For those of us who regularly engage in social justice-oriented work, there is an ever present danger of becoming so engrossed in our pet projects and the identity politics that inevitably follow contentious issues, that we often lose sight of some very basic principles. This short piece is by no means designed to rebuke those who grapple with these difficulties, but rather to serve as a reminder of what the objectives of social justice are, and how to avoid some common misconceptions and distractions.
To begin, we must resist the urge to “do social justice work” in the sense that social justice is something that can be worked into one’s routine in the same way that one might casually schedule an afternoon appointment. The key to understanding what social justice is and why it is so important lies in the recognition that it is everywhere, that it cannot be reduced to a mere program or set of issues, and that to try to honestly discuss any social or cultural issue while neglecting the presence of social justice is to paint an incomplete picture. In other words, it can be said that social justice scarcely exists as an independent phenomenon, but rather it is the truth under the adulteration; it is the innate potential for change in virtually every program, seminar, workshop, and class that we invest our time and energies in. While we must continue our efforts to introduce the idea of social justice to students, it is far more important to instill an understanding of how social justice permeates the whole of society, how it represents the potential we have as self-aware creatures to reflect on our actions, and to work toward a more just and equitable way of living and thinking. If we are educating youth the way that we should be, then social justice will naturally arise in conventional disciplines and curricula. The idea is to teach every subject in a socially just manner, and for those of us who subscribe to this philosophy, that simply means teaching honestly, engaging with the unpleasant realities of the world, and constantly reminding students that things can change, but that change can only be found on the other side of hard work. I frequently remind my students that the systems of control that are usually responsible for grave injustices have never and will never voluntarily give up the power that they wield.
I recently had the opportunity to design and run a social justice themed version of a first-year orientation course at the college where I work. When I mention the course to others, there is invariably a tendency for folks to suppose that I threw together a goodie bag of progressive issues and causes, and proceeded to introduce them to students throughout the semester. While this approach is clearly better than neglecting the social justice component altogether, we must understand that students who are introduced to social justice in this way may not make the connections to the larger institutions at play that are necessary to identify injustices as they manifest in their lives. For example, students may study systemic discrimination, but never connect the dots as to why the urban schools of their youth were deprived of text books and air conditioning, or why their siblings are routinely stopped by law enforcement. Similarly, we cannot begin to teach students about topics like financial literacy without talking about the grotesque income and wealth disparities that pervade American society. We cannot hope to discuss time management without talking about the disparate demands placed on students from differing socioeconomic statuses. We cannot aspire to teach students about the English language without addressing the persistent stigmatization of many young people’s natural vernaculars. We cannot accurately impart a history lesson without providing honest, complex, and often disturbing depictions of many of the figures and ideas that we have been taught to revere from childhood. It is imperative to remember that social justice is naturally embedded in virtually every socio-political or cultural topic conceivable. That is to say that if we are thorough and honest in our exploration of social and cultural phenomena of all stripes, we are already “doing” social justice.
John Lawton coordinates the Office of Multicultural Affairs at the Community College of Baltimore County where he has been a staff and faculty member since 2012. John possesses a Master’s of Art degree in Political Science and a Bachelor’s degree in English. He teaches Political Science and Sociology, and recently he has designed and implemented a social justice themed first-year orientation seminar, which has since been reproduced at McDaniel College and Howard Community College. John has presented his work at several conferences including, most recently, the Creating Culturally Responsive Institutions conference and The Community College of Baltimore County’s Culturally Responsive Teaching conference. He has served on a range of committees including the Cultural Diversity Committee, the Sexual Minority Advocacy Committee, the Honors Committee, The International Education Week Steering Committee, and more. His primary areas of interest include media literacy, culturally responsive pedagogy, and international relations.