The Cost of Change by Greg Steele

“The goal of social justice education is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society that is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure.”

Of all the different definitions of “social justice” – and its education – that I have come across, this one has always been my favorite because it describes the work as a “vision” and acknowledges social justice to be something we are always looking for, working towards, and trying to achieve together. Social justice, if to be provided to everyone, must be worked at by everyone…otherwise it just becomes yet another thing we all say we want, but aren’t willing to put forth the necessary time and energy to actually get.

And that’s not to say social justice cannot be achieved, that’s to say that change is never easy, that it always comes at a price, and that “price” – whatever it may be (money, status, friends, etc.) – often acts as an impediment to those individuals/groups wanting to make that change. Even if such actions will benefit many, the cost to those individuals/groups should not be overlooked…though I feel it often is when talking about social justice.

I think about the conversations, presentations, meetings, and trainings I often find myself in regarding this topic, and I realize how selflessly – perhaps even carelessly – we talk about our roles and responsibilities regarding the achievement of social justice in our communities. We tell everyone to speak up, to say something when they see something, and to put the needs of those around them above their needs. We discourage them to just be bystanders, and empower – or at least encourage – them to be change agents and active participants in their communities. These teachings are sound and valid, but I do feel like our messages can be incomplete at times, and inadequately address the risks individuals sometimes must take in order to effectively create social justice for those around them (including themselves).

And as I thought about that idea of “risk” (and was honestly embarrassed I hadn’t thought – let alone talked – about it more in all of those conversations, presentations, meetings, and trainings), I couldn’t help but think of NFL punter Chris Kluwe. For years now, he has been a prominent advocate for social justice, he has been willing to provide commentary on topics many in his profession often provide “no comment” at all, and he has continued to speak up/out despite paying a very tangible price – his career – for doing so in a profession that has be notoriously resistant to adapt and change as quickly as the world around it. And where many professional athletes become advocates in retirement, Chris advocated while he was still playing and, ultimately, sacrificed some of his professional gain for the personal gains of others. He knew the cost, and he paid it, proudly, happily, and courageously.

With his narrative in mind, and this piece to write, I reached out to him and he was gracious enough to do a quick interview with me via email:

Your recent article on Deadspin references incidents that happened almost a year ago. How much did the potential of being signed by another team affect your willingness to speak out against your most recent team? How much did your professional opportunities affect/delay your personal decisions?

I wanted to try to sign with another team so I could prove, when people inevitably brought it up, that I still had the physical ability to play in the NFL. Unfortunately, it became clear to me during this year that I wouldn’t get that chance anymore, so I felt the time was right to finally bring this issue into the open. It’s something I knew I was going to tell the story of at some point, and I was also worried how it would affect the careers of the people who witnessed the events, because there’s a possibility they might get blacklisted as well.

With that said, what is the cost/price of speaking out? As you recently acknowledged, writing that article all but finished your NFL career. Was it worth it, and how did/do you rationalize/justify that decision?

It was worth it, because I think that potentially making a difference in the lives of people all across the nation, and possibly the world, is far more important than playing a children’s game when all is said and done. I know that this cost me my career, but I wouldn’t change it at all if I had to do things all over again.

We all say we want change and applaud it when it happens…but the same people who shirk such responsibility are the same who often tend to criticize individuals – like you – when they initiate it. Why do you think that hypocrisy exists and what do you think can be done to help fix that part of the problem?

People need to realize that if no one ever says anything, then nothing ever changes, but that there are always consequences to making those changes. It’s incumbent upon all of us to take an interest in our society. If we don’t, then history shows us that we’ll end up in the same place we always do – in conflict with ourselves and others.

How do you fight through the emotions (frustrations, disappointment, etc.) associated with your efforts to make change? Change is often slow and subtle, but simply cannot – and will not – happen without individuals – like you – making it happen. How do you remain hopeful, and persevere through so much resistance?

By taking the long term view (which is something that I think we as a species need to focus much more on) and realizing that change IS slow, but if no one ever tries to change anything, then change will never happen.

How do you advocate being an advocate? Working on a college campus, I find myself asking that question a lot to the 18-22 demographic and am curious how you would encourage others to play such an active – and important – role in genuinely improving the world around them?

Have conversations with others, stay educated on things that are important to you, and above all, never be afraid to say something. In our current society, you’ll get backlash, but if enough people stand up and say “This is not how things should be,” then eventually things will change. We just have to keep making ourselves heard.

As I read through Chris’ responses, and thought about them within the context of the definition at the beginning of this piece and the idea of the inherent risks and costs associated with advocacy, I was struck by how easy it is to sometimes forget that we’re all in this together. We may not always have the audience that a professional athlete garners, but that does not mean our words, actions and decisions are any less meaningful or important because their perceived impact isn’t as immediate or profound. It’s that mindset of inaction that keeps things stagnant, perpetuates social injustices and trivializes individual contributions to the greater good.

So much of what Chris advocates for is simply reminding us that if this is something we want done, then we have to be the ones willing to do. Social justice doesn’t just happen; it’s a goal we work towards, a process we work to employ, and a product we hope to enjoy.

If we want it to happen, then we have to make it happen.

And if we’re scared that we’re the only ones willing to make it happen, then we have to hope that others will follow our lead and be willing to make it happen, too.

As Chris said, “If no one ever tries to change anything, then change will never happen.”

Reference: Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook. Edited by Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, and Pat Griffin. 1997.

Greg Steele is an Assistant Director of Mountainview College at Binghamton University He has a BA in Elementary Education and MA in Student Affairs Administration, both from Michigan State University.

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