The Importance of the Liberal Arts in Social Justice Communication

By Bailey DeSimone

Although International Women’s Day has passed, the crucial advocacy work of feminist and human rights organizations persists daily. In Washington, D.C., the International Center for Research on Women focuses on advancing gender equity, inclusion, and the alleviation of poverty on a global scale.

Lyric Thompson, Director of Policy and Advocacy, is a shining example of the irreplaceable educational and personal value of the liberal arts through her internationally-reaching work at the International Center for Research on Women.

Thompson studied communications (concentration in rhetorical studies) with a minor in social and economic justice at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.

“It was certainly a very proud moment,” Thompson recalls. “The Phi Beta Kappa brand was, and continues to be, very strong and well-respected.” She belongs to the Alpha chapter of North Carolina. “Getting the key and telling my friends and family about it was something to be proud of—Phi Beta Kappa was distinguished among the many honors societies one had opportunities to join. Everything else didn’t compare.”

In the spirit of Phi Beta Kappa’s mission to promote learning as a guiding principle in life, Thompson’s career path following graduation from UNC embodies what she values in a liberal arts education: “the foundation to think critically about issues, how to discern between messages, symbols, and evidence, and how to articulate ideas in a way that is compelling to [one’s] audience.”

“I recall liberal arts skeptics questioning the value of a liberal arts education, and asking ‘Will you ever use it?’ But I like to say that I studied communications and social and economic justice, and every day I communicate about social and economic justice in my career,” Thompson adds. “I feel that training prepared me very well to do my work in advocating for women’s rights.”

In January, Thompson and her colleagues in the Feminist United Nations Campaign published a progress report detailing the efforts of the new U.N. Secretary General, António Guterres, to incorporate a feminist agenda into U.N. policies and procedures.

“The Feminist U.N. Campaign takes our research to the highest tables of power, in this case the U.N. Secretary General and his team,” Thompson explains. “We gathered U.N. watchers and women’s rights advocates at the U.N. for a symposium to outline what a more Feminist U.N. would look like, in the hopes it would inform the agenda of the new Secretary General. The campaign seeks to confront gender-based violence, reform women’s rights processes, give U.N. women a full budget, and increase financing for women’s issues.

The progress report was overall positive. “The Campaign presented a hundred-day agenda comprised of six issues that we identified as the key areas the new S.G. would need to tackle in order to foster a more Feminist U.N., and then published report cards on his progress on our agenda during the first hundred days and again after his first year,” Thompson recalls. “We’re pleased that Mr. Guterres, who has now identified as a feminist, has been incredibly responsive to much of this agenda.” Specific examples include his commitments to achieving gender parity in his cabinet and appointments, tackling sexual and gender-based violence in the U.N., and increasing financing for gender equality and women’s rights. 

To the liberal arts majors preparing for graduation or who have recently completed their degrees, Thompson shares her story. “My first days out of college, I started as an intern, and I was able to hit the ground running in a nonprofit, the Global Justice Center, that cared about women’s rights. The training I received at Chapel Hill had prepared me for work such as writing website copy and grant proposals, as well as analyzing policy documents from the U.N. with regard to women’s rights.”

As is evident from Thompson’s expertise in her field and satisfaction with her career, the skill set she developed during her liberal arts education was crucial to her success, “They needed someone who could understand issues and write about them,” she recalls. “I wrote articles, wrote for grant-writing team, and this work was consistent with the exercises on reading and writing about issues that I learned at Carolina. Internships with smaller organizations like the Global Justice Center are valuable because they are likely to give experience going into first job interviews with qualitative experience.”

Thompson describes her career path from there as a “direct line”—“I knew I wanted to work on global women’s issues and upon landing in the nonprofit world I felt I was a born advocate.” Following her internship and graduation from the Bard College Program on Globalization and International Affairs, she served as an advocate and policy advisor for Women for Women International for four years before transitioning to the International Center for Research on Women.

“Most of our research and advocacy at ICRW focuses on the developing world. Our research identifies problems women and girls face and works to uncover solutions as well. For example, in the last twenty years the international community has done a very good job of pushing for gender parity at primary school level, but we lose girls and women after that,” Thompson explains. “We are still looking at attrition rates at the secondary school transition—at the onset of puberty, menstruation, marriage, dropout rates become much higher. Our research looks at how do you keep girls in school, and my role on the advocacy side is to make sure the U.N. and governments know about those solutions.”

While most of the Center’s work is international, increasingly it is also addressing pressing social and economic issues for girls and women in the United States.

When asked what we, whether a member of Phi Beta Kappa, a student of the liberal arts, or even a citizen of the world, could do in order to contribute to the success of Thompson’s work, she answered: “Education on gender equality! As we have seen with the #MeToo movement, we need as many people as possible, men, women, girls, boys and gender non-conforming, to talk about these issues. Research shows that we must start as young as possible—in schools with schoolchildren, talking about and understanding gendered norms and working to un-learn harmful and discriminatory attitudes and behaviors—and campus groups, associations, and honors societies certainly have a role to play in promoting positive norms and starting those conversations.”

Bailey DeSimone (ΦBK, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2017) is an Archives Intern with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a Library Assistant with the Council on Foreign Relations. At Chapel Hill, DeSimone majored in history and global studies. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is home to the Alpha of North Carolina Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.