A Professor on a Mission for Equality

JU’s Nathan Rousseau, Associate Professor of Sociology, has been appointed to serve a two-year term on the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission

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A sense of passionate sincerity carries in Nathan Rousseau’s voice as he speaks.

The words seem to flow easily, lacking any of the subtle nuances of practiced, political speech. It’s like a man describing all of the vast, unexplored possibilities of a dream come to life that he discusses his most recent step forward in a life-long calling to help make the world a better place, an appointment to serve on the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission.

Appointed to a two-year term with the JHRC, ending Dec. 31, 2015, the seasoned Jacksonville University Associate Professor of Sociology began an interactive balance between the worlds of academia and of external community activism.

“The thing about being an academic is that you can get really swept away in books and writing,” Rousseau said. “That’s all really good stuff but I think that it’s also really good to balance that with trying to apply what you’re learning to the world outside the classroom.”

The JHRC, which advises the Jacksonville City Council, works to confront human rights violations existent within the city of Jacksonville, with the stated purpose of promoting and encouraging fair treatment and equal opportunity for all persons. Major issues facing the present commission include discriminatory workplace and housing practices as well as an extensive problem of human trafficking in the city and state.

Working as a human rights advocacy organization external from the city council, the commission can be “…a real voice of positive legal change in the community,” working with the city government in a “…healthy sort of checks and balances,” Rousseau said.

“I am getting introduced to a group of people that have a similar kind of passion that I do for human rights issues,” he said. “It’s really great to get into that kind of network with other likeminded people. That’s kind of new for me in this city.”

Rousseau’s involvement with the commission comes at a time of substantial social change for the city of Jacksonville. Human rights issues face an increased sense of urgency as the city continues to grow, particularly in terms of immigrant populations.

“I think that it’s vital for any city to have a lot of diversity and so I’d like to be able to do what I can to make people coming from different cultures feel like this is a good place for them to be,” Rousseau said. “And for people who have been here a long time and feel uncomfortable with a lot of change, I’d like to do what I can to help them to see that this is a beneficial change for the whole city.”

Historically however, as with many cities, cultural change has not come easily to Jacksonville. It takes strong individuals and organizations such as the JHRC working actively in the community to promote positive change and the protection of human rights while the city grows.

“Jacksonville does not have a very good history in terms of race relations and I think that it [the commission] looks at cases that are still trying to work through its past so the city can move into a good future,” Rousseau said.

This interest in human rights has driven Rousseau since childhood and took on a new meaning in high school, when he was inspired by the civil rights work of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“For me, the whole thing about immigration, about greater understanding of people from different cultures, the problem of trafficking, all of those, from my way of thinking, go back to an idea that Martin Luther King talked about,” Rousseau said. “That idea underlies a lot of how I think about what I’m doing with the human rights commission.”

Rousseau intends to use his work in the community as an opportunity to enhance his work within JU, which he sees as an increasingly diverse “…small scale version of what’s happening on a much larger scale throughout the city.”

“In some ways, it’s probably going to take some of my time away from here to be in the community,” he said. “On the other hand, that can only benefit students here because I can be a kind of go-between for students who want to get connected out in the community.”

Rousseau hopes for his office to become a confidential, safe-space for JU students and staff to discuss discriminatory policies and other human rights issues that they would like to see the commission look at.

“I would like to let others on campus know that I am open to talking to them,” Rousseau said. “If students or staff at JU feel that they have been the recipient of discrimination based upon race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual preference, I would be really interested in talking with them and seeing what can be done to make that kind of thing not happen to others.”