When thinking of Social Justice in higher education, I often think about how I can serve others to better the world. What conversations can I have with students to deepen understanding of the needs of their local communities and beyond? Who can I connect with to create or maintain an institutional campaign for social justice? But then I take a step back and think– as practitioners are we taking time to reflect and continue to learn about ourselves? With that said, I am going to take this opportunity to share my reflections of my journey.
Before I begin to reflect it is important for me to introduce myself. My name is Liz Bosworth and I am a Resident Director at Adams State University. I am also an AmeriCorps alum, I earned a Bachelor’s degree from Longwood University in Sociology, and a Master’s degree from Kent State University in Higher Education Administration.
I often use metaphors when reflecting; I have found that my journey is related to a tree. The tree that I call the ‘Self-Reflection Tree’ consists of roots, a trunk, branches, leafs, and seeds.
- Roots. During my undergraduate career I began to question my understanding of society. I became frustrated as I studied social inequalities and social stratification- I did not like the fact that others did not have the same opportunities to succeed. I wanted to make a difference- I wanted to make systematic changes. Would this ever be possible?
As an AmeriCorps Volunteer in rural Colorado, I began to dig deeper and reflect more on how I thought my team and I were making progress to create a more just community while volunteering at a local homeless shelter. We talked about the difference between urban and rural poverty. We acknowledged that we were not making much money, but we chose this lifestyle. We chose to eat at the shelter and to live in an intentional community based on living simply. What about those that did not have a choice to live the lifestyle we were living?
During graduate school I grappled with the idea that I have a bigger role in the inequalities that exist in our society – that I could be perpetuating inequality simply by living the life of ascribe statuses and not questioning or recognizing the role of privilege. These are my roots that keep me grounded, that create awareness of who I am, and remind me to ask questions.
- Trunk. The base of who I am is intertwined in my identities; identities that I do not foresee changing. I am a white, middle class, educated, heterosexual, nondisabled, female from Virginia. These are parts of my identity that partly consist of unearned privileges provided by the society in which I live. What I do with my group membership is up to me. What I recognize is that being a member of each of these groups provides a foundation for how I choose to live my life. Johnson (2006) states, “ [Privilege] isn’t our fault, but now that it’s ours, it’s up to decide how we’re going to deal with it before we pass it along to generations to come” (p. 12). The recognition that privilege exists is the first step in addressing social justice issues. How can we recognize the role privilege plays as a society if we do not recognize it as individuals?
- Branches. Rooted in beliefs that there are injustices and inequalities in our society and a foundation of understanding my privileges, I can move forward. I have the drive to take what I have learned through experience and continue conversations about inequality and privilege in the context of Residence Life. When branching out, I must continue to reflect upon what I am learning about myself and others. I also have to recognize that people may be in different places than I am in life. Through conversation we can learn about others and begin to plant seeds to form more trees of self-reflection in the context of privilege and social justice. Although, it is important to note that some folks will never recognize the relationship that privilege has with inequality.
- Leafs & Seeds. Leafs and seeds of the tree are the people that we impact. Our peers, supervisors, students, family, friends, and beyond that ask meaningful questions, that understand the world around them through multiple lenses, and recognize when their identities have a greater impact than they initially realized. People that challenge us to think differently. The seeds are the people that will continue to fight for a just community.
Why does the ‘Self-Reflection Tree’ of Social Justice matter in higher education?
It is easy to get caught up in the daily grind of life- attending meetings, inputting data, giving presentations, talking with peers about best practices, etc. But, we must not lose sight of our roots- the foundation in which our passion for addressing social justice issues lies. In my opinion, in order to serve our community best we must first understand and serve ourselves. To me, service to myself is making sure that I am continuously working to improve my mental, emotional, and physical well-being; that I am continuing to challenge myself to think about issues in a different way, read books, learn new hobbies, and take the time to reflect. When we maintain a healthy and balanced life wewill be able to withstand challenges that we face and will continue to live and speak about our passions.
I encourage everyone to take the time to think about what their passions are rooted in, what are the bases in which you live your life, who you influence, and how those people can continue a legacy—what does your ‘Self-Reflection Tree’ look like?
Johnson, A.G. (2006). Privilege, Power, and Difference. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Liz Bosworth currently serves as a Residence Director at Adams State University in Alamosa, CO. She earned a B.A. in Sociology from Longwood University and a M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration from Kent State University. Her passions include service-learning, volunteerism, social justice, and intercultural communication. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.