Tag Archives: Social Justice

The Dance of Illusions

Carol A. Hand

At this time of year, when many families in the U.S. are celebrating Thanksgiving, I am reminded that it is a fictive holiday. It was initially celebrated in the 1600s by the descendants of European colonizers and immigrants to assert their sense of belonging in a nation founded on the genocide of indigenous peoples, massive land thefts and, in later years, the enslavement of darker skinned peoples from around the globe. For many descendants who describe themselves as a mix of ancestries, a “Heinz 57” of national and ethnic ancestries, Thanksgiving is an important holiday that symbolizes what is unique about their identity as real “Americans.” There is nothing real about nationalism – it is a social construction used to justify oppression and dispossession by “white-washing” history. But how are these descendants of colonizers able to learn the truth about history?

Photo Source: Daily News, 2013
Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade 2013

I know from my own experience teaching university classes on diversity, few students have ever read works by Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States), Ronald Takaki (Through a Different Mirror), or James Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me). Fewer still have read Black Elk Speaks, Night-Flying Woman, or Custer Died for Your Sins. This indoctrination could be addressed by colleges and universities, but too often, faculty are more interested in convincing students of their expertise on subjects than in promoting critical thought.

Interesting if you think about the word “professor.” The meaning of the root “profess” is – “to affirm, to make a pretense of, to have or claim skill in or knowledge, [or] to affirm belief in” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 1983, p. 547). Students are rarely in a position to question those in positions of power who profess to know the real truth. And rarely do those in power admit that theirs is but one possible perspective among many.

When it comes to Native American studies, the professors in colleges and universities are more likely to be descendants of Europeans than indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. Some are gifted scholars and teachers who are continually learning and are careful not to perpetuate superficial and harmful stereotypes. Yet others have unfortunately built their careers on superficial work that reinforces ignorance and stereotypes. Some teach “feel-good” history – far more palatable to many students of European ancestry. Fictive feel-good history doesn’t make most students uncomfortable or challenge their preexisting assumptions – these are dangerous things for professors to do if one’s tenure is reliant on favorable evaluations by students. Nor is it wise to question the trustworthiness of the work of other scholars or researchers. It only makes it less likely that scholars who challenge the legitimacy and accuracy of colonial assumptions will ever have their work published by the most prestigious of journals in their field. But what gets published is sometimes not only astoundingly foolish, but also potentially harmful. Following is a story drawn from my years in academia about one such contribution that makes truth less accessible.


I went to see a documentary called “A Long Way from Home.” On a weekday evening after classes, I entered a dimly lit basement of a student dormitory. I noticed folding chairs facing the podium at the front of the room and a cluster of people gathered in an alcove at the bottom of the stairs. Because the event was advertised as a screening of a Native American documentary, I expected food and laughter, and a warm welcome that are omnipresent for Native gatherings. There were no tables laden with food, no warm greetings. There was only an uncomfortable “hello” from several fifty-ish White women in flowing scarves. There were maybe ten people scattered around the room in folding chairs awaiting the evening’s event—a lecture and video presentation. Most of the audience members were Euro-American, with the exception of four young women from Africa. (I only learned this later when they asked questions at the end of the presentation.)

I found it odd that no one thought to ask the very small audience to introduce themselves. This made it clear that the audience was going to be lectured to by an expert rather than invited to participate in dialogue as equals. One of the women present walked to the podium and introduced the speaker, a former faculty member who had developed the video we would be viewing that evening. The speaker was a small gray-haired Euro-American woman in a black pants suit and flowing bright scarf that kept falling from her shoulders. As she spoke, she continually pulled at the scarf, readjusting it, only to have it begin slipping off again. She briefly described her video–a chronicle of the efforts of an Indigenous group to rebuild their tribal identity and culture and to obtain federal recognition.

The video was a fairly amateurish production. Interviews, still photographs, and drawings were interspersed as the story slowly unfolded. It described the group of people with indigenous ancestry who coalesced and elected a tribal leader. They talked about their efforts to rediscover their culture and language. The tribal leader of the group had amassed a considerable amount of money during his years of work as an engineer on the Alaska oil pipeline. (There was no discussion in the video of the consequences of this work for Native Alaskans or the environment.) These resources were used to help fund the group’s efforts to obtain recognition from the U.S. government as a legitimate tribe.

The video was disappointing, and even troubling. Here I was in a group of people who had little interaction with Native Americans. The documentary left a strong impression that there were no real Native American cultures anymore–only those that were being reinvented. (This is not to say that cultural revival is not important. It is!) There was no mention of the more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States, or the more than 200 Native languages still spoken. And the questions were even more disturbing. It was one of those times when I did not even know what could be said in this setting, so I remained silent. I did notice that the four African women kept looking at me. It is true that I am rarely identified as Native American when I am away from northern Wisconsin, although I did resemble a number of the people in the video. Perhaps my African colleagues were expecting me to speak, but I honestly had nothing positive to contribute so I remained silent.

Then, an amazing thing happened. Each of the four African women asked questions. One asked a question about cultural bias. “How is it possible for someone outside of a culture to represent that culture in an unbiased way?” The speaker responded that she had taught journalism, and each semester, she began her class by writing all of her biases on the board. She explained that because she knew all of her biases, she was able to report from an unbiased perspective. (Interesting that knowing one’s own biases is a magic step for some that leads to an understanding of vastly different cultures with little effort! Although I know some of my biases, a commensurate epiphany about other cultures has never miraculously manifested for me. And even with hard work and years of study, I cannot even claim to be an expert on Ojibwe culture.) The next question was a complex query about the effect of colonialism on indigenous peoples around the world.

The speaker’s response made me feel as though I had entered not just a strange culture, but had also somehow been transported back in time to the 1950s. She threw her ever-slipping scarf over her shoulder with an exaggerated movement, raised her right arm to the ceiling as if in a dance recital, and stood tall. “I have just come back from a sabbatical in Africa where I had the honor of being selected to study traditional dance. And it is so fascinating. You know, African dancers as they move bend low and reach toward the earth.


Distribution of the various language families of Africa.

When Native American people dance, they reach upward toward the sky.”


indigenous north america map

Linguistic Map of North America

As she uttered these remarks, she glided across the space in front of the audience, first bending low and reaching toward the floor, throwing her slipping scarf over her shoulder repeatedly, and then, reaching toward the ceiling.

The questioners were silenced. The only people who spoke afterward were Euro-American academics in the audience, each sharing what they knew were the crucial issues for Native American people. I wondered as I listened how many had ever spent time on a reservation or visited an urban Indian center.

Out of politeness, I stayed until the event ended. On another occasion, I would have sought out the women from Africa. Their questions reflected such astute insights. I wondered if their reactions were similar to mine. The arrogance of someone categorizing continents in what I could only see as “the dance of illusions!” Yet, my emotions were raw. I needed to reflect on this evening, so I walked silently up the stairs and out of the building. As I headed toward my car in the dark, I suddenly understood that time warps are real. I had not realized before that difference here had that added dimension. I doubted that I would be able to reach across this double divide to speak to people who already knew all of the answers about Native people. I felt as though I was a long way from home–a home not only in place but in time. And I wondered if I would ever find my way back.


Many years have passed, and at least for brief moments I feel that I have found my way back home. But, like the title of the video I saw so long ago, it has been a long way. I have learned many new things in the intervening years, yet I am quite certain I will never be able to profess the absolute truths all of my students must believe.

The one truth I can speak is my regret that I could not do more on the way to present alternatives to the never-ending books, articles, research studies, speeches, and videos that perpetuate distorted, misleading, or fabricated histories and cultures and hide the real suffering of indigenous people today.

thanksgiving images1
Photo Source: Google Thanksgiving Clip Art 

A nation of colonizers and immigrants, built on the blood and the bones of my ancestors, continues to celebrate Thanksgiving year after year in ignorance of the costs to indigenous peoples past and present. I will not be joining them. I will continue to celebrate in my own way. I will remember the suffering of the past and present with rage and sorrow and gratitude because indigenous peoples have survived against all odds.



Teaching – and the Wonder of Life in a Blade of Grass

Carol A. Hand

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Sister Lorita, my undergraduate advisor from St. Xavier College for Women in Chicago, taught me more than botany. Through example, she taught me what it means to teach. Students made fun of her because of her weight and because of her enthusiasm for her subject, a subject they found boring. One day when we were meeting, Sister Lorita looked at me and said, “I know students laugh at me, but I don’t care if people make fun of me. It’s worth it to me if they learn to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass.”

“The wonder of life.” Isn’t that the most important thing we can learn? Although I was a chemistry and biology major at the time, my life took a different path. Instead of science, I teach students how to work with people, although there are many times when I would rather be an ecologist.

When I first started teaching, I did not remember Sister Lorita’s lesson. I taught the same meaningless theories and content in the same boring ways as most of my previous teachers, yet I noticed there were differences. Unlike colleagues who told me they never admitted they didn’t have an answer to a student question, I was honest. While other faculty told me they made up an answer, I admitted it was a good question that I needed to research before giving an answer. I was encouraged by a friend, a linguist and Jewish scholar, who supported this approach. She told me that the Hebrew word for the verb “to teach” is an intensive form of the verb “to learn.” It is this chance to keep learning that makes my work so rewarding. The other difference I noted was my tendency to highlight student strengths and accomplishments, rather than merely point out errors in their work.

It took me years to recognize that these differences were truly significant. Like Sister Lorita, I became far less concerned about what others thought of me and more concerned with how what students learned in my class would affect their views of the people they were responsible for helping during their careers. Could they learn to see the wonder of possibilities in all people, regardless of their past and present circumstances? So I began experimenting with ways to consciously “walk the talk.”

I am consistently exploring ways to operationalize a liberatory praxis framework in my research and teaching. Liberatory praxis is based on a dialogic approach for raising awareness about the ways in which dominance is established and maintained. Praxis, the synthesis of theory and action, results in recognizing that both those who dominate and those who are dominated share in the perpetuation of oppressive institutions and paradigms (Freire, 2000).

As an Ojibwe scholar, a linear descendant of hereditary chiefs, I have been socialized to accept responsibility for providing leadership and for challenging and working to transform oppressive ideologies, institutions, and practice paradigms. (Ojibwe leadership was not a position of status. Instead, leadership carried obligations for community service and responsibility for community survival and well-being. No one was obligated to follow leaders – this was an earned status based on a leader’s ability to preserve the community through wisdom and generosity.) I have learned through example that this means that I must reflect critically about the roles of power, political ideologies, and practice paradigms in the reproduction of hegemony over oppressed groups and individuals. Both the content and methods that I use for practice, teaching, and research are consciously selected to reflect a recognition of individual and group strengths and the importance of structural and environmental forces.

As an educator, researcher, and practitioner, I believe I have a responsibility to model respectful partnerships that explore and create “the best we can imagine” for our clients, colleagues, communities and world. This means I am always learning, not infrequently from approaches that prove short-sighted or ineffective. If there is anything I learned from my doctoral work and subsequent research, it is how much more there is yet to learn. This realization is a powerful foundation for working in partnership with others, especially those who have internalized the belief that they have little power or knowledge. It also gives me the freedom to experiment with new approaches and connections, to synthesize and create, and to take risks.

Years ago, I was watching an educational show on methods for teaching diversity. Although I have long forgotten the name of the show, the slogan the presenters used has remained with me and has particular salience for social work education: “to learn, to care, to act.” As a social work educator, it is my belief that I have a responsibility to teach students the knowledge and skills they will need to work respectfully and effectively with clients, organizations, and communities. Liberatory Praxis, the blending of theory and action, is a crucial teaching foundation that requires going beyond merely requiring students to memorize facts and theories (Freire, 2000; Wallerstein & Duran, 2003). It moves beyond the “banking model” of education that views students as empty vessels to be filled by the teacher’s knowledge. Liberatory praxis recognizes that teachers are also learners and are responsible for creating environments based on principles of awareness and respect for differing perspectives, mutual responsibility for learning, and consciousness-raising of both learners and educators through dialogue.

It is also crucial to encourage students to develop and apply critical thinking skills, and to help them develop an understanding of, and empathy toward, people who come from very different backgrounds. Given that social work professional ethics require challenging social injustices and inequality, students need to be able to critically evaluate the practices and policies we teach. Often, as social workers, we are all required to work toward client and community empowerment and liberation within the context of limiting, deficit-focused paradigms and policies.

In order to operationalize a liberatory praxis philosophy, I interweave a number of different approaches into the courses I teach: (1) a breadth of professional perspectives in required readings; (2) readings that expose students to the emic (or insider) views of oppression rather than merely relying on etic (outsider) observations and assumptions; (3) in-class exercises and modeling that encourage teamwork, the development of empathy, and the application of critical thinking skills; and (4) assignments that require experiential involvement with the focal topic, critical thinking, and self-reflection.

During the past several years, I have had an opportunity to read more broadly and reflect on the cultural fit of this egalitarian, dialogic, and consciously modeled approach for working with others who have less power in a given socially constructed community or institution. It is my belief that social work educators have an ethical responsibility to teach students the knowledge and skills they will need to work respectfully and effectively with diverse clients. Unlike other disciplines, social work educators have an additional responsibility to model strength-based, empowering practice in their pedagogical approaches with students. We know that students do as we do, rather than what we tell them to do.

Experimenting with different approaches for modeling empowerment with students has been the primary focus of my work as an educator during the past twelve years. As a result, I believe that I am better able to articulate to students the specific approaches I am using with what hoped-for outcomes. I am also better able to create classroom and online environments that enable students to learn through exposure to rich and diverse perspectives, self-reflection, critical dialectical assignments, and evaluation of their own applied work and that of their peers. In that sense my work has remained both liberatory and applied.

Most importantly, I ask students to become mindful of the lenses they look through to understand the world and other people. We are all socialized to see the world in certain ways by our culture, socioeconomic class, and religion, etc. In order to unpack what we have learned to accept as “normal” and “good,” there are a number of questions each person needs to explore and answer for themselves. There are no right or wrong answers, although they may differ from the answers others have.

Cosmological questions:
Are people basically “good” or “bad?” Some cultures believe that children are born in a state of original sanctity, as gifts from the creator to be protected and allowed the freedom to express who they already are. Other cultures believe that children are born in a state of original sin. They need to be taught right from wrong, using coercion and punishment if need be to help them learn to behave in morally acceptable ways. How cultures answer this question can be discerned by looking at the institutions and policies they develop to socialize, educate, and protect children and families.
Is the world a place of scarcity or abundance? Competition for scarce resources results in inequality and war. Yet abundance is the result when people believe that there can be enough for everyone to share if people work together, using only what they need, and acting as stewards for the resources in their environments.

Ontological questions:
Is there one truth or are there many (Creswell, 1994)? Are both possibilities? The answer to these questions differs across people and cultures and indicates our willingness to respect the trustworthiness and value of beliefs other than our own.

Epistemological questions:
What is the relationship of the observer to that which is being observed (Creswell, 1994)? That is, does my very presence as an observer affect the behaviors of others and therefore, change what I observe? Or am I in a protective bubble, as it were, capable of being present with no effects on others I am observing? Am I capable of remaining invisible to those whom I am observing, and separate and detached from what I am observing, allowing me to be completely objective?

Axiological questions:
Is our understanding of others value-free, or do values color how we make sense of the world and other people’s behavior?

Understanding one’s self and the ways in which one has been socialized to see the world are indispensable for understanding others in respectful, inclusive ways. Learning to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass is perhaps one of the most important things we can learn. If we can’t see the beauty and wonder of life in nature, how can we see it in each other?

I am truly grateful for the opportunity I had to learn from Sister Lorita’s example and her words of wisdom so many years ago. May her spirit rest in peace knowing that at least one student did listen, even if it took decades for that student to remember. Perhaps many others listened as well.

blade of grass
Photo Credit:
3quarksdaily: Tuesday Poem

Authors Cited:

Creswell, J. W. (1994). Research design: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th Anniversary ed.). New York: Continuum.

Wallerstein, N. & Duran, B. (2003). The conceptual, historical, and practice roots of community based participatory research and related participatory traditions. In M. Minkler & N. Wallerstein (Eds.), Community-based participatory research for health (pp. 27-52). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



Reflections on the Meaning of “Social Justice”

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.

LP sword

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.

lady justice

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.


lp 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.