Sociology prof directs student energy into powerful experiences

York sociology Professor Peter Dawson nudges a runaway roll of bathroom tissue out of the way as he walks into his office in Vari Hall on York’s Keele campus. Sitting down at his desk requires two steps: first Dawson must move a stack of canned food items onto the floor and then he must shift a teetering pile of paper towels to one side. Inevitably, something topples over.

Although his office may look like something out of a reality television show on terminal clutter, Dawson, a professor in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS), is not a hoarder. It is the clutter of donated food, diapers and paper products collected by students in his undergraduate sociology classes that fills the space.

Left: Peter Dawson with sociology students

Every few months, Dawson and student volunteers clear his office of donated items and transport them to agencies in the Greater Toronto Area.

He then repeats his daily ballet of moving donated food items from one place to another as his office fills with the results of another group’s successful efforts.

The key to the students’ successful course specific collaborations with social service agencies is Dawson’s role as a teacher and mentor. His approach to teaching involves issuing an upfront challenge to students enrolled in his courses to make a difference, get involved with a cause and put to use the theories they are learning. “I try to engage the students on an emotional level with the issues we learn about in the courses I teach,” says Dawson.

Through their coursework, Dawson’s students learn about the power of peaceful activism. Students raise funds for social service agencies and donate their time to complete special projects on behalf the agencies. Most of the projects are often ones that the agencies could not afford to undertake on their own, says Dawson. Initiatives have included Web site design, raising funds for new equipment and furniture, or collecting donations of personal care items. The students see and comprehend first-hand the importance of their efforts working with social service agencies to address a range of issues that affect society, such as violence against women and children, child hunger and sexual abuse.

With a background in human rights and work experience on the front lines with the African National Congress (ANC) in his native South Africa, Dawson has witnessed the results of both peaceful and violent activism. “I came back to university as a mature student after being involved with the ANC in South Africa, where I worked in the Ciskei and in Cape Town with displaced population groups,” he says. “It was at a time when I could have, if I had wished to, picked up a gun and contributed to social change. But what I chose to do was to go back to school as a mature student. I learned the benefits of non-violence in advocacy work.”

It is those life lessons he infuses into each and every class. Dawson brings representatives of each of the partner organizations and elected officials to his lectures. He openly shares the podium with each guest, many of whom share stories of their work with, or personal experiences of, sexual abuse, violence or human trafficking.

Above: In July, students in Dawson’s introductory class in sociology celebrated their accomplishment of collecting 9,000 pounds of food for the North York Harvest Food Bank and 15,000 signatures on a petition to end child hunger that went to the federal government

In July, students enrolled in Dawson’s summer course in sociology raised more than 9,000 pounds of food for the North York Harvest Food Bank. Students also filed a petition with York West MP Judy Sgro that contained 15,000 signatures they collected to protest child hunger. Sgro came to the second-to-last class in July to personally receive the petition and be interviewed by students about how she would bring their cause to Parliament.

During the last class, the students gathered to hear from an official with the North York Harvest Food Bank. They shared food, offered presentations about their experiences and listened to a steel drum performance by Dawson’s close friend and colleague, Selwyn McSween, senior adviser, case resolution for the York Centre for Human Rights. In addition to McSween, the students also heard from Geoff Webb, manager of experiential education in LA&PS.

Left: York West MPJudy Sgro with Dawson

“The lessons these students learn from their work with such organizations as the North York Harvest Food Bank, Anduhyaun Native Women’s Shelter and the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre epitomize the importance of experiential education to the personal growth and professional success of students, ” says Webb, who also spoke with students about how they could best translate these powerful undertakings into their future endeavours.

Experiential education (EE) is a form of engaged learning underway at York University that blends theory and coursework with practical, hands-on experience. As part of their academic studies, LA&PS students apply key course concepts to a wide variety of case studies and projects involving both profit and non-profit organizations. The students work with faculty members such as Dawson who offer suggestions and advice during an EE course.

Ann Marina Guirguis, a former student of Dawson’s, has benefited from experiential education.  She says she found her life’s mission after enrolling in Dawson’s winter 2010 Racism in Canada SOCI 3680 course. Guirguis, who is now entering her first year at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, hopes to specialize in human rights law.

Right: North York Harvest Food Bank food drive coordinator Natalie Lucas thanks students for their donation. She spoke to the students about what a huge difference their donation has made to the food bank and those who need its services.

“Prof. Dawson inspired and motivated me to go further and strive harder.” Guirguis says. “Through his guidance, I am now pursuing a career in human rights law. His teaching and support have been nothing short of inspirational.”

As part of her coursework, Guirguis worked on a collaborative project to assist a local transitional house for indigenous women fleeing abusive circumstances. She helped organize and participated in an all-night bowl-a-thon fundraiser, collected food donations, worked with the transitional house director and volunteered to collect signatures for a petition that was delivered to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. The petition urged the government to amend inequities and lack of funding for Aboriginal women’s shelters in Ontario.

In her diary about her experience, Guirguis writes about a pivotal moment in Dawson’s class. “‘A collaborative project,’ he said. ‘Pour your heart into your community and set your soul on fire. Find someone who needs you!’”

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor