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College of Arts and Sciences

Professor Juan Rios Featured in TEDx Talk at Columbia University

Professor Juan Rios leading a TEDx talk at Columbia University.Social Work Professor Juan Rios gave a TEDx Talk at Columbia University entitled "Trash Bags and Transformation: Crafting Inclusive Community."

In the talk, Rios recounts his experience growing up impoverished but as part of a thriving neighborhood in the shadow of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He also recounts being displaced from his home as a result of the decision by Yale to purchase the block he lived on for faculty housing – and the shame he felt as he looked at all of his family’s belongings ("our clothes, our toys, our entire lives") get shoved into black trash bags and hoisted away into a moving truck. 

In the TED Talk, Rios notes that growing up as a small child in New Haven each week he and his sister would go to dinner at a local soup kitchen, where the ultimate prize after the meal was Boston cream pies and donuts pulled from a black trash bag filled with "garbage mashed discarded donuts" unceremoniously "plopped" in the middle of the dining hall. 

Rios notes that to this day, Boston cream donuts are his "language of love," and that much of his professional life has been devoted to being "the person who could advocate for all those who have lived their lives in black trash bags..." 

The text that accompanies the video of the TEDx talk underscores the formative impact for Professor Rios of his experience in New Haven and the effect it has had on his approach to teaching: 

Juan Rios uses a traumatic memory of displacement from childhood to understand the vital role of an inclusive community. He uses that memory and an understanding of his own dual consciousness as a university professor and member of the local community to give voice to those who are too often designed out of spaces. Only when we demand that institutions recognize themselves as members of a community can radical inclusion be achieved. As a practitioner scholar, I believe in the importance of integrating our theoretical knowledge to our practice in the field of social work. It is my academic mission to ensure our students are constantly applying scholastic thought with applied learning. My experience is both in non-profit and government sectors and presently the Clinical Director of a multiservice specialty practice and serves as a clinical consultant to community mental health agencies.

In the Ted Talk, Professor Rios recounts the context of his displacement and, more specifically, how that moment and the deep feelings of loss that accompanied it convinced him to become a social worker and to use his experience to navigate "both sides of the street" and help create "radically inclusive" communities.

New Haven is a classic tale of two cities. Institutions are often housed in undersourced communities. And in New Haven in the 90s, the crime rate was far greater than the national average. And disparity was so great, you could see the difference from one side of the street to the other. On one side of the street you would see professors with twill jackets and patches and on the other side were kids playing in playgrounds that were filled with crack vials. And from that moment, I knew I wanted to be a social worker. I wanted to be that person who could advocate for all of those who lived their lives in black trash bags. 

I wanted to be that person who gave a voice to the voiceless, who often are designed out of the planning process; who were not included as a part of this new community that was being created. We had no choice. We had no relocation assistance. We had no idea where we were going. All we knew, was that everything had ended. My loss of community; my loss of belongingness and my support system was gone.

Among other initiatives, while at Seton Hall Professor Rios has spearheaded the South Orange Community Care & Justice program, which seeks to "reimagine policing" through the lens of public health and wellness; has worked closely with the Newark Office of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery to offer educational and mental health programming at Seton Hall and elsewhere to members of the community; through the East Orange Summer Work Experience Program initiated the mental health ambassador peer counseling program in the East Orange school district – the first of its kind, training high school students to be the first line of defense for fellow student mental health and well being; and created the Reflexive, Innovative, Objective research for Social Justice Lab, also referred to as The RIOS Lab, which is a dedicated space "where students, community practitioners, and scholars can engage in empirical research to eliminate social inequities, address ethical implications of emerging technology and cultivate self-reflexive multidisciplinary projects that support social justice for all."

View the TEDx Talk at Columbia University entitled "Trash Bags and Transformation: Crafting Inclusive Community."

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