Enacting Social Justice: The Universal Job Duty in Student Affairs By: Bill Peterson

The latest revision of ACPA and NASPA’s (2015) Professional Competency Areas for Student Affairs Practitioners announced the renaming of the “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion” competency area to “Social Justice and Inclusion.” Social justice—a process and a goal where the goal is “full and equal participation and support of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs” (Bell, 2013, p. 21)—integrates the concepts of equity, diversity, and inclusion within an active framework. Therefore, the 2015 title change reflects a major shift in the national conversation on diversity and inclusion from an awareness of diversity to a more active orientation surrounding research and practice. In an effort to meet those expectations, higher education institutions are increasingly emphasizing the notion of action-oriented social justice within student affairs policy and strategic planning. However, as Karunaratne, Koppel and Yang (2016) point out, many practitioners still fail to actively and purposefully enact social justice in their daily practice.

In a recent article, Karunaratne et al. (2016) explored the experiences of entry-level and mid-level student affairs professionals representing various social identities, geographic regions, and functional areas and found that the responsibility for enacting social justice often falls heavily on identity-based campus advocacy centers (p. 18). However, while those centers are built to serve as resources for institutions, it is critical that practitioners view social justice as a responsibility and an ethical imperative granted to all student affairs professionals (Fullerton & Gilbert, 2016). Despite the fact that comprehensive, nationally-recognized standards of practice are put forth by ACPA and NASPA, Karunaratne et al. (2016) found that moving beyond rhetoric to action was a challenge shared among their participants and affirmed a need for research on specific strategies for social justice advocacy in all student affairs functional areas (p. 17). Therefore, while individual institutions and functional areas require unique approaches to tackling issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, the following suggestions are presented as a starting point for practitioners across the field to begin thinking critically about taking action and engaging in social justice.

Doing the Work

Moving beyond the duties explicitly identified on a position description and purposefully integrating social justice praxis requires a paradigm shift. Rather than viewing the work of social justice as itemized tasks, student affairs practitioners should utilize social justice as a lens through which they perform all essential job duties. However, while it is true that opportunities for education and development of social justice competencies are abound in the field of student affairs, Fullerton and Gilbert (2016) point out that practitioners—specifically those who live within privileged identities—are often faced with internal obstacles that prevent implementation of social justice praxis (i.e., “the fear of being ‘found out’ as unaware or misinformed and ‘getting it wrong,’ and the tendency to wait for one more conference, one more book, or one more webinar before actively engaging in the work”) (p.6). To overcome these obstacles, practitioners must move beyond surface-level understanding of oppression, privilege and power, and critically examine how they might be individual contributors to social injustice.

Step One: Start From Within

It is critical that practitioners understand how personal privilege, implicit biases, and believed stereotypes shape their identities, inform their lived experiences, and ultimately impact the way they engage with campus communities. The work can begin at the individual level by making a commitment to genuine introspection and self-development through reading, scholarship and reflection; the goal should be to acquire knowledge of self and how one’s identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical abilities, socioeconomic status, etc.) shape their worldview, impact their behavior in various spaces, and ultimately impact the experiences of others. To engage in genuine introspection, practitioners should begin by unpacking these challenging questions both privately and with peers:

  • In what ways do I carry privilege and how do I benefit from it?
  • How does my racial identity affect the way I experience the world?
  • What identity stereotypes do I find myself believing in, and why?
  • In what ways do I perpetuate racism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia?
  • How do I contribute to the identity development of the students with whom I interact?

The ultimate goal of genuine introspection is to foster critical consciousness—“the ability to recognize and analyze systems of inequality and [form a] commitment to take action against those systems” (El-Amin, 2017, p.1). Critical consciousness serves as an incredible tool for fostering a deep and meaningful commitment to advocacy and should be practiced by student affairs professionals across the field. However, work at the individual level is only the first step to enacting social justice, as practitioners are far more likely to contribute to impactful social justice when they also make efforts at the interpersonal and institutional levels (Fullerton and Gilbert, 2016).

Step Two: Walk the Walk

The goal of social justice at the interpersonal level is to demonstrate a deep commitment to inclusive practices in our daily operations, specifically through purposeful and meaningful interactions with the campus community. Student affairs practitioners have the ability to enact social justice at the interpersonal level through developing competent interpersonal communication skills (i.e., using inclusive language), serving as an action-oriented ally and verbal advocate for historically marginalized and oppressed student groups (i.e., leveraging privilege to promote equity), and applying a social justice lens to individual job duties (e.g., exercising universal design in program development, training student staff on issues sensitive to diversity, equity and inclusion, designing offices to be culturally-affirming brave spaces, etc.). To build one’s competency as a social justice advocate at the interpersonal level, practitioners should consider implementing the following practices within their daily operations:

  • Review all learning, training and advertising materials and ensure that they are free of implicit or explicit bias.
  • Create environments where ally behavior is expected. Incorporate expectations of ally behavior into trainings for resident assistants, peer educators, orientation leaders, and other student leadership roles.
  • Conduct an environmental scan of the physical spaces housing your area of practice to ensure spaces are accessible, inclusive, supportive, and celebratory of culturally-diverse students and activities.
  • Develop assessment procedures for your particular service, program or department that evaluates the student experience in the context of diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • Develop a professional development plan for professional and student staff units, incorporating best practices and relevant frameworks concerning social justice.

Step Three: Talk the Talk

                        By acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to serve as effective advocates and allies for oppressed and marginalized groups, student affairs practitioners also bare a responsibility to enact social justice at the institutional level. While advocating for inclusive policies and practices on your campuses can be difficult and oftentimes intimidating, the following strategies can be employed to support your efforts:

  • Adjust and revise office policies to reflect inclusionary and socially just practices. For example, The Lehigh University Pride Center for Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity implemented strategic plans for promoting racial justice and disability justice within LGBTQ+ student services.
  • Affirm your office’s dedication to social justice and claim your area as a brave space for students through a public statement. For example, the University of California Berkley Student Learning Center published A Statement of Affirmation – Respect Differences, Reject Hate, and the University of Washington Tacoma Writing Center published Putting Writing at the Center of Inclusivity.
  • Develop confrontation skills that alleviate defensive reactions from dominant group members and confront inappropriate comments and behaviors in ways that educate.
  • Engage with dominant group members in discussions about power, privilege, and oppressions of all types, even when such discussion may make others less comfortable.
  • Engage and utilize the ambition and resources of invested volunteers, stakeholders and community organizations to gain support for new projects and initiatives. For example, the Drexel University Steinbright Career Development Center partnered with OUT for Work, a national certification program to help enhance LGBTQ career resources for students in higher education.
  • Build intra-institutional coalitions to support your initiatives. Connect and collaborate with neighboring institutions, share and combine resources, and form a general counsel for policy review and problem solving. For example, The Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges created an LGBTQ+ Affairs committee that combines the resources of member colleges to conduct an annual LGBTQ+ Student Leadership Conference.

Get Started

While the overarching mission of all student affairs functional areas is to foster an environment that supports student success, achievement, and development, Karunaratne et al. (2016) confirm that practitioners often dismiss the holistic nature of the work and operate in silos. However, the strategies for social justice praxis presented in this article serve as effective tools for breaking down these silos and allow practitioners to work collectively to better achieve the mission of the field. But these strategies are far from exhaustive; it is important for practitioners to adopt social justice as a way of life and to continue learning, growing, and developing their competencies in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion. The work of social justice is never ending; so find inspiration, form a plan, develop a system of accountability, and get to work.


ACPA: College Student Educators International & NASPA − Student Affairs Administrators in   Higher Education. (2015). ACPA/NASPA professional competency areas for student       affairs practitioners. Retrieved from:             https://www.naspa.org/images/uploads/main/ACPA_NASPA_Professional_Competencie            s_FINAL.pdf

Drexel University Steinbright Career Development Center. (2013). Steinbright goes all out for     LGBTQ job seekers. Retrieved from:         http://drexel.edu/now/archive/2013/August/steinbright-partners-with-out-for-work/

El-Amin, A. (2017). Critical consciousness: A key to student achievement. Phi Delta Kappan             International, 98(5), 18-23. Retrieved from:             http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0031721717690360

Fullerton, C., & Gilbert, C. (2016). Multicultural competence. Perspectives Magazine, 4, 6-7.      Retrieved from: https://issuu.com/afa1976/docs/afa-perspectives-ethics-2016winter-

Karunaratne, N., Koppel, L. & Yang, C. (2016). Navigating a social justice motivation and

praxis as student affairs professionals. Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher   Education and Student Affairs, 3(1), 1-19. Retrieved from:   https://ecommons.luc.edu/jcshesa/vol3/iss1/1

Lehigh University Pride Center for Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity. (2017). Our            commitment to racial justice. Retrieved from: https://mailchi.mp/0899ae9f42c5/our-       commitment-to-racial-justice?e=a6dff9acdf

The Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges. (2016). Communities of practice.           Retrieved from: https://www.lvaic.org/about/communities-of-practice/

University of California Berkley Student Learning Center. (2018). Statement of affirmation.         Retrieved from: https://slc.berkeley.edu/slc-affirmation

University of Washington Tacoma Writing Center. (2016). Putting writing at the center of           inclusivity. Retrieved from: https://www.tacoma.uw.edu/news/article/putting-writing-  center-inclusivity



Bill Peterson earned his Master’s degree in Higher Education Student Affairs from Kutztown University and serves as the Learning Support Specialist and Tutoring Coordinator at DeSales University. His identity as a first-generation college student and member of the queer community fuels his passion for serving and supporting at-risk student populations, and and he strives to enact social justice within his career in academic support services. He loves coffee, Grey’s Anatomy, and is a proud dog dad. Connect with him on twitter: @BillPetersonEDU

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