Deepening dialogues

New Trinity Social Justice Initiative tackles current crises

By Andrew J. Concatelli

The timing of the launch of the Trinity Social Justice Initiative (TSJI) could not be more appropriate, says Assistant Professor of American Studies and Human Rights Christina Heatherton.

“We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and an upsurge of social movements. All the cracks of society are deepening at this moment,” she says. “There’s nothing abstract about the things we’re trying to address. We ground our conversations in this moment and in the crises that people are facing.”

The initiative, started in fall 2021, aims to increase scholarly dialogues about some of society’s most pressing topics, including wealth inequality, mass incarceration, policing, gender violence, and systemic racism.

“TSJI grounds questions of social justice in collaborative research. This work was already happening at Trinity; this initiative puts a structure in place to foster its growth,” says Heatherton, who co-directs the TSJI with Assistant Professor of American Studies Jordan T. Camp.

The series of public conversations that introduced the TSJI in the fall—offered both in person and via Zoom—discussed questions surrounding imprisonment, gender, and militarism along borders, among others. “Taken together, we felt that these were important ways to begin to address topics in American studies and related interdisciplinary investigations and also to try to make contributions to public debates in this moment,” Camp says. “We’re curating conversations; we’re encouraging people to learn to listen to aggrieved communities engaged in struggles for social justice.”

In addition to events open to the Trinity community and the public, the TSJI also has launched a webinar and podcast series called Conjuncture, research clusters, new courses, and more.

Heatherton says that the online programs have brought together people who cannot be present in the same physical space. “We’ve been working with the Library and Information Technology Services staff to share all of these conversations. In the pandemic, when we can’t all be together, we’ve had to become creative in sharing these important dialogues,” she says. “We’re fulfilling our public humanities mission by reaching new publics through digital outreach.” All the conversations are archived and available on the TSJI website.

Camp and Heatherton have been collaborating since 2008, most recently co-editing Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (Verso, 2016). The two, who joined the Trinity faculty in summer 2021, have spent their careers studying and teaching about aspects of social justice. Camp’s specialties include the public humanities, prisons, and social theory. Heatherton, who previously was a member of the Trinity faculty from 2014 to 2017, specializes in subjects including transnational social movements, race and class, and human rights. At Barnard College and Columbia University, Camp and Heatherton co-directed a number of public-facing initiatives.

“The commitment to engaging in dialogue with people and about places that are bearing the brunt of the problems that we’re studying—questions of gentrification and mass imprisonment, for example—and to learn from these communities, not just study about them, has been integral to each of our research projects,” says Camp.

 “We were excited about the opportunity to join the faculty at Trinity College and launch this initiative in collaboration with partners across campus, not least of which is [Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies] Davarian Baldwin’s Smart Cities Lab,” he adds. “We are able to join a conversation about social justice that has long been happening on campus—from students who have been protesting after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, to connections that scholars have already been making with communities in Hartford and throughout the region. Our work is a product of talking with students, colleagues, staff, and community members, all of whom will have active roles in the initiative. Partnering with our colleagues at Trinity has exceeded our expectations.”

Professors Camp, Baldwin, and Heatherton
Assistant Professor of American Studies Jordan T. Camp, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies Davarian Baldwin, and Assistant Professor of American Studies and Human Rights Christina Heatherton
Photo by John Marinelli

Baldwin says that after the social unrest of summer 2020, many schools leaned into the “trendy theme of diversity, equity, and inclusion.” But, he notes, “Jordan Camp and Christina Heatherton’s proven track record of social justice scholarship, deep student mentorship, and broad public advocacy brings substantive legitimacy to Trinity’s efforts. And I am more than thrilled to see how their partnership with my new Smart Cities Lab will ground social justice work directly within our campus community in ways that could serve as a national model for cultivating what I call ‘urban citizenship.’ ”

Associate Dean for Curriculum Mitchell Polin ’96 says that the TSJI enables important and inclusive conversations while making experiential opportunities accessible for all students. “Jordan and Christina are embracing the college’s revised Trinity+ curriculum to generate new ways for students to build their own social justice research projects, as well as to engage with faculty and community members on opportunities for collaboration,” Polin says. “They also are essential participants in the Trinity Urban-Global Arts Initiative, and they have worked hard to engage artists on campus to be part of the Trinity Social Justice Initiative, which is an inclusive, interdisciplinary venture in the best possible ways.”

Heatherton says that the Trinity community embraces the discussion of difficult topics and the commitment to making positive changes. “Students, faculty, and staff have been working hard to address things like racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, both in the curriculum and in the social life of campus,” she says. “We have such a deep appreciation for our students and colleagues at Trinity; the initiative wouldn’t be what it is without them.”

Posse Scholar Renita Washington ’22, from Chicago, has attended the initiative’s programs and has helped promote the events through the college’s Multicultural Affairs Council, which she leads. “The TSJI relates to both my educational studies major and my community action minor because they both promote conversations for change,” she says.

Washington also has worked with Camp and Heatherton on ways for Trinity students to play a role in the initiative, including through independent research and research clusters. “This is important because now students have a way to expand their learning by researching what they have learned in the classroom,” she says. “It also helps facilitate a conversation that we don’t have in the classroom and gets students engaged by letting them be in charge of their own learning.”

Washington says she sees the TSJI as a benefit to the whole college community, noting, “This is now going to play an important role in the Trinity experience.”

The inaugural year

DIALOGUES: As the first public event of the TSJI, Heatherton’s “Grounded Ways of Knowing: Pedagogies of Place and the Trinity Social Justice Initiative” in October 2021 laid out the goals and mission of the initiative. A lecture series last fall called Curated Conversations brought scholars and practitioners to campus for public dialogues.

RESEARCH CLUSTERS: Topics include “Entangled Histories: Race, Colonialism, and Indigeneity,” “Education for Liberation,” and “Public Archives and Oral Histories.” A student-led research cluster also was formed.

CONJUNCTURE: The monthly webinar and podcast series features interviews with activists, artists, scholars, and public intellectuals. Guests include additional members of the Trinity faculty.

NEW COURSES: The TSJI mission includes curricular development. Camp introduced “Curating Conversations” in spring 2022, focusing on how scholars in the field curate conversations in public humanities across disciplines. Heatherton’s new course, “Grounded Ways of Knowing,” explores activist research and how research questions are formed.

CAMPUS PARTNERSHIPS: The TSJI is working this spring with Trinity’s Primus Project and the Smart Cities Lab on collaborations that emphasize relationships between public history and public memory.

JUSTICE FELLOW PROGRAM: The fellowship award is a partnership between the TSJI and the Smart Cities Lab. Robert Cotto, director of the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy Partnership, is the inaugural recipient, in recognition of his research on higher education, racism, inequality, and public health, particularly in Hartford. Fellows give a public lecture on their research.

CONFERENCE: Scheduled for fall 2022, “Education Must Be Defended” will be a partnership between the TSJI and the Smart Cities Lab, co-sponsored by Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.

For more on the TSJI and the work of Heatherton and Camp, please see