The front lines of social justice

Students laughing during Shopfront activityShopfront is spearheading UTS student and alumni involvement in the not-for-profit sector.

Most students would be happy to add practical experience with real-world problems to their degree. But imagine the satisfaction of doing so in a not-for-profit where you can actually make a difference.

Shopfront, established two decades ago, is a community engagement program – one of the first of its kind in Australia. Through Shopfront, more than 300 students a year across all faculties work with around 50 disadvantaged and under-resourced community organisations as an integrated part of their coursework. They work directly on projects that have been initiated by these organisations under the supervision of industry mentors.

Shopfront brokers these relationships between the community organisations, students, mentors and academics. “We provide that extra layer of support for students and community partners to engage with each other and, in turn, improve the quality of the work they do,” says Shopfront manager Pauline O’Loughlin.

Projects range from working on long-term environmental initiatives to working on rebranding, organisational change, management issues with groups that embrace disability, arts and culture, marginalised youth, refugees or childcare.

With the support of Deputy Vice Chancellor (International and Advancement), Professor Bill Purcell, Shopfront launched the UTS: SOUL Award in 2013. SOUL stands for: social outcomes through university leadership, and is an extra-curricular, university-wide volunteer and leadership program. In the two years since, more than 2000 students have signed up for the award.

“Shopfront and the SOUL Award speak very closely to UTS’s broader vision of social justice and equity,” says Professor Purcell. “I’m excited that we can approach these challenges with new ideas and ask what we can do differently.”

The volunteer activities develop valuable life skills, O’Loughlin says: “Students deal with real-life situations, learn to work in a team, employ active listening and empathy skills to deliver strong collaborative results.”

Some students go on to work with community groups or do pro bono work, and that is exactly what happened to Bachelor of Communications student, Lily Brouwer-French.

In her last semester, Brouwer-French completed a weekly internship through Shopfront, working with FoodSwell, a social enterprise that focusses on heath and sustainable food for Indigenous and disadvantaged Australians. For her project, Brouwer-French contacted youth organisations across western NSW, discussing their health and well-being programs. Having completed her degree in December, she is now working in the sector.

“I would really recommend Shopfront to other students,” says Brouwer-French. “The project developed my research and interview skills and gave me a certain confidence about going into a workplace and getting a job done.”

Story: Melinda Ham
Photography: UTS Shopfront