Intersections of Spirituality and Social Justice by Marc A. Lo

            Powerful as an intersection for me both as a social justice educator and as a living/breathing human is spirituality.  For the purpose of clarity, I am only tangentially discussing religion, the “shared system of beliefs, principles, or doctrines related to a belief in and worship of a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator(s) and governor(s) of the universe” (Love, 2001, p.8).  Religion is and can be a powerful tool for accessing spirituality and connecting with the world around us – a theme consistent across many traditions.  Simultaneously, Mayhew (2004) observes spiritual experiences among college students identifying as agnostic or atheist.  Because these orientations are highly individualized – often neither a belief system nor a religion – such observations underscore the ability for spirituality to exist both within and outside of the structure of religion.  Subsequently, I prefer to talk about worldview, which can be any frame of reference (religion, philosophy, ideology, etc.) one uses to understand and interact with the world.

This pivot is essential, as when we discuss religion in a spiritual vacuum, or fixate on it as the sole font of spirituality, a false dichotomy is created between religion and the access it seeks to foster to making meaning of the world in which we live.  Furthermore, the politics of belief, principle, doctrine, and how they are leveraged to liberate or oppress social groups has a long, complex, and ongoing history that can distract from the ethos of interconnectedness, compassion, and love that is at the spiritual core of many (if not all) faith traditions.  There is certainly necessary social justice dialogue within and across religious traditions (Hodge, 2012), as is seen in the national and global scope of the White House Initiative on Interfaith Dialogue, as well as the campus-based work of the Interfaith Youth Core.  However, to compartmentalize the complications of identity politics and potentially ethnocentric arguments, I am writing about the arguably more accessible spiritual imperative for fostering individual and societal equity and equality.

            To ground the conversation, it helps to further frame spirituality, which has been operationalized in multiple ways by scholars across multiple traditions.  I borrow from the work of Astin & Astin (2010), whose study on spirituality in higher education was able to narrow the concept to experiences that involve “an active quest for answers to life’s ‘big questions’ (Spiritual Quest), a global worldview that transcends egocentrism and ethnocentrism (Ecumenical Worldview), a sense of caring and compassion for others (Ethic of Caring), coupled with a lifestyle that includes service to others (Charitable Involvement), and a capacity to maintain one’s sense of calm and centeredness, especially in times of stress (Equanimity)” (p. 4).  While much of this definition is intra-personal, it also involves how we engage with others on individual and communal levels.  And, because social justice education involves both intra- and interpersonal development, this overlap has implications for framing our work as inherently spiritual.

            Addressing the intrapersonal development component, “Spiritual Quest” questions such as “why am I here?” and “who am I?” are inseparable from the understanding of one’s identity.  In those spaces where we are privileged or oppressed as individuals, how often do we struggle with finding these answers?  Concurrently, when we think about the burden of teaching, micro-aggressions, micro-invalidations, and other triggers, how are we navigating these spaces?  The duress such experiences cause, and our capacity to be resilient, seek to understand intent, make our knowledge or experience accessible, and effectively navigate dialogue on the issues can easily be tied to “Equanimity.”  However potent spirituality may be as a tool in this intrapersonal space, helping us to understand ourselves and cope with inequality, it can be an equally powerful motivator to pursue social justice work.

            Opening up one’s spirit to social justice work begins with an orientation toward pluralism and interconnectedness of all human beings – central principles of “Ecumenical Worldview” (Bryant, 2011a, 2011b).  Developing beyond our own locus of existence allows us to move from understanding the differences that constitute human society to relating to and sharing in unique personal truths.  Giving of one’s self through some form of service, “Charitable Involvement,” is as obvious of a connection as “Ethic of Caring.”  The commitment of time, emotional/physical/spiritual energy, and/or material resources in the service of others is essentially the leveraging of excess (privilege) to improve the wellbeing of the marginalized and disenfranchised.  Lastly, and most obviously, the internal motivation to alleviate suffering or oppression through social and political engagement is the very essence of what we are trying to accomplish with our work as social justice educators.

            When we acknowledge that spirituality and social justice are intrinsically linked, the imperative to continue our work as educators becomes clear.  Whether it be for deeper intra-personal understanding, or out of altruistic motivations to redress the experiences of oppression of those to whom we are connected – and we are, on some level, all connected – social justice education becomes the work of everyone.  More than that, it can serve as a mechanism for accessing, sharing, and growing portions of ourselves and others that we often excessively confine to private spaces.  If social justice is truly about the “full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs,” then spirituality needs to be recognized as a component of the full participation of ourselves in that process – both as a motivator toward and a byproduct thereof (Adams, Bell, and Griffin, 2007, p. 1).

At times, I find myself reflecting: How authentic am I in social justice work when I ignore the spiritual aspect?  How fulfilled am I spiritually if I do nothing to interrogate forms of privilege or oppression that inhibit others’ sense of interconnectedness?  Regardless of their content, the answers to these questions form part of my motivation to continue social justice work, and may for you as well.  How do you see your worldview and/or spirituality motivating and challenging you as a social justice educator?

About the Author:

Marc A. Lo is a PhD candidate in the Higher and Postsecondary Education program at New York University.  His research interests include spirituality, social justice education, cognitive development, and socioeconomic status & social class in the college/university environment.  Marc also serves as CSJE’s Vice Chair for Programming and may occasionally be found tweeting @marcanthonylo.


Adams, M., Bell, L.A., & Griffin, P. (2007). Teaching for diversity and social justice (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Astin, A.W., & Astin, H.S. (2010). Exploring and nurturing the spiritual life of college students. Journal of College and Character, 11(3), 1–9.

Bryant, A.N. (2011a). The impact of campus context, college encounters, and religious/spiritual struggle on ecumenical worldview development. Research in Higher Education, 52(5), 441–459.

Bryant, A. N. (2011b). Ecumenical worldview development by gender, race, and worldview: A multiple-group analysis of model invariance. Research in Higher Education, 52(5), 460–479.

Hodge, D.R. (2012). The conceptual and empirical relationship between spirituality and social justice: Exemplars from diverse faith traditions. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, 31(1-2), 32–50.

Love, P.G. (2001). Spirituality and student development: Theoretical connections. New Directions for Student Services, (95), 7–16.

Mayhew, M.J. (2004). Exploring the essence of spirituality: A phenomenological study of eight students with eight different worldviews. NASPA Journal, 41(3), 647–675.

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Ten Counterproductive Behaviors of Social Justice Educators by Cody Charles

I have been struggling with how to do the work many of us call “Social Justice”. I understand the why – at least I believe I do. I am on a journey to understand my role in changing the world, which is no doubt a privilege. It has taken some time to get over the fear of doing the work correctly and instead operate from the heart – continuously challenging my perspective.

As I began to engage this work in a healthier manner, I noticed patterns of bad habits that educators exhibit while being change agents. These habits, in the name of justice and equity, get in the way of making authentic, strategic, and sustaining change. Below are ten counterproductive behaviors of Social Justice educators, all explored from the unique intersections of my privileged and oppressed lens.

1. Shaming our allies instead of educating.
Be careful how we hold others accountable. At times, we fall into this righteous place where we live for the moment to be right, but more so to impose the wrath of our rightness. We lose track of educating and become “Social Justice avengers”. We thrash anyone that makes mistakes or does not acknowledge their privilege, often out of ignorance. When we act this way, we instill fear and frustration in our allies, immobilizing them. Before you respond, ask yourself what do you want the result to be? Proving that you “right” or developing a stronger, more capable ally?

2. Lead with our oppressed identities – forgetting that we have immense privilege as well.
How is it that we are some of the first people to forget that we are privileged? Our maleness, middle class, able-bodied, Christian, age, education, or whatever our privilege, emanates from us. It is our being and colluding is as simple as breathing. Own our privilege. Recognize and acknowledge when we have the wind behind us. Be committed to your growth and allow yourself to be challenged on the identities we often leave unexplored.

3. Create competition around being the best at Social Justice – using language as a way to exclude.
We know individuals that lead conversations with big words and no context. After they are done speaking, most are lost and so is their message. Correct use of rhetoric is important, but we must be careful that it does not become jargon. Additionally, we cannot become upset when we are asked to explain or define a handful of words used or ideas explored. How often do we use language to exclude? How often is it intentional? Does using the “correct” and “smart sounding” language validate our worth or expertise?


4. Leading with emotions instead of thinking and acting strategically.
How often do we sound off? There are moments where we just quite cannot hold ourselves together in the moment. However, this cannot be our response the majority of the time. As Chickering said, we must learn to manage our emotions. This serves as evidence that perhaps we are not as developed as we want to believe. If we are going to engage in this work, we have to do so strategically, keeping the end in mind. Our response needs to produce the results that we would like to see. Sometimes our response will show up as joy, compromise, understanding, and empathy. Other times, it will show up as frustration, anger, and disappointment. However, every response should have a purpose. This can be a fine line with regards to maintaining authenticity. We impede the fight for justice when we act out of thoughtless emotion.

5. Not acknowledging our self-work.
We must acknowledge that we are a work in progress. We challenge the oppressive systems and collude in them simultaneously. At every step we have to understand that we are not the authority, but facilitators of dynamic conversations (and we will often fall short). At times, we are engaging from places with tremendous hurt and an abundance of privilege. It makes sense that we have off-moments, or miss something, because of our privilege. We are not the best at allowing ourselves to be challenged. When we block our self-work it means we are no longer growing and we are role-modeling destructive behavior to others. For example, it is highly problematic to be an expert in gender identity and expression and have no understanding of the intersections of those identities within race and class.

6. Caught in constant surprise that people do not know what we know.
Often times, I see others (myself included) blindsided by the amount of knowledge that my peers, students, and superiors lack in regards to justice and equity. The definition of privilege is unearned, unasked, and often invisible. If someone is oblivious to injustice, chances are they are blinded by their privilege. We know this, yet are surprised or abhorred? This is the work that we have committed our lives to; we must develop thicker skins. This is not to say that we will not be frustrated, shaken, or experience hurt and pain. These moments will happen. Yet, this is our purpose. It is not supposed to be easy. As Social Justice educators, we are supposed to put the cause before ourselves most of the time. Do not misunderstand, self-care is important. However, we need to be in rooms and spaces where we are constantly and strategically raising the temperature. Meet students and colleagues where they are and challenge them to be more.

7. Choosing not to challenge family members and elders.
I notice that quite a few communities give their elders a pass. We choose not to challenge them or set our expectations. However, we have little issue setting colleagues and strangers “straight”. I understand that our elders may choose not to change, but since when are our conversations about changing minds? We should be about expanding thought and creating new questions and I think this transcends age and authority. This work is hard and emotionally draining, however we must be vigilant in all areas.

8. Marginalizing the courage it takes to allow your reality to be dismantled.
Have you experienced a moment where everything that you thought you knew was ripped out of your hands? Perhaps, not just your hands, but your heart and soul? Everything that you hold true being constantly challenged and put on display? The way you viewed your family unit? When your question transitions from who am I, to why am I? We are charged with dismantling the life experiences of many, knocking down the walls of resistance and ignorance, and moving with care and intentionality. Do not forget what we are asking others to do.

9. Refusing to hold multiple truths.
How are we creating dynamic change if we do not allow ourselves to fully explore the pros and cons of ideas? How often are we weighing the greater good? I love film and analyzing movies is certainly one of my favorite hobbies. Actors amaze me. Their gift can be transformative, but I can hold multiple truths. Whoopi Goldberg was excellent in Ghost. However, if you broke down her character you would see that it is a glorified mammy caricature. Julia Roberts is positvely charming in Pretty Woman, but is also led and dominated by the gender role that is “man”. Teach for America provides an experience where the privileged have an opportunity to engage oppressed communities. Many of these students will be policy makers and find themselves in influential positions. However, it also promotes the idea of the “white savior”. We have to be able to engage multiple truths in order to move forward strategically.

10. Challenging others to heal, by erasing their pain.
Phrase this differently. At times, we say this to others as if they should forget their pain and move on. I am certain that this is not the intent of facilitators, however on many occasions it is the impact. We are marginalizing experiences. Rather, we should encourage the exploration of that pain. Understand the origins and the emotions in the now and then figure out how to manage the pain – use it strategically for fuel to both continue in the work and grow in perspective.

My hope is that drawing attention to these behaviors encourages a needed conversation between educators. We have room to grow and can do better holding each other accountable. As social justice educators, we have all agreed to continue to critique and explore the problematic ways in which we show up in spaces. Self-work practices should be encouraged.

“If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americana

About the Author:

Cody Charles currently serves as an Associate Director of Multicultural Affairs at the University of Kansas. During his time at KU, he has led diversity trainings for the campus community, including student athletes, student executive boards, staff, faculty, and high school and middle school students and has presented on diversity topics at multiple conferences. Cody was recognized by the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) as the Outstanding New Professional in Residence Life in 2008. One of his life goals is to travel the country lecturing on social justice and leadership topics. You can connect with Cody on Twitter@_codykeith_ or his website

*This post was originally posted at on August 11, 2014 and reposted with the author’s permission*

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