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Major Insight Episode 9: Using Political Science to Fight for Social Change

On this episode, Ellen Florek talks about reexamining the U.S. educational system, her goal to protect women’s rights, and how learning about disabilities studies and social justice can bring valuable insight to students pursuing almost any career path. Ellen’s work as a political science major links law, reproductive rights, and disability rights to advocate for the kinds of policies and practices that can impact the lives of people everywhere.

Featured Majors

Political Science, Special Education, Social Justice Studies

Featured Study Abroad

Luxembourg MUDEC Program

Featured Awards & Organizations

Law and Public Policy Scholars Program, Bridges Program

Music: “Only Knows” by Broke For Free

Read the transcript

James Loy:

Major Insight is a production of Miami University. This is where we showcase successful students, their promising new research and its relevance in our world. There is a harmonious connection between the many and varied passions of Ellen Florek. As a political science major who also studies special education and social justice studies, her work links law, reproductive rights and disability rights to advocate for the kinds of policies and practices that can impact the lives of people everywhere.

James Loy:

On this episode of Major Insight, she talks about reexamining the educational system here in the United States, her goal to protect women's rights and about how learning about disability studies and social justice can bring valuable insights to any student pursuing almost any career path. Now here's Ellen Florek and host Jacob Bruggeman with more.

Jacob Bruggeman:

All right, Ellen, I guess we'll begin as we've begun before, would you just give us a little bit of a background in terms of your research interests and how you came to those while here at Miami. Be it through courses or...

Ellen Florek:

Yeah. Yeah. So I am a political science major with minors in special education, social justice studies. So that has kind of formed me to lead into a lot of different kinds of research because it's very interdisciplinary. So specifically I'm interested in reproductive rights policy, disability rights policy in politics and education law.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Excellent. So you have two different research projects that sort of fall within those spheres. One of them being sort of a comparative study of different educational institutions and then another one being part of your honors thesis, the reproductive rights policy analysis of... I guess it might be intergovernmental or... Can you give us a little bit of a description?

Ellen Florek:

Yeah. So I'll start with the education one first. So fall semester, junior year I studied abroad in Luxembourg at the MUDEC Campus and I received a grant to do a independent study comparing the special education systems of Luxembourg, Finland and the United States. So I was familiar with the United States special education system through volunteering, knowing people in the field and taking special education classes here at Miami. I did more research in Luxembourg, went to an international school there and interviewed some teachers and then I actually also flew to Finland to do field research and visited a school there, interviewed teachers, and students, and administrators about their experience in the special education system in that country.

Ellen Florek:

What I basically ended up with as my final product was a policy proposal paper where I compared each system's weaknesses, strengths and kind of took each strength of each system and formed a overarching what I would view as a better system to propose.

Jacob Bruggeman:

What are the pillars or tenants of that better system?

Ellen Florek:

Yeah. So some things that the United States does really well is that we educate absolutely everybody thanks to some national laws like IDEA, which is the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. Not every country does that so we do that really well, but Finland for example, heralded as one of the best education systems in the world, does really well early intervention, which is key for special education. As well as they have a very positive culture surrounding their educational system, which isn't exactly as common in the United States, which helps prevent problems that we're having with teacher burnout. A lot of teachers don't feel respected in the profession. That's not as much of a problem in Finland.

Ellen Florek:

In terms of Luxembourg's strengths, they do a really excellent job with serving their diverse immigrant communities. Luxembourg is very heavily immigrant, has a lot of different populations of people in special education. That becomes somewhat of a challenge because people who don't speak English as their first language are both over and under identified for special education services. So I have kind of made a proposal that we should take more after Luxembourg in how they serve their diverse learners.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Yeah. It sounds like maybe the two case studies you used, Luxembourg and Finland, might have more of a personalized approach, whereas in the US... They're more attentive whereas in the US, the strength is the blanket education. Everyone's being educated, but there may not, in all places in all times in the United States, be enough resources to do that effectively.

Ellen Florek:

Yeah. And that's definitely one of the big challenges I do acknowledge is that Luxembourg and Finland are both relatively small countries compared to the United States. So resources is definitely at play in the feasibility of this. One of the other recommendations I make is Luxembourg specifically has a whole department in each school dedicated just the paperwork that has associated with special education.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Wow.

Ellen Florek:

There's a lot of paperwork involved, which is one of the main things cited by special education teachers when they talk about being burned out and tired of their job. That is not always a possibility for every district in the United States due to funding. So some of these are very ambitious policy proposals to make, but I think it's still important to get that kind of information out there and think about that.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Yeah, and there's a lot of that paper pushing just for someone like me who doesn't know anything about special education really, is that medical related or regulatory paperwork? [crosstalk 00:05:57].

Ellen Florek:

Yeah. It's more regulatory. There's a lot of laws in place that require teachers to document everything. The IEP, which is for those who don't know, an individualized education plan, every student with a disability has that. Requires a lot of meetings and documentation and administrative work that, from my experience, most teachers don't enjoy. They would rather be teaching their students than sitting in meetings all day.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Well since we're on the topic of regulation, we may as well segue into the topic of your reproductive rights policy research. Give us a little bit of an overview of what you're working on. It's an ongoing project, one that you'll finish up at the end of the year, right, for your honors thesis?

Ellen Florek:

Yes, correct. So my honors thesis kind of really came out of my passion project combining all three of my interests, so my major and my two minors. So basically I have taken a disability studies and feminist kind of perspective and applied it to reproductive rights policy, specifically looking at laws and legislation surrounding abortions in cases of fetal abnormality. So this is honestly very... It's a very hot button topic right now. People, both sides of the reproductive rights of the abortion to be have kind of used this idea of terminating fetuses that have a prognosis of disability as support for their argument.

Ellen Florek:

On the pro-choice side, they kind of think that a woman should be able to decide if their fetus has severe abnormalities to kind of terminate early. Whereas on the pro-life side they have heralded this is kind of as a type of discrimination. So it's a very complex issue. There's a lot of actually legislation going on surrounding this that people don't, I think, know about it and it doesn't get a lot of attention because I don't think people fully understand the issue.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Yeah. In a state like our own, I think there's been some pretty controversial bills coming out of the state legislature. Correct?

Ellen Florek:

Yeah, so Ohio has been definitely a test tube kind of for some very controversial legislation regarding reproductive rights and so one of the most relevant ones to my project specifically has been this down syndrome ban that we have, it's currently. So it was passed in 2017 I believe, and it was basically a ban on abortions in cases where the woman is only seeking an abortion because of a fetal diagnosis of down syndrome. This has currently been held up in a court, a federal judge has stopped this from being enforced basically.

Ellen Florek:

So it's not currently in place right now, although it has passed our legislature. This is really interesting to me. I think that it kind of crosses into this moral ethical gray area of questioning why a woman's getting an abortion. What's in her head. It's hard to determine that. Truly. And so the point of my policy proposal is to kind of suggest other adjacent policies that may mitigate and reduce the reasons why women want an abortion in cases of fetal abnormality or cases where the fetus might be diagnosed with down syndrome or other disabilities that are very much so still conducive for living a productive life.

Ellen Florek:

So I recommend other policies such as more comprehensive healthcare, and affordable childcare, and just like better education for women who are pregnant and are expecting a child with a disability so they can make a more informed decision. But my ultimate goal is to still make a proposal that keeps a woman's right to choose intact as well.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Yeah. But it sounds like a lot of your proposals are sort of proactive. They're focusing on the education, as you said. Health care, et cetera, et cetera. Taking a few steps back, could you explain for our listeners and me what the disability studies or the feminist approach is that you're bringing into this project?

Ellen Florek:

Yeah. So the disability studies one is something I really had no idea what that was until I got to Miami, until I took disability studies classes for my special education minor and my social justice studies minor. That was something that was really introduced to me here and so disability studies, the way I'm applying it in this context is the idea that in some ways society can disable people. So that's where these policies that I'm suggesting come in. So society can disable people by being inaccessible through not having ramps. It's not the fact that you can't walk that you can't get into buildings because there's only stairs.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Do you see any way in which these studies at Miami University, be they in disability studies or just generally like the broader field of social justice classes, and courses, and the things you're learning in those fields at Miami, do you see them as lending themselves to change on campus? Do you think they can translate to students like yourself making Miami's small society, if you will, more equitable or more accessible to folks?

Ellen Florek:

I definitely think they can. I truly do believe that the world would be a much better place in Miami, it's own little ecosystem, would be a better place if everyone took an intro to social justice studies, or disability studies, or any kind of those prospective broadening classes. Specifically social justice studies, it covers a wide array of topics I think that most people have never thought about in their life, especially Miami students.

Ellen Florek:

I do believe, I know myself included, I grew up kind of in a bubble in that I didn't see inequality actively as much in my like personal life. It existed and I don't think I just wasn't aware of it or actively was tuning it out. Then once I came to Miami, took these classes, learned more about it, learned what to look for, it kind of opened up my whole worldview and I definitely think that because of that I have a stronger sense of what I care about, what I'm passionate about, what I think is right and wrong. I think just taking one class can give people a taste of that at Miami and kind of do the same for them. Honestly, I think if you take one class, most people will find it interesting and compelling enough that they would like to take more and learn more.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Yeah. It's a field that somehow gives shape to a worldview it sounds like. Before you're going in, for example, in my case to history or political science classes, you just have a rougher or less well-defined picture of the world.

Ellen Florek:

Yeah, and I think that part of it too, since it shapes more of a lens that you have that you view the world with, it can apply to any major then. You don't have to be just a political science major, or a sociology major, or a history major to take this class and have it impact you. If you're a business major, a finance major, you will find a way that social justice somehow touches your future career or a way that you can take ideas used in social justice philosophy and apply to your career to be more conscientious.

Jacob Bruggeman:

And so it can also perhaps apply to different research areas on campus.

Ellen Florek:

Yes.

Jacob Bruggeman:

See areas of opportunity there. I mean beyond say the fields we've talked about, are there certain areas, I mean I know this is the case in history at least, but that social justice could lend itself to producing an interesting and important kind of research?

Ellen Florek:

I definitely can see that. Off the top of my head, I have a friend who is an economics major and she is going into public finance and so that is kind of a field that I don't... Finance isn't a field that people generally think of as social justice friendly, but I think if she applies any kind of things she learned from a social justice class it will really inform the way she does work when she does mutual funds for municipalities, which is what her job will be.

Jacob Bruggeman:

For somebody like the friend you mentioned, do you think that upon leaving Miami that there's going to be a challenge in carrying what they've learned into a structure, a workplace that may not necessarily be open to that type of worldview?

Ellen Florek:

Yeah. So one of the major things we learn in social justice, a major takeaway we have, is that it doesn't always need to be those big dramatic acts of activism. You don't need to get arrested for civil disobedience. Small acts or the small everyday things that you can do are arguably more impactful. It's the everyday groundwork that you set and you can do that in anything you do. As a teacher, as someone who works in finance, as someone who's a lawyer, literally anything you do, you can make small acts to fight a greater system of injustice.

Jacob Bruggeman:

So a modern version of paying it forward perhaps with a particular aim. Where do you think these research projects and their relevance in our contemporary world will take you next? You have some plans after graduation but share those with us and how you think that you'll carry your research forward.

Ellen Florek:

Yeah, so currently right now I will graduate in May and then I'm going to teach special education in Tulsa, Oklahoma through the organization Teach for America. So that really kind of calls back to my education interests and then after that I plan to go to law school. I'm not positive where yet, but in the end I hope to practice children's rights law or disability rights law. So really my interests kind of come back into play. I mean they'll always be there, but they come back to me I think as a lawyer. I will hopefully be advocating for policies and representing people in cases that apply to disability studies, that I can use my social justice study lens in.

Jacob Bruggeman:

So you'll be bringing your... It will be a perfect Miami plan moment in which you're bringing your studies to bear in the real world.

Ellen Florek:

Yeah.

Jacob Bruggeman:

So we've talked a little bit about why your research is important beyond Miami's halls and classrooms, but if you had to really bring it down to a few sentences for our listeners, why do you think it's important to consider things from the social justice and disability studies perspectives that you've sort of outlined and that you have brought into Miami in your research?

Ellen Florek:

I think overall just using a social justice studies perspective in everyday life and everything you do makes us better people. It gives us kind of this overarching kind of moral guide to go off of where we can be more considerate and understand things from a different perspective. I don't think that's ever a bad thing.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Excellent. Well thank you Ellen, and best of luck after graduation.

Ellen Florek:

Thanks Jacob.

James Loy:

Ellen Florek earned a degree in political science at Miami where she also minored in special education and social justice studies. She's currently a special education teacher in Oklahoma before planning to attend law school. If you've enjoyed this episode of Major Insight, please share it with a friend, with students, or with anyone who hopes to make an impact on their world. You can find many more episodes for free right now on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

SHOW NOTES:

Featured Majors: 

Political Science, Special Education, Social Justice Studies

Featured Awards & Organizations:

Law and Public Policy Scholars Program, Bridges Program

Featured Study Abroad:

Luxembourg MUDEC Program

Major Insight

 

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Major Insight is a production of Miami University. This is where we showcase our students and how they transform academic subjects into lifelong passions. Join us wherever you listen to your podcasts and discover these students journeys.

Host Jacob Bruggeman

Jacob Bruggemam

The Major Insight podcast is hosted by Jacob Bruggeman. Bruggeman, a Miami Honors student and double-major in History and Political Science created the podcast to feature stories of students navigating 21st century academic life.

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