Tag Archives: Social Justice

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.

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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

References

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.