Paul Gorski, social justice educator, activist, writer, and scholar (and a board member at the Institute for Humane Education), recently wrote a must-read essay for the Commission for Social Justice Educators questioning whether "our commitments and our practice have kept pace with our language" regarding social justice in education.
Here's an excerpt from "Social Justice: Not Just Another Term for 'Diversity'":
I worry that our evolution from “diversity” and “multiculturalism” to “social justice” is more a shift in language than a shift in consciousness or shifts in institutional cultures. I know there are pockets of fantastic social justice work, like Michelle, Kimberly, and Julie’s Concentration and their scholarship, but I worry that in most cases we are using “social justice” to describe the same sorts of things we were doing, more or less, when we used to call it “diversity” or “intercultural programs.” Intergroup dialogue, for example, used to be an intercultural relations program, now it’s “social justice.” Service learning, by its very service nature, would fall toward the very beginning stages of most social change continua, but it’s described now, in many cases, as “social justice.” Don’t even get me started on social entrepreneurship, many of whose advocates seem to think we can channel capitalism in service to social justice.
I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking that this language thing is just semantics. I admit that I become frustrated at times when a conversation about heteronormativity or sexism devolves into an intellectual competition, won by whoever wields the most suitable language or theoretical framework. In this case, though, language is important. I have watched diversity and equality and inclusion be appropriated by people and institutions wishing to sprinkle them with glitter and feign the appearance of institutional change, the same way so many people use Safe Space stickers.
I’m afraid that, without vigilant self-checking, we—the community of people committed, at least ostensibly, to social justice—might be fooling ourselves into thinking that we’re doing social justice when we’re only doing diversity. Now that social justice is “cool” in an increasing number of circles, now that it has become a bit safer (especially for people with no visible oppressed identities) and a heck of a lot trendier, more and more people are jumping on the bandwagon. But how many are after the caché and not the commitment? I’m afraid that social justice is being coopted, especially now that it has become a profitable industry in higher education, with its t-shirts and buttons and prestigious institutes and conferences so expensive they exclude a vast majority of social justice activists. I worry about what it means that I see way more backpack buttons with racial justice themes than people committed, beyond sporting some buttons, to racial justice.
After fifteen years trying to push boundaries in the social justice world, this is something I’ve learned for sure: when we fail to stay committed to their basic principles, once-progressive movements quickly devolve until they look like the very things they were fomented to transform. Sure, the principles need to be somewhat elastic, but that’s so we can bend them forward, not backward.
Even as a long-time social justice educator and activist, Paul notes that he has caught himself "tripping more often than I’d care to admit, tempted to do social justice in ways that guarantee maximum student participation or institutional support or funding rather than ways that have the most potential to create the greatest societal or institutional change."
Read the complete essay.
Paul's essay is not only an important call to honest reflection, deep critical thinking, and a recommitment to authentic and intersectional social justice education, but a reminder to all educators, activists, and citizens to be mindful about settling for what's easiest or least challenging; slipping back to habits and actions that don't fufill our mission or match our values; and falling into the trap of the language being the thing.
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