Western's campus always seems to be humming with the static of certain buzzwords: eco-friendly, and grassroots just to name a few. But none seems quite so prevalent as the term social justice.

The Western Debate Union, a group of students who debate competitively and also facilitate community dialogue in controversial issues, will be putting on its fifth annual free CASCAID Social Justice Conference May 2 and 3 with hope to give new life and definition to this term. The conference will offer workshops on topics broadly ranging from the death with dignity act to empowering women in Kenya, from modern slavery to how to write a letter to a politician.

Steven Woods, a communications professor, is helping organize the conference. He explained that the idea behind the theme is that it creates a large umbrella that can contain many topics. The conference planners didn't want to identify specifically as a peace conference because that title gets lumped into the category of anti-war, Woods said, and the other planners wanted the conference to remain open to everyone.

The conference started as a community project for the Western Debate Union, Woods said. It was a way of taking debate skills of critical thinking and analysis and giving them a positive, practical purpose. The main goal is to give community members a sense of personal agency which allows for a larger, community advocacy, Woods said.

Aside from the opening workshops, AS Productions Civil Controversy will bring acclaimed academic and Columbia University professor Manning Marable to campus to speak on race, crime, and justice. Western communications lecturer and conference coordinator Korry Harvey said that Marable is in the same elite category as Cornel West who spoke on campus earlier this year. Marable has written dozens of books and founded the Institute for African-American Studies at Columbia.

“He will speak about how race plays into the prison industrial complex and the justice system,” Jamie Wulfekuhle, ASP Civil Controversy assistant coordinator said.

In his previous works Marable calls attention to the $25,000 annual cost of housing one inmate, Wulfekuhle said. Marable also points out that most of these inmates are incarcerated for non-violent, drug related offenses and African Americans are more likely to be searched for drugs than whites, Wulfekuhle said.

The conference is also promoting undergraduate academics with a paper competition, Woods said. Often the process of submitting and presenting a paper to a panel is something reserved only for professors and graduate students, Woods said. This is a chance for undergrads and members of the community to showcase their work in the topic of social justice.

The competition has received submissions from Topeka, Kan., British Columbia and Oregon and will be judged by academics from various regional universities, Harvey said. The competition contains a $250 first prize and consolation prizes for second and third.

Harvey said that he is particularly excited for the presentation by a group called Project 2050, which will present on poverty in America.

“Poverty is an issue that we tend to gloss over,” Harvey said. “Currently there are 40 million people in poverty in the U.S.. 1,300 are served by the Bellingham Food bank per month.”

Generally people talk about race and ethnicity but don't address the issue of poverty, which is happening everywhere on a local level, explained Harvey.

Woods described the goal of the festival which is to bring people together to realize common interests and goals and to promote cooperative work.

“There are lots of people out there working in isolation. Our goal is to have lots of people doing lots of thing side by side,” Woods said.

There is a full list of the events online at http://www.wwucascaid.com.