We are all are hurt by the effects of systemic oppression. This statement probably comes to you as no surprise. It robs us of our humanity, and keeps us isolated from authentic relationships with one another and community. Despite knowing this and my shared commitment to equity and equality for all with colleagues on my own campus and across the country, I have often experienced feeling isolated in social justice work—that is one of the effects of oppression.
As a result I adopted an additional goal for my practice—to regain our full humanity and be in close authentic relationships with one another and community. Social justice work is more than an intellectual goal; it must be driven by the need to love and to be in community. I know that sounds scary and “inappropriate” to some, particularly when establishing professional boundaries is also important. What’s LOVE got to do with justice? I believe that love is a key component to developing a “liberatory consciousness” (Love, 2000), a consciousness that can help us effectively transform an oppressive culture. Expressing love is at the core of a vision for justice.
Let me explain. Social justice theorists postulate that “the socialization process of the society works to insure that each person learns what they need to know to behave in ways that contribute to the maintenance and perpetuation of the existing system, independent of their belief in its fairness or efficacy” (Love, 2000, p. 470). Simply, despite our desires to end all oppression, we often collude with the very systems of oppression we want to dismantle. We must develop a consciousness that enables us to live within this inherently oppressive system with “awareness and intentionality” (Love, 2000, p. 470).
Many of us have been trained to identify oppressive characteristics of society. That’s the easier part. What’s more difficult is to not blame others for the roles they play, to practice intentionality, and to recognize our patterned ways of responding to oppression. Barbara Love (2000) calls it living “outside the patterns of thought and behavior learned through the socialization process” (p. 471). Essentially we must live as a contradiction to the oppression: become conscious of the ways oppression operates and the hurts we internalized and the distress patterns that came out of these hurts, without letting this awareness have negative impact. We must live without falling prey to despair, fear, blame, and hopelessness that keep us separated from one another.
My first strategy to living in contradiction to the oppression is to do my own work to heal and regain my inherent intelligence.
We are all intelligent human beings. By intelligence I mean our ability to identify new response for each situation—our ability to respond thoughtfully and creatively in a moment. Sometimes our intelligence gets interrupted. We hear un-inclusive language or we see an oppressive poster that creates strong feelings. Our ability to come up with an effective response can get interrupted by our own present-day stress or memories of past physical hurt or painful emotions that we associate with this new encounter.
When we don’t do our own work to heal from these hurts we instead operate on top of this distress, unable to accurately evaluate the information coming in. When we then encounter situations that are similar to our past hurts we are reminded of what happened the last time we encountered this situation—the hurt feelings and an inability to think. This usually leads to an unintentional and unsuccessful response to this new situation, which creates more mounting distress.
Here’s an example from my own life to illustrate this point: I grew up working class and was the first in my family to complete college. I didn’t realize it then, but I had internalized messages that had me believe my speech, behavior, and thinking did not belong in the college environment. My early hurts from experiences with classism had me doubting my worthiness for college and initially left me feeling disconnected. The more I engaged with my college experience, the more I felt separated from my family. I compartmentalized my life and felt alone and confused.
I have come to understand this isolation is an example of how oppression, and in this case class oppression, keeps us isolated. I worked hard to find respectful ways to involve my family in college life that honored my working class heritage. I learned to receive feedback on my academic work that did not trigger beliefs that I did not belong. Even today, after a long career in higher education and a Ph.D., I stay conscious of my past hurts related to my class roots. I make decisions to transcend the patterns that keep me isolated from colleagues and choose to believe that I belong and that my thinking is valued. I negotiate relationships across class boundaries. I examine institutional practices that continue to target the poor and working class but am a more effective change agent when I first examine my own experiences and heal.
I found counseling communities to assist in my personal healing from my experiences with oppression. I also found coursework, readings, and conferences, and that provided new information about my dominant and target social identities. I have allies who remind me of the truth when I lose my way. You may find healing from your spiritual practice or within communities of people with shared identities. Whatever brings you healing, I can’t stress enough the importance of doing your own work, on your own time, to recover your intelligence that is clouded from your past hurts from oppression.
Another strategy I apply is to listen. We have opportunities to listen—to really listen—to colleagues and students during difficult times. I approach the art of listening as a contradiction to the disconnection resulting from oppression. As listeners, we can pay attention to others in ways that bring their distresses to light. By simply asking, “What’s been going on for you?” with your full attention, they’ll often tell you. Consider, “What is the underlying hurt I am hearing and how could those distresses be contradicted?” That’s the difficult part—determining how you can contradict the oppression. Some suggestions include simply looking at the person with approval, delight, and respect. By this I mean looking at the person as if you are honored that they trusted you enough to talk with you and listening as if what they have to say is worthy of full consideration, because it is! That means without interruption, distractions, or advice-giving. Listening becomes difficult when what you hear is in conflict with your thinking— listen anyway. When we have regained our intelligence our ability to listen in these ways will increase. For many, to be listened to with interest and attention is enough of a contradiction for transformation and for authentic relationships and connection to develop.
Demonstrating love as a liberatory, necessary choice
Now back to the love. Why would I choose to love someone who engages in oppressive behavior? Because it is the only real chance we have to sustain our efforts and dismantle oppression. The need to love is a rational need, perhaps even bigger than the need to be loved. The patterns of thought and behaviors that people maintain in perpetuating all forms of oppression are not inherent to any human. A huge contradiction to these patterns is to love others despite these behaviors. Expressing love begins with making an intentional, strategic decision to lead with love. It continues with loving ourselves by making time for our own healing, by engaging in the act of really listening, and by connecting with the inherent goodness of other human beings despite the differences. These are demonstrations of love that contradict oppression and help develop a liberatory consciousness. It is a choice to lead with love, and not an easy choice. The way I see it, it is the only choice we have to truly achieve social justice.
Love, B. J. (2000). Developing a liberatory consciousness. In M. Adams, W.J. Blumenfeld, R. Castañeda, H.W. Hackman, M.L. Peters, X. Zúñiga (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice (pp. 470-474). New York, NY: Routledge.
Obear, K. (2007). Diversity practitioner tools: Navigating triggering events: Critical skills for facilitating difficult dialogues. The Diversity Factor, 15(3), 23-29.
 Much of my thinking and work on regaining my intelligence, healing from past hurts, and listening came from my personal work with The International Re-evaluation Counseling Communities based in Seattle Washington.
 Kathy Obear’s (2007) work on “navigating triggers” is a wonderful resource on working through our past hurts to be more effective social justice facilitators.
Lisa Landreman is the Associate Dean of Students at Macalester College. Lisa received her Ph.D. from the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Michigan, her M.S. in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Indiana University, and a B.S. in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin–LaCrosse. Lisa has authored several publications on social justice topics and is the editor of an upcoming book The Art of Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educators. She has been actively involved in ACPA and has served on several commission directorate bodies and planning teams including the Commission for Social Justice Educators, the Baltimore Convention and the Social Justice Institute. Lisa was recognized in 2011 as an ACPA Diamond Honoree.
Originally published on the CSJE Blog on Tumblr.