Being the Change: MRULE
Jeanne Gazel (seated, left) with Multi-Racial Unity Living Experience (MRULE) students
"Be the change you want to see in the world"—a somewhat idealistic phrase that is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, and also a popular T-shirt slogan—can be difficult to implement in the real world. However, the real world is precisely where Jeanne Gazel, the director of MSU's Multi- Racial Unity Living Experience, operates and where she works to inspire her students and provide them with the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to reach for this lofty goal. According to Gazel, students who have experienced MRULE learn, among other things, "to critically think about how the world is ordered, whether or not it is sustainable, and what role they can play changing and practicing that within diverse communities."
MRULE was created in 1996 by then-MSU Ph.D. student and consultant Jeanne Gazel, along with Richard Thomas, MSU professor of history (now retired). It was created at the behest of then-Provost, Dr. Lou Anna K. Simon, who wanted to see greater community building across the increasingly diverse groups on campus. After Gazel and Thomas completed a needs assessment, it became evident that a community building program based in MSU residence halls might provide one of the best ways to build relationships that could be sustained over time.
More than a program, MRULE is a transformational process for promoting individual change and growth and building relationships and community. Based on the concepts of unity and diversity, it utilizes experiential learning techniques to promote the three pillars of social justice, human agency, and action research.
MRULE student with young friend at VVOCF, Zonkizizwe, South Africa
With bases in MSU neighborhoods Brody, East, and South, MRULE offers participating students the opportunity to increase their understanding of how they can make positive change in the world, both as students and as professionals. This includes improving race relations and decreasing socioeconomic inequality and injustice in their communities. As Gazel observed, "It's a win-win situation for students and communities when we engage together to reduce barriers that prevent some people from having just basic necessities and a quality of life."
Recruited into the program by a team of MRULE student leaders from a "thoroughly diverse, volunteer group of their peers," many students participate for their entire stay at MSU. According to Gazel, MRULE "helps them to connect with one another from diverse backgrounds while connecting them to find a greater purpose."
Operationally, MRULE comprises several components. Students debate social issues in weekly roundtable discussions and participate in weekly community service. Gazel and MRULE have an ongoing relationship with Village Summit, a local youth center established by Lansing resident Marcus Brown in 2010. MRULE students mentor, tutor, and assist with activities organized by the center's volunteers, including the development and maintenance of a community garden. To further a sense of unity and relationship building, MRULE also holds monthly socials and weekend trips that integrate education, entertainment, and community organizing.
Beyond local community service, MRULE students can also participate in a study abroad program through the College of Social Science and Integrative Studies in Arts and Humanities, called "Race Relations in South Africa." Students work with South African community members and staff at VVOCF, a nonprofit support center for children orphaned and made vulnerable by the HIV/ AIDS epidemic. (VVOCF stands for Vumundzuku-bya Vana, or "Our Children's Future" in the Tsonga language.) The center is located in Zonkizizwe, an area with high unemployment and poverty outside of Johannesburg. Built largely from money raised by MRULE students, the two-building center opened in 2007 after Gazel and the center's co-founder, Christina Nomusa Buthelezi, worked to get the organization off the ground. Buthelezi is a former domestic worker turned community activist who knew little English when Gazel met her in 2002, shortly after Buthelezi learned about her own HIV-positive status.
MRULE students participate in weekly roundtable discussions, which director Jeanne Gazel calls "the backbone of the program."
To date, the center has helped nearly 500 children, youth, and their families. Buthelezi and her volunteer staff provide three meals a week and funds for school uniforms. They also accompany children and youth, some of whom are HIV-positive, to appointments with healthcare providers. These services are provided through an afterschool program that also promotes physical, academic, psychosocial, and life skills development. Visiting MSU students assist with all of these activities.
Since 2007, Gazel has accompanied some 80 MSU students to VVOCF. Through a partnership with Global Youth for Education and Change (GYEC), an East Lansing-based nonprofit organization, VVOCF also hosts an internship program for MSU students. During summer 2012 interns Annie Melcher (who created a video about the MSU-VVOCF Partnership) and Meghan McCulloch were engaged in project-based learning with Buthelezi, who is now the executive director of VVOCF. Buthelezi said that "Jeanne and MRULE have been our stable partners from the beginning of our service in 2007. They work side by side with us to help us succeed. VVOCF would not be functioning without this vital relationship." MRULE received an Outstanding Commitment award from the Clinton Global Initiative University in 2008 in recognition of the important contribution it is making through VVOCF.
More than 1,200 students have participated in MRULE over the past 13 years. Gazel has maintained a connection with many of her alumni over the years and has interviewed some in order to more systematically assess the impact MRULE has had on their lives, which has been significant. This is in preparation for the book on MRULE that she is planning to write. As she noted, "I want my scholarship and my lived experiences to inspire young scholars from all walks of life to engage where they live to improve their communities."
Gazel also taught a course on global diversity and interdependence for the Integrative Studies in Social Sciences program from 2003 to 2008 and is currently teaching a course on experiential learning. Students participate in MRULE discussions to augment course work. MRULE's approach recognizes that in order to create change, as Gazel stated, "We have to change structures but individuals have to drive that and if they are not conscious of the need, why would they engage?" MRULE students leave MSU not only with this consciousness but also better equipped to help lead change in their chosen field of work in a global, multiracial, multicultural world.
Students Reflect on the MRULE Experience
"My research interests involve manifestations of active and engaged citizenship in systematically marginalized youth. VVOCF affirmed my commitment to creating and sustaining paradigms of youth development based in parity, rather than pity."
2008 MSU graduate; 2009 VVOCF intern;
current Ph.D. candidate, Tufts University
"MRULE provided me with a safe place to share my thoughts and beliefs, to confront my own naivety, to gain understanding through the shared knowledge and experiences of my peers, to cultivate meaningful relationships, and to engage with service initiatives motivated by a deep belief in social justice...The remarkable individuals who make [MRULE and VVOCF] all that they are, the same individuals who have also become my closest friends and family, helped me transform my passion into something both thoughtful and active; they nurtured my humanity through the transparency of their own."
Summer 2012 VVOCF intern
"MRULE is the living, breathing, realized action of social justice scholarship. In MRULE, the unification of theory and action culminates in unique experiences that fundamentally change how individuals choose to live their lives. Ultimately, that should be the goal of any scholarship, and I feel truly grateful to have been a part of it."
2008 MSU B.A. in education;
humanities teacher, American Embassy School,
New Delhi, India
"The principles and values that I learned in MRULE still guide me in understanding and fulfilling my fundamental purpose in life."
2009 MSU graduate, B.S. health studies;
M.S. in public health, Harvard University;
American India Foundation Fellow, 2011-2012