Honors student writes her way to social justice
March 1, 2019

As a third-year VCU Honors College student double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights, Maryum Elnasseh has already begun carving out a spot for herself in the realm of social justice journalism. Inspired by an interest in investigative journalism, she has dedicated herself to reporting on human rights issues, with the dream of one day becoming a human rights lawyer.

By the end of her sophomore year in college, Maryum had already been published in the Huffington Post. In “The Paradox of Social Justice Culture: We Learned to Be #Woke and Forgot to Be Kind,” published in August 2017, she draws from personal experiences, noting “I had begun to notice a lack of kindness and empathy sometimes in small, day-to-day interactions within some activist movements.” She continues, explaining, “I felt like this wasn't something that was really being acknowledged, so I wanted to open more dialogue and send out a reminder—to myself first and foremost—about the importance of lacing all our actions with kindness.”

Shifting veins but still driven by a desire for social justice, Maryum went on to publish her second article, “The War on Drugs and the War on Race: The Relationship between the Reagan Administration’s Racial Sentiments and The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.” Appearing in volume 3 of The Ramerican Political Science Review, this 21-page article, which Maryum wrote during her HONR 200: Rhetoric course, delves into America’s rates of mass incarceration.

“I decided to take on this topic because I think the mass incarceration problem in our nation is absolutely devastating, and I wanted to especially explore the role of racial prejudices along with the policies that were put in place that allowed this to be a systemic issue.” Describing her approach to conducting her research, she shares, “I looked a lot at rhetoric used by Reagan before and during his presidency, inaccurate claims presented by the media, and congressional records showing exaggerated or inaccurate claims made by politicians when considering the ADAA.”

The implications of the knowledge and insight gained from her research, however, extend past the walls of the classroom. “I think my take-home lesson was understanding the importance of those in positions of power—be it the media, the president, congresspeople, or law enforcement officers—to be very careful and responsible with what they use their power for.” Furthermore, she reflects, “it was disheartening to see how decades of damage could have been prevented and lives preserved if those in power had been more conscientious in their decisions.”

Moreover, with the U.S. locking up individuals for more nonviolent, drug related crimes than any other country, the question of social justice abounds, negatively affecting not only the convicted individual, but also that person’s loved ones. “As individuals,” Maryum believes, “we have a personal responsibility and a moral obligation to work to create a better world, and the first step of that is by educating ourselves on the injustices occurring in our society so we can work together to stop them.”

Going forward, despite considering her paper on incarceration complete, Maryum does not plan to drop the topic all together. Rather, she intends to stay involved through another mean, namely the VCU Open Minds program, a course that she has signed up for twice now. This program merges the lives of VCU students with those of current Richmond City Jails inmates through combined college courses in which they learn critical thinking, social justice, and creative writing, all while sharing experiences and building community.

Maryum also hopes to publish papers in other journals, including Auctus: The Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship, and to complete a capstone course that allows journalism students to report on the Virginia General Assembly. Recently, another article written by Maryum, entitled “Poor People's Campaign delivers demands to legislators,” was picked up by AP News and now appears in the Washington Post, The Fresno Bee, and US News. In this article, she focuses on “a meeting and lobbying event held by the Poor People's Campaign, in which they discussed issues such as raising the minimum wage, restoring voting rights, and promoting renewable energy.”

The Honors College is continually impressed by Maryum and her fast accumulating accomplishments. We extend a big congratulations to her and wish her luck in her ongoing fight for social justice.