Students last week in class at the end of a long discussion about social justice asked me, “what should we do?” In my experience, this is a common question from people who are not already involved in social justice work. I’ve been trying to think about what to tell students when this comes up because my answer is usually, “it’s complicated” and “it depends” neither of which are particularly helpful to people who are frustrated that someone is telling them that the status quo is unacceptable, there are inequities in the world, and something needs to be done.
I’m much better at pointing out the inequities and waxing on about how we each have a responsibility to work for change than I am at pinpointing what each of us as individuals can do. I’ve been reflecting on the reasons for my avoidance of their question and seeking out advice on how to answer it. I guess part of my reluctance to talk about what to do lies in my belief that once people start focusing on their action plans, they sometimes quit seeking out new understandings of issues and their individual relationship to and/or participation in the issue. For example, once I start advocating for discount stores to pay a living wage and benefits, I might move my attention away from how I love to eat fast food. Both have implications for economic, social, and environmental justice.
This is a big deal in my understanding of social justice issues—that each of us is part of the problem. Paul Gorski posted last week on Facebook the reminder “I am the violence, just as much as I am the justice.…that violence that appears at first sight to be violence against animals OR the earth OR humans inevitably, when we look closer, always is violence against animals AND the earth, AND humans.” I agree that we contribute in different ways to inequitable social systems through our daily participation in society. We all pay the price, but some more detrimentally to their health (the low-wage earner) than others (the wealthy owner). My fear is that too easily we rest upon the knowledge we have gained to a certain point, move to action which might make us feel better, and not take continued efforts to understand complex problems, including our complicity in the systems of oppression. Upon my reflection though, not answering the question of what can be done is problematic as well. We need as many people in the change process as possible.
When I asked advice of colleague Karen Kassebaum, she answered the question with another question, “what do you want to do?” I interpret this to mean there are various ways to fight for equity. We need people to conduct research as much as we need people to organize protests, and people to get involved in local, national, and global politics as much as we need people to support those who are involved in these efforts. We need radicals who imagine dismantling the system and creating new possibilities. We also need those who will continue to chip away at the system. We need everyone. I invite everyone to do what you want to do while continuing to understand your own place in our oppressive system.
A final thought I had while reflecting on the question of what to do. I wonder why we ask the question, “what should I do?” I feel it might be an insightful exercise to ask ourselves why if we are struggling with what to do. We might genuinely have no ideas what to do. I wonder why haven’t we started seeking out possibilities for action then. Why are we stuck? Perhaps it’s not a priority for us in the moment. We might have more pressing issues in our lives at this moment. We might find after a while that we still seem to have more pressing issues in our lives. When will justice be a pressing issue for us? I imagine the answer is both individual and linked to our privileges. I could say that it’s okay that working for equity is not a value for someone, but I’ve already said violence against one group is violence against everyone (we all have an interest) and that we need everyone. In my experience there are a lot of people who believe that they want to work towards equity, but working for equity is hard and it takes time away from other things that we might want to do (and get rewarded for). It’s hard, but I believe it’s part of our responsibility and our humanity.
Doing hard work can be supported within a community. Maybe you might be waiting to act until you have created or joined an existing community who is committed to action. I would venture to say that building community around equity issues is an important element of the action part. Communities are often sources and spaces of resistance. Join and build a community and keep asking yourself, “What do we want to do?” And perhaps you will also want to ask “why haven’t we/I done anything yet?”
Another reason I believe that people commonly hesitate to act on social justice issues is a worry that we/they won’t do it right and will be judged for our/their mistakes. I know I have felt this very feeling because putting myself out there on an issue makes me feel vulnerable. I don’t like feeling vulnerable. I try to reminder myself that if I fail to act because of my fears, I am still part of the problem.
So, what do you want to do? And, if you find yourself hesitating, what’s that about?
Stephanie Bondi is the chair of the Commission for Social Justice Educators and a faculty member in Educational Leadership at University of Nebraska- Lincoln. Contact her at @s_bondi or firstname.lastname@example.org