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…