The Gustavian Weekly

The Evolution of Building Bridges

By Jaurdyn Gilliss Features Editor | March 7, 2014 | Features

This photo features the Building Bridges conference of 2012 which centered on American Indian history and culture. They discussed the impact of colonization on American Indians, past and present. This year, the conference centers on environmental justice. The discussion will highlight the intersections of race, class, identity, and the environment. Clark Kampfe

This photo features the Building Bridges conference of 2012 which centered on American Indian history and culture. They discussed the impact of colonization on American Indians, past and present. This year, the conference centers on environmental justice. The discussion will highlight the intersections of race, class, identity, and the environment. Clark Kampfe

Building Bridges continues to grow

Junior Mark Zorilla takes in a deep breath as Senior Kelly Dumais giggles uncomfortably. Both share a knowing glance at the thought of their nervousness for the pinnacle of their year thus far, the opening of the 19th Annual Building Bridges conference, to which they are co-chairs.

“This whole year we’ve been running around with our heads cut off, but now we get to enjoy the conference and learn more about our passion: environmental justice,” Zorilla said.

Today, the conference that Zorilla and Dumais, as well as the rest of the Building Bridges committee, have prepared is considered a signature event at Gustavus. However, six years ago, it didn’t hold the same title.

“Twenty years ago, the conference was very small. We did our own publicity, had fewer speakers, and today we have professional publicity with multiple high profile speakers so the reach of Building Bridges is expanding exponentially,” Senior Student Advisor Becca Eastwood said.

Since Building Bridges was started twenty years ago, it has continually improved its status. The conferences have focused on issues such as human trafficking, immigration, educational inequality and genocide awareness and have slowly, with the help of funding, brought well-known speakers, such as Freedom Writer Erin Gruwell and Paul Rusesabagina of Hotel Rwanda fame, to campus.

“I think a big thing is more money has been invested in it over time, and any time there’s more money you’re able to get more well-known speakers and publicize more. Each of those things combined with the work and dedication Virgil Jones, who worked extensively with Building Bridges in the past, and the students made it possible for the conference to become bigger and more influential,” former advisor Marie Walker said.

In 2012, the conference was honored with the recipient of the Minnesota College Professional Association’s Voice of Inclusion Award, which recognizes initiatives or individuals who serve Minnesota higher education by creating exemplary environments of inclusion for students, employees, and/or institutions.

“It’s wonderful to see how the community, as well as the institution has grasped and absorbed it into the justice pillar of the institution. Five years ago, it was just a conference and now the funding has changed to be more permanent,” Zorilla said.

This year, the conference centers on environmental justice. Social justice has been at the core of Building Bridges since it was started, so some students protest the topic as not reaching the usual standard. However, those who’ve been studying the topic insist otherwise.

“Environmental justice really exists at the intersection of a ton of other social justice issues. I think the keynote speakers as well as the conference itself will do a great job at explaining why this issue doesn’t stray from the core of our mission at all,” Dumais said.

Most who’ve studied the topic have become impassioned about environmental injustice as a human rights violation. Some, like Zorilla, have even decided to take action and make changes already.

“It’s crazy to think that before, I saw myself finishing school and maybe going back to Houston, Texas, the petro chemical hub of the nation, working for an oil company and now I say, ‘hell no’. I want to go into green energy. It really changes your life,” Zorilla said.

Feelings like this solidify the growing impact and support that the Building Bridges conference has and continues to develop within the Gustavus community.

“I think that this conference fills such an important role on this campus that I am always really proud to see how much and in what ways it’s grown and I love watching students who are not even on the committee get really excited about the issues presented,” Eastwood said.


Event Schedule

8 a.m. – Registration

9 a.m. – Opening remarks by co-chairs, I Am We Are performance in Christ Chapel

10 a.m. – Van Jones keynote address in Christ Chapel

11 a.m. – Lunch Break

12 p.m. – Alexie Torres-Fleming keynote address in Alumni Hall

1 p.m. – Q & A with keynote speakers, Workshop session

2 p.m. – Workshop session

3 p.m. – Workshop session and action piece

4 p.m. – Workshop session and action piece

5 p.m. – Action Piece


Keynote Speakers

Van Jones

Jones, who will deliver the morning keynote address at 10 a.m. in Christ Chapel, is the author of two New York Times best sellers and personifies environmental justice through both environmental and civil rights activism. His first book, The Green Collar Economy, was hailed as the definitive book on green jobs. His second and latest book is titled Rebuild the Dream and is a reflection on his time as Special Adviser for the White House Council for Environmental Quality under the Obama administration. Jones is also the founder of Green for All, a national organization working to provide green jobs to disadvantaged communities, and the co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Color of Change. He was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2009.

Alexie Torres-Fleming

Torres-Fleming, who will give the afternoon keynote address at 12 p.m. in Alumni Hall, is a visionary environmental justice activist from the Bronx who strives to help communities understand their own power. In 1994, Torres-Fleming founded Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice with the mission to rebuild the Bronx River neighborhoods of the South Bronx by preparing young people to become voices for peace and justice. She has received numerous awards for her work including the 2008 Rockefeller Foundation’s Jane Jacobs Medal for New Ideas and Activism.


Topic Objectives thought the Years

Building-Bridges-20102010 – Surviving the Land of Opportunity

Building Bridges focused on the two sides of immigration– the struggles immigrants face and the strength required to survive these struggles every day. After beginning to learn about immigration the committee wondered, “What can we do to support immigrants and spread awareness about this issue?”

Fist-pic2011 – I’m Not for Sale: Slavery Past and Present

Building Bridges placed a spotlight on slavery and emphasized what students can do to help. In particular, they discussed the effects of the slave trade from a historical perspective leading up to modern-day slavery.

founding fathers2012 – Unresolved Conflict: Remember our Forgotten History

Building Bridges placed a spotlight on American Indian history and culture. In particular, they discussed the impact of colonization on American Indians, past and present. They provided workshops that remembered the history and celebrated American Indian culture.


Building-Bridges-2013-597x10242013 – Sentenced for Life: Confronting the Calamity of Mass Incarceration

Bulding Bridges placed a spotlight on the injustice of America’s prison system.

Building Bridges this year2014 – Demanding Environmental Justice

Building Bridges will discuss the intersections of race, class, identity, and the environment. They are working to change the narrative of environmentalism which are not just scientific concerns, but human rights violations.

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