Turn Passions into Action

Social justice pedagogy meets hip hop

Turn Passions into Action

Marcella Runell Hall’s passion for hip hop, social justice, and student development led to a rich career in higher ed and a world of opportunities to create lasting change. 

Marcella Hall at Mount Holyoke student center

“What I love about higher education is that you get to do work that you really believe in and that will make an impact beyond just your institution,” observes Marcella Runell Hall, an alum of the UMass Amherst Social Justice Education doctoral program. “I’ve had all these opportunities beyond my wildest dreams to explore things that I care about and then be able to actually have had that turn into action, or have that turned into quantifiable change.”

Hall is Mount Holyoke College’s vice president for student life and dean of students, as well as a lecturer in their Department of Religion. She oversees the college’s offices of residential life, health, counseling, religious & spiritual life, community & inclusion and student programs. Hall has edited three books focusing on social justice curriculum: The Hip-Hop Education Guidebook: Volume 1 (2007) with Martha Diaz, Conscious Women Rock the Page: Using Hip-Hop Fiction to Incite Social Change (2008), and Love, Race, and Liberation: ‘Til the White Day Is Done (2010) with Jennifer “JLove” Calderon. She has also co-edited UnCommon Bonds: Women Reflect on Race & Friendship with Kersha Smith (2018).

For Hall, social justice education was the ideal platform for launching a rich career in higher education, one that combines student support, scholarship, teaching, and the opportunity to create lasting change.

Social justice education was not something Hall had planned to pursue. She majored in social work with a concentration in women’s studies at New Jersey’s Ramapo College and earned a master’s in higher education administration with a focus on multicultural education at New York University. But as she talked with mentors and friends about her passions, the UMass social justice education program came up repeatedly. She also met several UMass Amherst social justice education alumni at the Social Justice Training Institute, including Kathy Obear, who sang the praises of the program. “I like to think of it that we sort of found each other,” she recalls. “It was a divine moment where it all came together.”

“I had grown up having a huge respect and admiration for hip-hop culture, hip hop music, artists, and so much of the narrative in hip-hop that was addressing what I would now call issues of social justice.”

Marcella Runell Hall
Marcella Hall smiling

As she began working on her doctorate, Hall was interested in the connection between spirituality and religion, social movements, and social justice, as well as critical race theory. These dovetailed with her interest in popular culture—particularly hip-hop culture—and how it can be used for critical pedagogy. “I had grown up having a huge respect and admiration for hip-hop culture, hip-hop music, artists, and so much of the narrative in hip-hop that was addressing what I would now call issues of social justice.”

With support from faculty, especially her advisor and chair Barbara Love, Hall began to pursue the study of hip-hop as social justice pedagogy. After finishing her comprehensive exams, she undertook fieldwork and ethnographic research with the Hip-Hop Association in New York. “So many people were so generous with me in terms of welcoming me into conversations and organizations and places where people were really utilizing hip-hop for social justice pedagogy.”

Hall’s assistantships as a student also played a significant role in her professional life. During her first year, she was an assistant residence hall director. In that position, she co-created a living-learning program that had a social justice education course component and programming that allowed the students to explore issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Living on campus also gave Hall the opportunity to meet more students than she would otherwise, and build lasting personal and professional relationships. These were key in her successful progress through the doctoral program, providing the support and accountability she needed to manage the work. “I don’t think it’s ever too soon to start figuring out who your network of support is going to be in your process.”

After her residence life position, Hall worked with Barbara Love, managing one-credit immersive weekend courses for undergraduates. Hall taught in the program, and was able to shadow Love as she mentored other graduate student instructors. “I learned incredible, lifelong frameworks and strategies for teaching about social justice,” she says of the experience. “That immersion pedagogy of doing those weekends and really thinking about one issue, saliently over time, really framed so much of my professional practice.” Additionally, Hall taught Education 210, where she had a thorough education in teaching as an art form from professor Maurianne Adams.

My entire life changed as a result of coming to UMass.

Hall was also lucky enough to work with Ximena Zúñiga on intergroup dialogues, another career-making experience. “Ximena is a guru of intergroup dialogue, internationally known for creating and sustaining such an incredible program.” With the skills she developed in the UMass intergroup dialogue program, Hall later created a similar program at NYU, which has continued for more than 10 years, and restarted one at Mount Holyoke.

Hall completed her Ed.D. in 2011. She worked briefly at the Bank Street College of Education in collaboration with the New York Times Learning Network in New York before becoming a fellow at the Tannenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, where she developed resources and curriculum for educational programs. From the Tannenbaum Center, she returned to NYU as their inaugural diversity educator, associate director of CMEP, and the founding co-director for the Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership where she developed curriculum for NYU’s first minor in multifaith and spiritual leadership, and taught a course called “Whose Social Justice is it Anyway?” Near the end of her NYU tenure, the university awarded her the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Faculty Award, which recognizes those who exemplify the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through their excellent teaching, leadership, social justice work, and community building.

In 2014, Hall took a position as dean of students at Mount Holyoke College and after two years, also became vice president for student life. At Mount Holyoke, she has co-created the MoZone Diversity Peer Education program, Be Well Mount Holyoke, the aforementioned Intergroup Dialogue, Living Learning Communities, and the Dean’s Corner. She is also a lecturer in the religion department, where she has reprised “Whose Social Justice is it Anyway?”

Hall has loved being part of the community of Mount Holyoke—its students, the college’s traditions, and the opportunities it has afforded her. She also loves that the Mount Holyoke position has bought her back into the UMass Amherst orbit. “I think that being a part of the UMass broader network has been really awesome,” she asserts. “I very proudly talk about being an alum and understanding the importance of this network and all the opportunities and fantastic things that uniquely come with this experience. My entire life changed as a result of coming to UMass; I’ll be forever grateful for that.”