kirkhof Center.

The activist assembly sought to further the participants’ understanding of what structural violence is through discussions with GVSU and Grand Rapids community members. Additionally, it included sharing ideas for ways to change local communities for the better by giving the participants opportunities to join or create campaigns to resist structural violence.

Individual community members shared their experiences and backgrounds, as well as some who were members of organizations such as Black Lives Matter Grand Rapids, the Grand Rapids Chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Grand Rapids People’s History Project.

“We chose structural violence in part but it is often unseen in this society,” Smith said. “In fact, most structural violence is so normalized that we don’t question it or even recognize it.”

Another reason for the theme of structural violence was the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

“We also want to honor the organized outrage and resistance since Ferguson and recognize that these are revolutionary moments that require those committed to social justice to act and to organize,” Smith said.

West noted that the topics for the activist assembly are only a small portion of the many types of structural violence.

The next assembly, “The Revolution will not be Funded: Countering the Power of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex in Grand Rapids,” will occur from Feb. 20 to Feb. 21.

“Queering the LGBT Rights Movement: Critically Engaging the Politics of Inclusion” will occur from Mar. 13 to Mar. 14.

“System Change Not Climate Change: Practicing Collective Climate Justice” will occur from Apr. 10 to Apr. 11.

Any member of the GVSU or West Michigan community can attend the Change U assemblies for free. Advanced registration is required.

For more information and to register for upcoming activist assemblies, visit