What the heck is social justice, anyway…

It is probably an oddity that, coming up on almost 3 years of blogging about a social justice-themed film, I am just now putting out the question of “what is social justice.” I teach it, study it, practice it…yet I find myself back to the place of asking that question. Will I answer it here? Unlikely. But as is my habit, I write here to try to work this stuff out in my head…

Social justice gets a bad rap. When it is talked about on the news, it is usually paired with words like, “communist” and “progressives” and the newly-made bad word, “liberals.” Detractors try to associate it with anarchy and chaos, government overthrow, and the dismantling of society.

So in fairness, that’s because when social justice work is happening, it usually is calling out forms of oppression that occur at larger levels, such as in law, institution, policy, government. Social justice will look at educational systems, business practices, social practices, and just about any other existing system and how it serves to empower and disempower. Social justice attempts to address systemic injustice that results in the oppression of historically marginalized groups; thus it tends to focus on people who have experienced racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and so on. When social justice activism works, you get things like marriage equality, which is a pretty big upheaval of the status quo.

So yes, social justice workers do tend to be loud rabble rousers who get people riled up. That’s because when you’re pointing out that someone is benefiting at the expense and exploitation of others, that person usually gets kinda pissed off. And they work really hard to shut you up, especially by trying to make you look like the crazy one doing all the shouting.

However, social justice workers can get pretty confused about their purpose too, which leads me to why I’m writing this today.

In my particular field, I’ve recently seen lots of work connected to social justice. What exactly is social justice? I think that question has a varied answer right now. It has referred to altering systems and the status quo to promote equal access to resources. I’ve also seen it connected to the process of dismantling harmful expressions of privilege and promoting privilege for those historically denied that status. Most closely associated with my own work, social justice emphasizes the reclaiming of voice that was robbed from communities rendered impotent from colonizing processes.

That’s a lot of big words. I think a simple point of view is that social justice attempts to correct social injustice. It requires acknowledgment that injustice does and will occur at systemic levels – social, political, governmental…injustice can be executed through law, policy, social discourse, normalizing practices, interpersonal dynamics…In other words, injustice can be enacted by a single individual, but it is also enacted by many individuals making up a larger social sphere. The injustice occurs because the acts undertaken maintain power for certain groups while diminishing the power of others. And this is not based on a merit criteria, but rather arbitrary distinctions like race, gender, class status, etc.

Really, I don’t think it’s that hard to understand. My students will kill me for saying that, because it’s one thing to understand the concept and another to see it live, and then even more to recognize that we are all affected by this process.

So the real question is “how do we do social justice?” That’s a much harder question, one that I’m struggling to find the answer to.

Here’s a snapshot of recent events in my life: Led a workshop for counseling students/new professionals about a process of reclaiming identity from oppression. Those participants created work that demonstrates their preferred identity and we held a gallery exhibit showcasing the work. Our student social justice organization has decided to become a regional organization to include people from many different fields and backgrounds. I’m working to change a professional organization from the inside out so it better reflects social justice principles. I recently went to Ferguson, MO to show the film and launch a project for declaring personal truths. Oh and I have that other job, the one where I teach class, interact with students, and occasionally supervise and counsel people. Am I “doing” social justice? There’s a big part of me (likely my inner rebellious punk that sits lazily in a chair flipping everyone the bird) that just isn’t interested in proving whether or not my work is work. So perhaps the real question for me is, does the work that I do accomplish what I hope it accomplishes?

Is there any one way to do social justice? Is it just one big act that gets lots of attention or is it lots of little acts? Does it matter if everyone follows your lead or if the few you’re affecting have experienced a change for the better? How do you do social justice in a way where it doesn’t inadvertently rob the voice of those you’re trying to support? When does social justice tip over back to just another form of colonization? How do you make sure the focus of social justice is on people and communities who need and want that support, instead of on the need for the worker to become the great “savior” of those people? Who “owns” social justice?

I don’t think those are easy questions nor do I have ready answers. I do think that whatever the method, we have to make sure that the people we think we are serving actually want what we’re offering, and that their voice is front and center in the process. Does what I’m attempting to do fit the context? How do decisions get made? Am I invited or intruding? Does it matter if it’s me who is required to get the job done, or is what I’m doing something that the community can take, learn from, and then build upon to suit their changing needs?

I used to shout a lot. Now I realize sometimes you need to shout, and sometimes you can do something else. Sometimes you can even do nothing. So while I’m still figuring out the answers to these questions, I’ll keep experimenting, I’ll get it wrong and maybe I’ll get something right. I’ve complained in the past that I feel like my generation of social justice workers is having to re-invent the wheel. It’s a complaint rooted in the desire to have someone help, have someone guide us. But now it seems it isn’t really a complaint; perhaps it is actually stating the obvious. We’re not “re-inventing” but inventing, because the context of today is different than it was 20, 40, 100 years ago. Racism still exists, but it looks and acts different and we have grown up getting to know it in a way that our ancestors did and didn’t. So we are finding our way, trying to learn from the past while plotting our own course. Maybe the real trick is to accept we don’t have all the answers and likely won’t.

So what is social justice? Still working on that one…

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Damn statues

I’ve got that swirl in my brain again that says I need to sit and write. And not the kind of writing I do for journals and such, but the kind where the thoughts have to swish around, percolate, blurb up into something I don’t know yet.

Sleepless night, partly because my daughter got hit with a stomach bug (and our sink, floors, trash cans, bed linens got “hit” as well as a result), partly because I’ve been talking film with people and my head is ablaze. I meant to post a couple weeks ago after the MillionsMarchTX rally on January 17. But I sat on it, and as usual that was a mistake. Writers know what I’m talking about – if you sit on your words too long, they either disappear forever or they force their way into your life without mercy. This time the words are staging a revolt in my head, now fueled by new knowledge, insights, and potentials.

So I met a filmmaker, a bona-fide director who actually does this sort of thing for a living and makes a paycheck. He was gracious enough to watch the film and offer some honest feedback. And it was certainly honest. Bottom line: good concept, not so great delivery. I’ll spare the details, but this feedback was useful in that I could at least get some insight into why we continue to live in film festival rejection land. The few times I have been able to get feedback from festivals, the reviewers say they love the film, but it doesn’t make the cut. Now I might have some answers about why it doesn’t make the cut – there are technical problems, and these problems are not a surprise to me because, well, we really did have technical problems. So when trying to break into a space where the technicals matter, well, we’re being told to take our finger painting back home and come back when we learn how to use oils.

I don’t know if I’ll ever learn how to use oils, by the way. I also don’t know if I want to. The one thing I have learned about myself as a director is that I don’t want to know these things so I can do it all myself. I want to know enough so I can communicate, so I can translate, my ideas to a group of people who have to actualize those ideas. What I really want is to have a group of people who are really good at what they do, who are bound by a simple common purpose, who can be set loose to attack that vision in the ways they see fit. It’s funny, because I just realized this is also how I’ve come to teach students. I have no interest in telling students exactly what to say or do when they are learning how to counsel/interview people. I don’t want puppets. What I want is to motivate them to a point where they try things they didn’t think to try, where they step out of their comfort zone, where they begin to move creatively and let go of the need for rigid rules. I have to find the way to get them to see themselves one step beyond where they stand currently, recognize that when they take that step I’m still going to be there, and then let them figure out how to actually take that step.

That’s the part where I have to be the teacher for that student, because no two students are the same, and they don’t move the same ways or step in the same directions. But once they start stepping, it’s like being in a marathon. They just GO.

So we sorta stumbled into that in Parrhesia, and I’ve come to realize if I ever do this again that’s what I want, to give people lots of creative space to go crazy. But also set the parameter, make the frame, reel it in if someone decides to shoot off into space…And I think it’s that common goal that matters, that I would need to make sure that everyone gets what the purpose is. Since I’ll never be making a Godzilla (in spite of my kids’ desires), and I’ll probably only be able to engage in a film project that results from pure passion, it means getting people on board who resonate with that passion. That magically occurred with Parrhesia – so can we be intentional about that? I guess we’ll have to be.

As an aside – this film talk also had me seeing stars, the kind that accompanies things like awards and fame and all that bullshit. Damn if my little ego didn’t want to get seduced by that sort of thing again. So I had my moment of imagining red carpet recognition – and now I’m remembering that we never did this to get awards, we did this first to see if it could be done, and then finished it because we realized we could never live with it not being finished. So much faith in, well us really, meant we could not let everyone else down by not getting this thing done and shown. It wasn’t just that my work had to get out there, but the vulnerabilities and sacrifices of everyone in that film had to be shared. It demands an audience, even if it is a small audience; it is work that must be witnessed. In that sense I don’t care about ratings, I don’t care if it’s “marketable.” We created a portrait of the people in that film, a portrait that shows something between who they are and who they want to be – the “me and the not me”, as I’ve heard it described, and that has done something for all 8 of our cast. It has shown them the power and presence of their voice and they have seen that other people are affected by their lives. They are becoming the people they weren’t certain they could be prior to this. I never saw any of that coming but if I make a film again that is exactly what the goal will be, because I can’t really imagine making a film for any other reason. Isn’t that really what social justice is about? To voice that which has been ignored or silenced?

Aw heck, I’m a narrative therapist. Story isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. And that concept is definitely worth an award.

my kind of Oscar

March On

Feeling inspired, humbled, reminded, motivated…went to see Selma last night with a group of people at the Alamo Draft House. We made this an informal get-together for members of our student group, and it was secretly my treat to myself after a long day of training. I’ve been wanting to see this one for a while and have gotten very interested in the behind-the-scenes story of what it took to get it made. So first off I have to say, excellent job to cast and crew, you are all heroes. Clearly David Oyelowo is superb (he WAS King) but all the performances are top notch. You always know everything is working in a film when you’re not thinking about the film itself at all, but rather getting swiftly carried along by the current of the story and not ever wanting to look away. You must know what comes next. You want to feel everything it throws at you. And when it ends, you have to sit in that theater for a moment because you aren’t entirely certain where you are, because a moment ago you were sure you were living in that land, that story.

I wasn’t alive when the events depicted in Selma took place. I came along 5 years after MLK was murdered. So I didn’t watch it to recall my experience, as was the case with some who attended with me (and their transport was a different, yet similarly significant, journey) – I watched to witness the story that was to be told, a story I had heard pieces about or read about but didn’t really know, at least not in the ways you know something when you lived through it.

And Witness it we did…I couldn’t believe how much it felt like we were in that screen, caught up in those events. Bravo Ms DuVernay, brilliant job. I don’t know how she created that illusion like you were sitting in the audience as King gave a sermon, or that you were on the bridge when the tear gas was shot in the crowd…but it felt like you were sitting in the middle of it all, and I felt such a range of emotions from anger to surprise to joy to grief. But what I wasn’t expecting was how it also transported me simultaneously to the present day – to the stories of Michael Brown, Eric Garner…the attempts occurring now to restrict the vote, the attitudes displayed now towards people trying to make a change. I felt it all because it was like a mirror of what is right now, and the words being spoken in those speeches were the same words we’re trying to get out there to people everywhere today. It is still relevant, it is still happening.

During our post-film discussion, someone mentioned how a few people have criticized the portrayal of LBJ. In truth I don’t know how “accurate” some of that is, but it is very clear the film is not meant to be a documentary. It uses its medium very well to convey a story, a very poignant story that also includes people who really existed and who really did some of the things shown on that screen. What I thought was interesting though is that while I don’t have any historical record of what two very powerful White men in the 60’s actually said about Dr. King and the events in Selma, I do not doubt that the style of conversation portrayed was on target. Why? Because the words used were genuine, and because people still sit around today referring to people of color through racial slurs, “good ol’ boy” assumptions, and power expectations. Again, the film wasn’t just a reflection of 1965, but a window into today.

It’s ironic that I spent the morning offering a diversity training to a local organization. They wanted to see Parrhesia, and also learn about community engagement. My co-director and I jumped at the chance to do this since it’s all pointing in directions we want to be heading towards. We’ve been preparing for a while now and we were going to have the floor for the majority of the day.

Overall it was a very good experience. While everyone was similar in that they worked for the common goals of the organization, there was a great deal of difference regarding job titles, functions, experiences, and so on. So it had some of the “general audience” effect when watching the film. We had an anonymous feedback form this time and responses were highly favorable (3-4 stars!!) with the only complaints being to include people who come from experiences not focused on in this film (this is a criticism I have no problem with at all – sequel, anyone??). Many also freely offered that they really liked the film and we had a very exciting conversation afterwards, followed by our training material. I’ll admit we were quite nervous, because the training part was newer for us. The work itself wasn’t new, but trying to show it in a way to a group of professionals was the new part. It was like teaching my diversity class, a typically 15 week course, in about 2 hours. But everyone seemed up to the task.

I’m not going to go into details about the conversations had, but some really good stuff came out of it. I found myself going through my usual inner monologue of “trust the process” when the fear would creep up on me…and sure enough we would press through the awkward moments and get to some very useful, productive places. I know they were left with much to think about. John and I had to work together in a way which was new, but even with the bumps we figured it out pretty well, I think. The topic was a little bit more my territory than his, which is different, so there was the experience of figuring out in the moment what we each lend to facilitating the overall experience. Interesting and useful, and I think we both learned some things.

-an aside – I still hate powerpoint.

Anyway, I’ll say it does feel a little weird to go from that to Selma in the evening…not weird in a bad way but it means my head and subsequently my heart was filled to the brim with social justice. Getting into the spaces to teach social justice also makes me face my own inner workings and experience related to it – it does become a lot to manage but it is part of doing the work, in my opinion. I have to keep an eye on me while I’m keeping an eye on them. So I also notice all my vulnerabilities, mistakes, successes, turning points…and brought all that into the theater with me. (Oh yeah, did I also mention I showed my film to a group of people and it still scares the crap out of me?)

After all that I think that’s where we get to the humbling and motivating part…what I thought was masterful about Oyelowo’s performance was how he brought the human to the image of King. You saw and felt the fear, uncertainty, pain, and even humiliation while he was engaging in these remarkably brave and terrifying acts. Now I will not in any way attempt to say that I work like MLK, because I don’t. But I could connect with that experience, the moment of pulling together all your strength to do something courageous because it must be done, all the while feeling scared, doubtful, and alone. Because that’s the truth of it, courage and fear exist simultaneously, and we can’t ever pretend they don’t live together. To ignore one will destroy the potential of the other.

I also noticed….that while MLK was certainly the point of the spear, he was not the only person pushing the machine (mixed metaphor, whatever). There were many, all putting themselves out there. We can’t forget that. I think oppression tries to convince us that we are alone, but the truth is we are not. So if they can do it, so can I….

No Indictment…or How to Take the Soul Out of a Person

Grand Jury decision regarding Officer Darren Wilson regarding the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO: no indictment. I just posted this on a professional listserv, which will remain nameless. I’m probably going to get fired:

I’ve been staring at this new discussion thread for a while now while a blank email reply box stares back at me. My heart aches, my mind struck dumb, my breath taken. I have watched for 2 hours now the coverage of Ferguson. And I shut it all off, then (mistakenly) opened my email, and have read this thread.

I hate posting on this forum so I don’t. Here’s what I’m expecting: a loud, raucous “debate” about the grand jury’s decision, followed by a highly polarizing discussion fueled by not really hidden right v. left wing politics ending in pretty immature name calling coupled with a flurry of people publicly unsubscribing from the listserv. Argue with me about the process I’ve just described, I don’t care. I’ve called it out, and you all know it happens. And I sit there and delete emails while it goes on, just waiting for the thread to die out…And this time I think if I do that, if I stay silent, I will allow an old and tiresome debate (debacle is a better word) rage on, and it will only make the pain of what has occurred greater for myself as well as those of us who really feel what is happening in Ferguson. I’m just not interested in this pain being for nothing, so I’m going to take a stab at this, and apologize upfront for not choosing “pretty” words.

Here’s my backstory: I’m a biracial woman from St. Louis. I grew up there. I know Ferguson, I know the history, I lived it. Racial segregation is alive and well there, we just don’t have signs on the restrooms anymore. But people carry those signs in their hearts. Everyone knows the “white” part of town v. the “black” part. And everyone knows that “white” equals safe, educated, well-off, and protected, whereas “black” means criminal, poor, and don’t be found outside after dark. St. Louis poured racism on me and also taught me how to do it. I’ve spent most of my life undoing it, and I’m not there yet, but I will always fight it. It is no longer a choice for me.

I’m not going to debate the grand jury decision. This really isn’t about that anymore because the decision has been made. I’m not going to look into whether or not “justice” in a legal sense was done because that is also irrelevant. Law and lived experience are often not congruent. So all I’m going to do is share the effect this has on me, someone who now doesn’t live in St. Louis and is watching this from afar, yet living it as though I’m right there in the middle of the smoke bombs. (That is one of the first effects, by the way, that while I sit here safely watching the news, I feel as though I’ve abandoned so many by not being there.)

What’s the biggest effect? This shit hurts. It hurts a lot. I feel a long history of hurt, a history that goes well before I was born and is carried on the backs of so many. A history that also included hopes and dreams of a time when something like this would no longer happen, and because it has happened it makes it hurt even more. It feels helpless, it feels angry, it feels betrayed. What is this hurt? It is the hurt that comes with knowing that whether the decision is “fair” or not is irrelevant. What will happen is many people, most of whom are white, most of whom benefit, knowingly or unknowingly, from the current systems of power existing as they are, will use Ferguson to say, “see, there is no racism. The law is blind,” as well as give more fuel to their arguments that people of color are just complainers, criminals, ungrateful, and whatever other stereotype you want to put in there. And many of these people will also walk away feeling completely unmoved, comfortable in yet again NOT having to confront their own inherited biases because, “hey, we aren’t to blame, you people of color do this to yourselves.” And so the next effect, is that people of color, and in this case the Black community especially, will yet again have their voices silenced, discounted, ignored, removed. And we’ll have to pick ourselves up again and not have a good idea of how to do that, because sometimes we get good examples and most of the time we get bad ones thanks to the limited portrayals we get of ourselves in the media and pretty much everywhere else.

And maybe you’re reading this and not agreeing with my descriptions of privilege or whatever…but what you can’t deny is that I am watching my home get ripped apart. Now try to tell me that the “fairness” of the court decision will make me feel better about that.

I don’t share any of this to try to tell anyone who may still be reading this what to do. I’m just a lone voice trying to yell across all the media bullshit I just witnessed on my television. It’s just my story, that’s all.

Yep. Probably not going to sleep well tonight…