Student emphasizes importance of social justice

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Since coming to IUP, Justin Cobb (junior, communications media/religious studies) has become a socially conscious individual who promotes different causes that are important to him through activism, research and service trips.

Cobb said he came from a small-town, conservative upbringing and that he has undergone major self-growth since leaving his hometown.

“I was always a socially conscious thinker, even if I didn’t always understand certain concepts that I understand now,” Cobb said.

“However, I have come to terms with who I am as an individual and have grown in multiple ways – including being more outgoing, assertive, open-minded, socially conscious and globally aware.

“I feel like I am taking command of my own destiny. Or at least making sure it’s something only me and the powers that be are negotiating.”

Activism has been important to Cobb during his three years at IUP. He has been raising awareness for different racial and social justice issues such as the Black Lives Matter campaign, the Dakota Access Pipeline, immigration, refugees and women’s rights.

Cobb attended rallies for these different causes and worked to promote the events by spreading information. He also used his media skills by volunteering his time to different causes as a photographer and social media liaison.

Cobb is working with the IUP Artistry Movement to create an event about women’s rights and history. It will focus on using different forms of expression such as art, music, poetry and writing to promote these causes.

In addition to rallies and protests, Cobb has focused his research interests on issues related to social justice, including Buddhism and refugees.

He is presenting his research on Buddhism at the Pittsburgh Asia Consortium Undergraduate Student Research Conference, which is taking place April 8 at IUP.

His research looks at Buddhism as an active political force and how it influences the cultures where Buddhism is present in areas such as China, Tibet, Japan and Myanmar.

“It surprises me just how misunderstood Buddhism is here in the United States and many Western nations,” Cobb said. “There is this inaccurate narrative portrayed in our media, whether it’s television or movies or other formats, where Buddhism is seen as this passive religion that doesn’t get involved in any sort of political or social affairs.”

As for his research about refugees, Cobb is interested in what role the media plays regarding the narrative and political discussion of the global refugee crisis. He is putting emphasis on refugees from Syria and other Muslim-dominated countries affected by President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

Cobb studies how the media portrays refugees and reinforces preconceived notions about issues such as terrorism.

He is putting an emphasis on how the voices of those impacted are being excluded from the discourse.

This research will be presented at the IUP Undergraduate Scholars Forum.

Cobb has also taken service trips to get involved with these issues firsthand.

He went with the African-American Cultural Center, now the Center for Multicultural Student Leadership and Engagement, in spring 2016 to Flint, Mich.

The group delivered water to the town during the ongoing crisis where lead pollution had infected the local water system.

“The amount of corruption that elected officials had in Flint, Mich., unveiled the wool over my eyes,” Cobb said.

“I remember when I went there and I saw the poverty. It was largely concentrated in predominantly black neighborhoods and those of poor and working-class whites.

“The people of Flint have been dealing with it for two years now. And it’s very sobering to see. I am unashamed in calling out the corporate negligence in Flint and the role that environmental racism played in it.”

Cobb plans on attending an alternative spring break trip to Paintsville, Ky. The trip is organized through the Catholic Student Association. Students will build houses and help restore the homes of locals in rural Appalachia.

Cobb wants to “learn about the working and rural poverty there,” while helping the people in one of the poorest areas in the country.

In May, Cobb is going on a two-week global service-learning trip to the Navajo Nation in Arizona.

The trip is sponsored by the IUP department of sociology. He will be doing community work and learning about Navajo culture.

Cobb has four minors in sociology, Pan-African studies, English and sustainability studies. He chose these minors because they complement his dual majors and his interests in social justice.

“I took command of my education and made it my own to not only tailor to my interests, but also to make sure that I am always being questioned and thinking critically about the world around me while learning skills that many would deem ‘marketable,’” Cobb said.

After graduation, Cobb said he will apply for the Peace Corps, but his plans beyond that are still uncertain since he wants to combine all of his various interests. He did say he would like to get a master’s degree in religion and international relations.

Cobb offered some advice to other students, especially other social activists.

“Be brave; don’t be afraid to be the odd one out in the classroom, especially when it comes to raising awareness or advocating on political and social issues,” Cobb said. “Don’t be afraid to question and be uncomfortable.

“Discomfort is good in the classroom as long as it is because your preconceived notions about the world are being challenged. It’s the only way any of us are able to grow. Make friends who are different from you and learn from one another. This is more important now than ever before.”