Teaching and Learning Social Justice by Leah Reinert & Rebecca Ropers-Huilman

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world. – James Baldwin

This quote from James Baldwin encompasses our view of the importance and potential of teaching and learning social justice. While it is hard to articulate exactly how social justice is effectively taught and learned in the higher education environment, this effort is at the core of the work that higher education must do to fulfill its role in the larger society. We can shift the way that we and others look at the world to ultimately change our relationships with each other and enhance our collective potential.

We (Leah and Rebecca) have been students, staff members, instructors, and administrators in several different institutions. To us, social justice means bringing to the forefront learning experiences and sources of support that aid us in defining, recognizing, and understanding how to resist oppression that limits the experiences of ourselves and those with whom we work and serve. Teaching and learning social justice is not necessarily positional – we can teach and learn from anywhere. How to effectively engage this learning, though, is complex. Our initial thoughts regarding these reflections began with conversations around how we define, experience, and view ourselves in social justice work and our experiences with oppression and privilege. In these conversations, a few central themes were interwoven across examples. These themes include the importance of reflexivity, being mindful in our vulnerability, and the necessity of reciprocity in our teaching and learning of social justice.

Importance of Reflexivity

Recognizing that we all view the world through our own unique lens, influenced by our experiences, it is necessary to realize the importance of reflexivity not only in our efforts at teaching and learning social justice, but also in all of our daily interactions. Our lenses are affected by our intersectionality in that we bring our whole selves everywhere we go. Further, our identities intersect and inform each other. While we have chosen to use “strategic essentialism” in the past to work collaboratively around one of our identities, the reality is that each of our identities is shaped by the intersections of all our identities. We are whole human beings, rather than separable beings. Due to this intersectionality, we all experience both privilege and oppression, often times simultaneously. Being effective social justice teachers and learners requires us to focus on both those points of privilege and oppression and to reflect upon them often.

Reflecting upon our points of privilege and experiences with oppression can often be difficult, and this difficulty will vary depending upon where we are in our lives. We believe that is it important when reflecting to forgive ourselves and others in order to move forward. Also important is to accept ourselves for where we are on our journey as teachers and learners. It is important to effective social justice work to be reflective without feeling guilty or pressuring ourselves to move forward too quickly. In essence, reflexivity is integral to effective teaching and learning of social justice, we must first know ourselves before we can influence ourselves and others to shift the way we view the world. We also must be mindful of the interplay between reflection and action, between gratitude for what is and desire for something different.

Mindful Vulnerability

In addition to purposeful and deliberate reflection, we recognize how important it is to let ourselves be mindfully vulnerable in order to promote change in ourselves and others. By this, we mean to suggest that when we raise questions about how dominant discourses affect our educational institutions and our society, we are temporarily vulnerable. We are challenging well-established systems in which people have investments. We are also in that moment teachers who are showing others what might happen if they too seek to create a world in which people can fully express their identities.

Being mindfully vulnerable comes with responsibilities and can often be both risky and rewarding. Some strategies for being mindfully vulnerable in an effort to teach and learn social justice include: putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations, experiences, or environments to enlarge our boundaries of lived experience; putting a voice to our experiences when we have faced or viewed injustice; and being reflective and cognizant when we encounter privilege and using that awareness to further education on social justice. Sometimes, the most effective strategy is to engage in active listening, believing that within each person is wisdom and truth, and that “the person will speak whatever he or she most needs to hear” (Emmons, 2010, p. 223). The essence of mindful vulnerability when teaching and learning social justice lies in the potential power of those moments. These moments of vulnerability could influence the view of the world of one individual or many but regardless that influence will continue being passed forward.

Reciprocity in Teaching and Learning Social Justice

Possibly the most essential aspect of teaching and learning social justice is the necessity of reciprocity. We are never solely in a teaching or learning role; rather we are always acting in both spheres. We are continually on our own journey toward living in true community with others. We want to remain open to learning from others about their experiences in order to move toward respectful and generative relationships. This requires active reflection on our parts because the ability or inability to articulate our own perspectives and our stake in movements toward social justice will affect our relationships and our effectiveness in shaping our society.

Education is by nature full of reciprocal relationships, we all continuously teach and learn from each other and our environments. We each have spheres of influence in which we can take individual action, but they are grounded in communities of mutual influence. Those communities of mutual influence are what have the power to elicit social change. For student affairs professionals, faculty members, students, and others in higher education, reciprocity is essential to our collective movements toward greater justice and joy in our communities.


As previously mentioned, these themes were presented in many of the stories of experiences that we shared as we troubled through writing on teaching and learning social justice. One experience that is most influential for me (Leah) in pushing me towards social justice work is my entry into speaking to college students about my experiences and life as a lesbian. After speaking to students and answering their questions in these more formal settings I realized that I could help more individuals if I lived openly and talked about my experiences in my every day interactions. Doing this in the past decade has allowed me to both learn from and influence the lives of friends and strangers in positive ways and that is the biggest reward one could ask for in working towards social justice.

Ultimately, we want to work toward educational institutions that maximize our understandings of our social differences in order to facilitate deep learning about ourselves, our students, our colleagues, and our world. Consciously practicing reflexivity, mindful vulnerability, and reciprocity can move us in that direction. With so many others, we are on the journey.


Watkins, Mel. (1979, September, 23). James Baldwin writing and talking. The New York Times Book Review, pp. 3, 36-7.

Emmons, Henry. (2010). The chemistry of calm. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Leah Reinert is a higher education doctoral student in the department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include faculty issues, equity and diversity in higher education, LGBT issues in higher education, and multicultural teaching and learning. Leah also works as a graduate research assistant at the Midwestern Higher Education Compact. You can contact her at reine192@umn.edu or leahr@mhec.org

Rebecca Ropers-Huilman is Professor and Chair in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, & Development and an Affiliate with the Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Minnesota. She has published five books and more than 50 scholarly articles or chapters related to creating inclusive and engaged communities through attention to equity, diversity, and change in higher education contexts. Her e-mail is: ropers@umn.edu

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