Thoughts on the Future of Social Justice Education

Last week at the ACPA Annual Convention, I was invited by the Commission for Social Justice Educators (CSJE) to share some history of the Commission’s coming into being 11 years ago. I was also invited to share some thoughts on the future of social justice education in higher education. I worked with several other good folks to help found CSJE 11 years ago and served as its first Chair. It was an honor to share with folks who are engaged now how that group came to be. On the other hand, it was pretty intimidating to share with these folks what I see on the horizon for social justice education. Here is a written version of what I shared with them about what I think I think about the future of social justice education. Much of this draws from and builds on a previous post on moving From Anti-Oppression to Liberation Social Justice Work.

Liberatory Visions and Strategies for Social Justice

Critical analysis and an anti-oppression understanding is critical to social justice education. If we aren’t clear about what was and what is, then we can’t effectively move forward. But we can’t just be stuck in critical analysis and anti-oppression either as it leaves us locked up, arguing with what was and what is. How many of us have been locked up arguing that someone shouldn’t have said that, or this policy never should have been enacted, or that person shouldn’t have been elected President? This is arguing with reality. Good luck with that. We need to be able to accept what was and is, not because it is good or right but because it is the current reality. We need to accept that it is reality – to be able to change it. We need to add to our critical analysis and anti-oppression understanding a vision and strategies toward liberation.

Liberation is about being able to see and move toward individual and collective freedom. As Cornell West says, “Justice is what love looks like lived out in public.”

Does your social justice work look like love lived out in public? At ACPA this year I saw so much social justice work grounded deeply with a clear understanding of injustice and clear direction moving toward individual and collective liberation. I also saw plenty of examples of mean-spiritedness and dehumanization justified, rationalized, and even applauded because it was framed as “social justice.” bell hooks reminds us that dehumanization is dominant culture. Binary thinking is dominator culture. Blame is dominator culture.

Shifts for Liberation Centered Social Justice Education

bell hooks calls us to shift from focusing on blame to cultivating transformation.

From self-righteousness to righteousness.

Buddhist teachers Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman call for a shift from anger of resentment and retaliation to anger of fierce compassion.

Activist Ngọc Loan Trần calls for shifting from calling out to calling in.

Brené Brown reminds us to shift from blame and shame to guilt and accountability.

Kristi Clemens & Brian Arao call for us to shift from aiming to create safe spaces to cultivating brave spaces.

These shifts are not new and are not innovative. They can sound like tone policing – and can be if used superficially. But if we look at these more deeply than superficially we see these approaches at the core of the US Civil Rights Movement, Buddhist activists facing genocide, anti-apartheid in South Africa, and movements toward freedom from Soviet control. Perhaps they are just what is needed for us now. 

Moving from Activists to Strategists

Years ago at the ACPA Residential Curriculum Institute, I heard Larry Roper point out the need for fewer activists and more strategists. As social justice educators, will we stand on this side of the bridge where we get it and are right and demand that others be where we are? OR will we cross the bridge, connect, and be good company for the journey for those who are learning?

It’s important to point out that this approach isn’t always possible. For those who are struggling to survive themselves or seeking to interrupt immediate harm for others a different approach may be necessary. However, if our goal is learning, growth, and transformation, which is what broad, systemic, and sustainable change requires on the micro and the macro levels, then we need approaches that will push, challenge, support, and foster learning, growth, and transformation.

This all has me thinking about my 5 year old daughter. She is just on the cusp of being able to read. As she wrestles with this, I don’t scold her with, “DO BETTER!” I connect with her. I read to her. I try to remember what it was like to not be able to read to help her where she currently is. I support her efforts even when she gets it wrong and I give her grace when she is frustrated and wants to give up.

It’s also important to remember that dehumanizing someone because they haven’t had the same formal or informal learning opportunities you have had is not only ineffective as a strategy to foster growth, it is classist.

We also need to remember that learning toward social justice is wholly different from other learning, like learning to read.  Mostly when we are helping others learn, we are helping them to gain new knowledge or understand something they don’t know anything about. Learning is hard. But unlearning is even harder. Those who have internalized oppression and dominance are not naive, ignorant, or uninformed. They are exactly the opposite. They are very well mis-educated. Unlearning something you’ve come to believe is true is much harder than learning something where you previously were a blank slate.

Healing & Spiritual Grounding

I’m more and more convinced that healing and spiritual grounding are essential elements as we move toward liberation work as social justice educators. Hurting people hurt others. We all need to do our own healing so we don’t take our pain (for what has been done to us) and shame (for what we have done to others) out on the learners we are aspiring to help grow and transform. Taking our pain and shame out on learners is understandable given our hurts and how we have hurt others, but it is also educational malpractice. We need to do our own healing through therapy, self-work, coaching, learning, meditation, and many others forms that fit each of us differently.

We also need a spiritual grounding. I do not mean religious. This is a distinction that is important but often gets lost. I think about it as Vincent Harding does when he says,

Love trumps doctrine.

Social justice work centered on moving toward individual and collective liberation is not centered on our critical analysis (although that is needed). It is also not even centered on our doing (although that is needed). It may just be centered on our being. To my surprise, David Brooks, New York Times conservative columnist captures this for me so well as he shares,

Radical self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness. Awareness of the equality of all human beings because each of us are broken in similar ways. Grace – the receiving and giving of unmerited love. Ways of being.

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