Social Justice education should be thought of as a way to learn and inform ourselves on certain freedoms and privileges all persons should have in society. In a perfect society, the constitution of the United States would work for everybody; some may call this notion equality and/or equity. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect society. Due to generational, personal, and group experiences many people have triggers that impact and inform their interactions with Social Justice education, and that can’t be discounted. Imbedded in the history of higher education, there are many cases of injustice on college campuses. Currently, there are marginalized populations at predominantly white intuitions (PWIs) who feel they must remain silent or are strategically silenced by those with some level of power based solely on their identities. Obviously, the Utopian idea I mentioned at the start does not align with this, very real, experience and yet higher education continues to “push” for equity, diversity, and inclusion. In my experience, working and studying at three different PWIs, I have observed and noticed common threads related to the poor execution of a Social Justice Education ideology. The specific questions I asked myself were, how long will PWI institutions show in the public eye that diversity and inclusion matter but in practice do not support the work to sustain diversity and inclusion matters? Public institutions have very few private actions, but their practices often, in my experience, do not align with their social justice values. The history of Higher Education is deeply rooted in issues of injustice and the space for social justice discourse is minimized by a conservative and cooperative academy (Osei-Kofi, Shahjahan & Patton, 2010). Social Justice invokes a fear in some because of its inherent challenge to systems of power and the lack of understanding by many whom the system benefits.
As a higher education professional who identifies as a person of color, I understand the role I play in helping students, especially to those who can relate to my identity. When discourse and programming around words such as social justice, activism, intersection, or inclusivity are triggering to certain people who have the power to dictate to certain stakeholders of the institution that we are to refrain from using those terms, it begins to affect the work of the staff and faculty who identify as people of color or those who use these terms for everyday dialogue. This raises my perfectly done eyebrows as to what and whose agenda these actions, lack thereof, benefit. What messages are we sending to our students? How are we as an institution best supporting the population of students who are looking to learn more about social justice education? Where is the integrity that is preached and the promises that are made to students during their first year at the institution concerning diversity and inclusion practices? According to Michelli and Keiser, as cited by Hytten and Bettez (2011), “Among the critiques, education that is grounded on a commitment to justice and the cultivation of democratic citizenship is increasingly seen as superfluous, complicating, and even threatening by some policymakers and pressure groups who increasingly see any curriculum not tied to basic literacy or numeracy as disposable and inappropriate’’ (p. 8). Basically, the cycle of systemic control will continue because of personal and political agendas until students realize they are the most important stakeholders and are empowered to use their freedoms of speech and expression to challenge the system. I believe the work to pushback and advocate for internal support for social justice education is just the beginning to creating “real” diverse and inclusive intuitions for everyone.
As students recognize that they are the primary change agents to events/issues/problems that affect them, it would be easier for staff and faculty to support the changing need of our institutions. Example of this can be student programming centered around bringing experts on campus to talk with students, hosting workshops to educate those who are ignorant to social justice education, providing forums where students can express their concerns to those in leadership and constantly reassuring students that they have the platform to express what they would like to see in our institutions.
About the Author:
Semline Delva (She/Her/Hers) is the Program Coordinator for Leadership and Civic Engagement at Kennesaw State University. She received her Master’s in Higher Education Leadership from Florida Atlantic University. Semline completed her Bachelor’s in Interdisciplinary Studies with a minor in Women’s Studies from the University of Central Florida. She has garnered experiences through her former graduate assistantship for Florida Atlantic University’s Weppner Center for LEAD & Service Learning, FAU’s Parent & Family Programs, and FAU’s Campus Life. She aspires to grow professionally within Student Affairs and hopes to make an impact through leadership and community building with students, staff, and faculty on-campus. Semline wants to create a space where all students can realize their true potential in leadership, volunteerism, and mentorship by establishing a mentality to invest in themselves and their community.
Hytten, K., & Bettez, S. C. (2011). Understanding Education for Social Justice. Educational Foundations, 25:1-2, 7-24.
Osei-Kofi, N., Shahjahan. R. A., & Patton, L. D. (2010). Centering Social Justice in the Study of Higher Education: The Challenges and Possibilities for Institutional Change. Equity & Excellence in Education, 43:3, 326-340. DOI: 10.1080/10665684.2010.483639.