Instituted in 2015 with the generous endowments of Robert Cooper and William McElvaney, the Cooper-McElvaney Fellowship provides students an opportunity to explore and deepen their understanding of social justice work. Supported by the Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life, the Fellows engage in over 100 hours of research and/or service related to a social justice issue of their choosing over the summer months and present their findings and reflections upon their return to the SMU campus. The overarching goal of this Fellowship is to move students from research to long-term action and engagement with these issues as they move into subsequent environments and chapters in their lives.
Last Monday night, I was ziptied and plopped onto the rough pavement of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge by police officers and National Guardsmen. Over three hours of kneeling beside seven hundred other protestors in anxiety and exhaustion, I reflected upon the metaphorical and literal roads that had led us all to that bridge to shout “Black Lives Matter” at the Dallas skyline. I considered the myriad circumstances that lead anyone to sacrifice their own safety, security, and certainty simply for the opportunity to speak. For me, it was a relentless series of events that had revealed my own privilege to me and convicted me to lend my privilege to justice. For most of those around me, it was centuries of trauma and oppression coursing through their veins and a determination to create the world they have been systematically denied.
This sobering reflection reminded me of the students with whom I worked the previous summer. Many young clients of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas had travelled a road filled with similar sacrifice and similar hope for a life of dignity and fairness. Forced to flee their home countries under threats of persecution, these students carried the weight of generations before them. As I learned more about their individual and parallel experiences as immigrants to the United States, discussions of college goals and financial aid applications began to seem trivial. I questioned whether I was qualified to support and advocate for these students or, for that matter, anyone whose experience I could never fully understand as a White person in spaces of advocacy. However, I quickly realized that the alternative was an unacceptable option: silence. It became clear to me that I had no moral choice but to use my voice of privilege, while intentionally making space for historically silenced peoples and communities.
My experience last summer was much bigger than a college access program or educational equity or even immigration justice. That summer taught me how to be an advocate for others by amplifying their voices rather than speaking in their places. In this sense, the internship that I completed through the Cooper McElvaney Peace and Justice Fellowship led me to the bridge last Monday. It prepared me to stand firm as an ally seeking justice—for Black lives, for immigrant lives, for all lives that have ever been discounted or marginalized.
Written by Tannah Oppliger (’20), a Human Rights and Public Policy major. She is from Carrollton, Texas and her Residential Commons affliiation is May Hay Peyton Shuttles Commons.
For more information about the Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life, please visit www.smu.edu/chaplain.