Carol A. Hand
Years ago, I eagerly sought out a position at a university social work department that publically proclaimed its commitment to social justice as a foundation for working with individuals, groups, and communities. When the position was offered to me, I welcomed the chance to work with faculty whom I thought shared my values. It didn’t take long for my excitement to wane. As I heard some of my faculty colleagues gossiping outside my office door about the deficiencies of new faculty, I realized their definition of social justice was not the same as mine. “Perhaps,” I thought, “the problem is in the phrase ‘social justice’.” When I looked up the meaning of “justice” in the dictionary, I realized this could be the problem.
The noun “justice” is defined as,
1. the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness …
2. rightfulness or lawfulness, as of a claim or title; justness of ground or reason …
3. the moral principle determining just conduct,
4. conformity to this principle, as manifested in conduct, dealing, or treatment,
5. the administering of deserved punishment or reward… (Webster’s Dictionary, 1989, p. 776)
The definition of the verb “do justice” offers a more hopeful image, “to treat justly or fairly, … to appreciate properly, … to act in accordance with one’s abilities or potentialities; acquit oneself well” (p. 776). Yet it still embodies the notion of just deserts, that one must earn fair treatment; fair treatment is not an inherent right of all simply because they exist.
The behavior of my colleagues led me to literally envision social justice as “Lady Justice,” holding a book of law in her left hand, and in her right hand, a sword to smite wrong-doers. This was not what I meant when I had used the term in the past. I meant the recognition that we have all been socialized to unconsciously accept a social structure that is hierarchical, competitive, and excludes and devalues those who are different in some way. The challenge of inequality was to raise awareness — not only of those who are oppressed by the current social structure, but also of those who benefit from the oppression of others, sometimes without knowing.
Photo Credit: Google lady justice images
In some measure, through socialization in a given culture at a given time in the U.S., all people in the U.S. are dressaged – like horses trained to perform programmed movements when commanded by the rider. They are socialized to accept the structure of inequality as natural and immutable. Yet if you think about it, even gated communities are prisons for the wealthy elite, locking inhabitants into an enclosure that they are fearful to leave. The question then becomes “How can one really work toward the liberation of all?” How can we create a sense of community that eliminates social structures that are, by their very nature, divisive?
The answer can be found in a Latin word, “praxis.” Of course, I needed to look up the meaning in an unabridged dictionary the first time I read it in an assigned reading for a social work class. Simply stated, praxis is the blending of theory and action. I decided what I meant in the past was not social justice, but rather liberatory knowledge-guided action, or liberatory praxis. Then, I discovered Paulo Freire’s (2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. His suggestions for using the principles of liberatory praxis as a foundation for teaching fit with what felt right to me from an Ojibwe perspective. He argues that theories without action are useless, they need to be applied. And action, without knowledge, is often harmful or counterproductive.
Over the years as a teacher in universities, I have experimented with ways to implement a respectful dialogic approach based on liberatory praxis. I discovered my methods were not valued by many of my colleagues, although students were increasingly motivated to become engaged as active, creative scholars who were driven to find ways to change the world for the better. I am writing about this now because I have recently been contacted by two of my former students attending different universities. Both are at risk of not passing because they are “different,” that is, older, or gentler, or more gifted than faculty at developing rapport with clients, or Native American, Black, Latino/a, or Hmong, or Muslim, Mormon, Lesbian, or Gay, or the first member of their family to go to college. The list could go on. Students who are different make faculty uncomfortable because of faculty biases, so they are less likely to get the types of advice and support their “normal” peers receive without asking. The gatekeepers of social work education are more likely to view students who are different as unsuitable for the profession, as unable to maintain professional distance from their future clients.
The perception that clients are not our family, neighbors, comrades, or members of our community is really part of the problem with the world. Liberatory praxis challenges this notion on a foundational level, where social justice does not. Social justice speaks of redistributive justice rather than transformational change of oppressive social structures, values, and institutions. Freire notes that ending inequality will not be led by those in the elite strata. It will only come from those who are oppressed. Yet in the present social climate, those who are oppressed are less likely to attend the types of schools where they will have opportunities to learn critical thinking skills. They are less likely to go to college, and if they do, will in all likelihood be too burdened by repaying student loans to take on the onerous burden of working for societal or global transformation. Their views, regardless of educational attainment, will also be less likely to be seen as important and worthy of attention. And like the rest of us, they may have internalized the message that things cannot be changed by ordinary people like us. The media will anesthetize them into believing resistance is futile. Star trek fans will recognize this refrain.
Today is not one of the days I feel optimistic. We are standing on the precipice of yet another war to appease corporate greed. Yet as I write this, the thought comes to mind, “but what kind of world do I want my grandchildren to inherit?” “Am I willing to remain silent, accepting defeat without trying to live liberatory praxis in my life?” My answer? I am writing this essay to do what I can today. And tomorrow I will do something else, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day, for as long as I can because my grandchildren, and all world citizens, deserve to live in a peaceful, egalitarian world.
Photo Credit: Google images – lp world
Freire, Paulo. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th Anniversary Ed.). New York, NY: Continuum Press.
Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (1980). Avenel, NJ: Gramercy Books.