“Why are you interested in taking on this leadership role within our program?,” I asked the student sitting across the conference room table.
“I’m just so much further along the continuum than the other student leaders and participants and I feel that this is the next logical step,” he replied.
Confidently and naturally, he continued “I’ve grown up with social justice my whole life and had experiences way beyond most others that have shaped my understanding of the world.”
I internally cringed as he finished his response to this first interview question: “I am at a higher level than most of my peers and even staff. Considering how advanced I am in social justice, I see it as my responsibility to bring others below me to where I am and in my current role I feel that I am just above everyone and unable to do that.”
This conversation has been lingering in my thoughts and interactions with our student leaders for the past several weeks. It seems that this dialogue reflects one of the most difficult tasks for our students (and often staff) who have been engaged in personal identity work; exposed to Bell, Adams and Hooks; attended every course and workshop offered; and who are now facilitating these social justice based learning experiences for others. I have seen it in the eye rolls, pursed lips, and loaded responses from frustrated social justice educators who just want others to “get it” like they do. I’ve watched as student leaders and professionals closed out or shut down their peers in dialogue and groups because they ‘just don’t understand.’
What happens when we (social justice educators) call others naïve, basic, ignorant? In a sense, we are perpetuating the concepts of ‘othering’, superiority and ‘us versus them’ that social justice theory and practice exists to dismantle. We are distancing ourselves, turning away possible future allies and placing blame on individuals rather than systemic influences. After some personal reflection and conversations on redesigning our student leader curriculum triggered by my interview with the student last month, I have been reminded of the following thoughts that may serve as helpful reminders for others encountering similar challenges along the social justice journey.
We’ve All Been There
Despite extensive involvement in service-learning and leadership development courses and activities, I completed my undergraduate degree without the ability to even remotely identify concepts or the meaning of social justice. I felt inadequate entering a graduate program with others who were well-versed in racial, cultural and gender identity development- concepts foreign to me not due to choice but rather due to the lack of individuals and opportunities around me providing critical social justice dialogue. There are likely many similar students entering our institutions and participating in the programs and classes we facilitate who have never been given the opportunity to hear the term social justice, much less the space to explore microagressions (like this interesting one online), systems and intersecting identities operating in their daily lives. For many, even the opportunity for social justice engagement is tied up in privileges of education, socioeconomic status and cultural background in and of itself. We all have areas of limited vision, ignorance, and unawareness and will never reach a point of social justice omniscience. I believe we will never outgrow learning or outlive opportunities to teach others. Sometimes revealing my own blind spots or growth edges, helps others illuminate their own.
Inquire and Inspire
One of my favorite graduate school professors, Dr. Grady Bogue, was always full of thought-provoking and memorable advice and life lessons. One of my favorite adages was what he referred to as the greatest responsibility of a leader: “to inquire and inspire; not tell and compel”. I have this particular saying inconspicuously posted in various places to remind me of how to affect the most positive change when presented with a difficult situation or statement like the interview above. I will certainly admit that I have caught myself many times suppressing a clever comment laced with aggressive undertones in reply to an “ouch” moment or a misplaced comment. Yet, responding with an introspective question or an invitation to continue the conversation automatically brings others on to the path with us rather than leaving them in the dust of confusion and isolation.
I am in awe of the change process that can be set in motion by a genuine and well-placed inquiry. One of the things I appreciated most about Dr. Bogue are his abilities as an artful question-asker and story teller. In his class, we were always nervous to get called on because we knew no matter how many pages we had read, the lines of notes taken or the amount of time spent reflecting on the assigned text, we wouldn’t be prepared to provide an answer to his questions. That was because his questions didn’t have answers. They were not laced with assumptions or a hidden agenda. Dr. Bogue asked questions only to elicit deeper thought, eventually leading to a change in the way we might perceive or thinks about something. Question asking and encouragement in the midst of feeling offended, targeted or frustrated is not a natural reaction for most of us. It takes practice, intentionality, openness and feedback. I hope to be able to ask questions or tell stories like Dr. Bogue one day. In the meantime, I’m practicing asking the ‘5 Why’s’ and currently enjoying this blog, all about other people who are asking ‘beautiful questions’.
The term compact is defined by Merriam-Webster as
adj. having a dense structure or parts or units closely packed or joined”
v. to knit or draw together
n. an agreement or covenant between two or more parties.
All of these accurately describe the small group of service-learning and social justice professionals that have challenged, inspired and taught me in so many ways over the past year. The Haiti Compact was formed three years ago by five universities seeking to promote long-term, socially responsible, mutually beneficial, just and effective response and empowerment following the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Although our original intention was service-learning in Haiti through Alternative Breaks, what emerged was an incredible model applicable to higher education professionals, neighbors, or groups of friends wanting to work together around a critical issue. The Compact Model is composed of five key elements- compelling and timely idea for action; identifying and building a defined core; a galvanizing event; continued development of goals and deepening of original commitment; and planned expansion and turnover- allowing individuals who would otherwise be working in isolation to connect and increase impact through shared practices.
Members of a compact work laterally with defined roles and mutual accountability to build capacity, develop resources and tools, and promote principles at the heart of social justice in order to further work around specific issues. Through weekly conference calls, gatherings at conferences, collaboration on projects, strategic planning, supportive conversations and sharing of resources, the compact model has greatly enriched my work as a social justice educator and helped me appropriately respond to tough situations. Sometimes it just takes knowing that you have others ‘closely packed’ alongside you, drawn in and covenanted to the same work as you are.
I hope that no matter how long or deeply we have been traveling on our social justice journey, we can remember that it is not a race, pyramid or battle. It is not a competition with winners and losers. It is not a credential with beginner, intermediate and advanced stages. When I look in my rearview mirror, I don’t have far to look but I know that people have been there the whole way to help me untangle my own beginnings, reflect on meaningful questions, and build a support system. Are the ways we are talking about and teaching social justice allowing us to be those people on others’ journey no matter where they may be?
Courtney Holder (@courthold) is a Coordinator in Leadership and Community Service-Learning at the University of Maryland in College Park where she oversees the Alternative Breaks program. She received her Master’s degree in College Student Personnel at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Courtney loves being in new situations, learning from other people and exploring service and leadership concepts in global contexts. (For more information on the compact model, look for the upcoming article in the summer issue of the Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement.)