Leading by Example

April 11, 2012

Kathryn Norsworthy
Professor of Graduate Studies in Counseling Kathryn Norsworthy testifies on behalf of OADO.

Think back on every social change that has ever come about. Behind it you’ll likely find a small group of committed individuals invested in the cause for no other reason than they believed in a better world and couldn’t stand around waiting for someone else to lead the charge. Advocates and activists, as Margaret Mead once said, change the world.

Professor of Graduate Studies in Counseling Kathryn Norsworthy and Professor of Critical Media and Cultural Studies Lisa Tillmann are such world-changers. For more than a decade, the pair has worked with the Orlando Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Committee (OADO) to secure protection for Central Floridians from discrimination on the bases of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

In the process, they have worked to reform more than a dozen discrimination policies, including securing domestic partner benefits for City of Orlando employees, and most recently, establishing the City of Orlando Domestic Partnership Registry.

“There is no federal or Florida law protecting our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) citizens. Therefore, in the absence of a city or county ordinance, it is perfectly legal to fire someone for no other reason than being LGBT,” Tillmann said. “But, because of civil rights initiatives to which we and many others have contributed, it is now illegal in Orange County to discriminate on these bases.”

At Rollins, Norsworthy helped secure domestic partner benefits for both same- and different-sex couples, and Norsworthy and Tillmann lobbied for the College's Equal Opportunity Policy to be inclusive of gender identity and expression. The two also helped implement the Safe Zone program, which trains members of the Rollins community in being allies for the LGBT community on campus and beyond. 

Tillmann is quick to stress that their work has definitely been a team effort, and that their partnership has created a special symbiosis. “We strategize and debrief before and after public meetings. We constantly learn from each other and from our experiences, so that we can become more effective advocates,” she said. “We support one another, and boost one another when a public official is frustrating or things aren’t looking good. From a personal level, it’s been very gratifying having a comrade.” Norsworthy wholeheartedly agrees.  “I came into my own as an activist through my 10-year collaboration with Lisa in our OADO and Rollins social action, especially because we took on this work on as a team.”
All of the hours Tillmann and Norsworthy have poured into these causes have been understandably rewarding. Equally rewarding has been sharing their first-hand advocacy experience in their courses and seeing their students catch the advocacy bug.

Professors Kathryn Norsworthy and Lisa Tillmann
(Left to right) Professors Lisa Tillmann and Kathryn Norsworthy.
“In spring 2011, I taught a class titled Solidarity, Equality, Community, which centered on LGBT civil rights and history,” Tillmann said. “Many of my students aren’t familiar with the legal situation in the LGBT community and continually express surprise that so many inequalities persist.”

Inspiring Students

Shining a light on important issues and fostering a newfound sense of awareness for her students are everyday occurrences in Tillmann’s courses, and the result is often that a student, previously unaware of a social issue, suddenly feels compelled to step into the world of advocacy.

This was the case with Adrian Cohn ’10, who was one of five students who created a film called This is My Rollins College T-Shirt, which sought to educate the campus community about where Rollins’ wearables come from and under what conditions they are made. The film premiered in the 2008 Global Peace Film Festival and later screened at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

“Professor Tillmann has always encouraged me and her students to look at society and think about what’s happening from a different point of view. She is always bringing it back to real-world applications and change,” said Cohn, who now works in New Orleans as an AmeriCorps Site Supervisor with St. Bernard Project. “The next stage is figuring out how you can contribute a solution. She was very good at guiding us through the steps to getting a movement started.”

Cohn, who admits that he definitely had the activism bug before he arrived at Rollins, felt that his professors were able to provide him with the tools to actually have an impact on the issues he saw around him. “There is a lot of need for people to step up to the plate and tackle social issues. You don’t have to look far to find problems,” he said. “But at Rollins, we really adopted the mission of global citizenship and responsible leadership. In my mind, I see these problems and solvable.” 

Access to Real-World Advocacy

Like Tillmann, Norsworthy infuses advocacy into all the courses she teaches in the masters in counseling program. “One of the things that is wonderful about the counseling and psychology profession is that it has become a professional imperative that we use our knowledge and skills to change the systemic inequities that lead people to have mental health issues in the first place,” said Norsworthy, referring to forms of discrimination that lead people to feel like they can’t succeed or to encounter barriers that can’t be overcome.

“In the masters of counseling program, we have identified advocacy and activism as a set of skills that students need to learn and apply,” Norsworthy said. “They all are required to do a social justice pre- practicum, which mandates that they go out and volunteer in an organization that does advocacy and social change work.”

Alicia Rosenberg ’13, is one such student. Rosenberg completed her pre-practicum work at Equality Florida, the largest civil rights organization in the state dedicated to securing full equality for Florida’s LGBT community. “Through Professor Norsworthy and my practicum experience, I’m learning that you just can’t ignore the struggles going on around us or our collective responsibility to be an ally,” said Rosenberg.

The key for Rosenberg as she learned about advocacy was learning how to be an advocate. “I always wanted to help, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t have guidance,” she said. “I’ve learned that being an ally doesn’t mean that you lead the charge; it’s standing with, walking beside. This outlook eliminates the need for us to see each other’s differences and instead become partners.”

Having a professor with such extensive first-hand experience in advocacy was one of the primary reasons she chose Rollins’ masters in counseling program. “Professor Norsworthy completely embodies the idea of social justice and being an ally,” she said. “A lot of people make it an option, something they do on the weekend. But advocacy is incorporated into her entire life. She made it an emergency that we care for each other.”

Walking Their Talk

While both Tillmann and Norsworthy take seriously their role in creating the next generation of responsible citizens, they see their contributions to their community as being equally essential.

“I am a psychologist, and one of the things that developmental psychology reveals is how important it is for us to have people in our lives who embody the values and principles that they espouse,” Norsworthy said. “We faculty who are mentoring these students at the undergraduate and graduate level and teaching them how to make a difference have a responsibility to know what it takes to be effective social change agents, and especially how to mobilize others in the process.”

By Kristen Manieri

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