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UMD scholar says fight for social justice is 'here and now'

Janet Haynes, assistant professor of social work at UMD, focused on issues of equality in the classroom and the justice system during her keynote address at the Martin Luther King Day rally at the DECC on Monday. Photo by Naomi Yaeger/

When students and faculty at the University of Minnesota Duluth think about assistant professor of social work Janet Haynes, they recall how she organized a Thanksgiving dinner on campus for students who weren't able to go home to their families for the holiday.

"She has a passion for keeping families together," said Sharon Witherspoon, who works as a financial aid advisor at UMD. "She is a person that stands up and speaks up and is not afraid to."

That is exactly what Haynes did Monday at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration at the DECC. As the featured speaker of the event, Haynes addressed issues of social equality in the educational and justice systems while speaking about the life and vision of Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Sometimes we forget, or we choose to forget, what his life was about," Haynes said. "We are no longer riding in the back of buses or have to go through separate doorways, but when we look at the overrepresentation and underemployment, sometimes I think Dr. King would turn in his grave."

An assistant professor at UMD since 2007, Haynes said the African-American community in Duluth is at risk.

"For many people of color in Duluth, our reality is not very bright," she said. "This may come as a surprise for some, but for many, it is a reality that we live with every day."

In her address, Haynes discussed the issue of social justice and how it pertains to youth and families. She said the local educational system "remains unfriendly and hostile to our children," and she referred to a school-prison pipeline that is being formed within schools.

"Police are called right there in school, and it gives them that contact with the justice system," she said. "We send our children to be educated, not to be given criminal records."

Elaborating on the topic of social justice in schools, Haynes said African-American and Native American youths have the highest failure rates in the educational system. She said children and young adults are discouraged from talking about racism in schools.

She also said African-Americans and Native Americans are underrepresented in the local industry.

"Look in the places that you shop and see who is serving you," she said. "Look in the places where you work and ask yourselves the question, 'Does it represent the faces in this country? Does it represent the people sitting in this room?'"

With a master's degree in social work and a Ph.D. in education from McGill University in Canada, Haynes now works to bring UMD students from diverse backgrounds together.

"She's been a very supportive character when it comes to the African-American Student Programs here at UMD," said Daniel Oyinloye, program coordinator of the group. "She's been very active and involved and has an interest in the success of the students."

Haynes was awarded the Drum Major for Peace Award at last year's Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday celebration for her work in the educational system and for advocating for African-American families involved in the child welfare system. She is also involved in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiatives (JDAI), which looks at African-American youths in the justice system.

Haynes said the Duluth community needs to be more open to talking about the issue of racism.

"Issues of racism is a taboo topic in this city," she said. "To speak of racism often burns you a negative label, and it says you are the troublemaker."

She said one of the most important things that can be done to help solve these issues is for parents to love and care for their children.

"We must share the struggles of our ancestors so that they can develop an understanding of where we are coming from as a people, which in turn, will strengthen them to face the struggles of today," Haynes said.