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What Is Social Justice

June 10, 2017

 

 (Mia Mingus, Photo credit: Texas Isaiah)

 

 

I've been thinking alot about the term "social justice" because I think for a lot of us, the term occupies a murky space not unlike "pornography."  Not that they are related or similar in any way, but in that defining it can be really slippery for a lot of folks.  How does social justice differ (if it does) from human rights or equality movements?  Do we have to satisfy ourselves with "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it?"

 

Aryeh Neier (the founder of the Human Rights Watch) defines human rights work as seeking constraints on the exercise of power, whereas he sees social justice work as seeking the redistribution of wealth and resources.

I'm prompted to take this topic for our weekly blogpost for two reasons.  First, I believe that if we care about children and if we care about a functioning child welfare system, we have to concern ourselves with social justice.  Second, I also think that social justice -- or more specifically, so-epitheted "social justice warriors" -- are often caricatured and get lumped into downward-spiraling conversations about "political correctness."  (Which I also have strong opinions about, but I'll have to share them later.)

 

As you might imagine, the first step to discussing why we should bother with social justice is to talk about what it actually is -- especially since most folks I've talked to have expressed a mostly intuitive understanding.  So here it is:  the work of social justice is to pursue a world in which all people are free and liberated.

 

The work of social justice is to pursue a world in which all people are free and liberated.

 

This, of course, raises a whole bunch of other questions: what do people need liberation from? What does it exactly mean to be free -- does that it mean that everyone gets to do whatever they want and there aren't any rules?  Is it like The Purge????

 

All good questions, and I hope to blog about that at some point, but the real thing that I want to hit on today is how social justice differs from access/equality and/or rights work.

 

It turns out that not everyone quite agrees on that.  Aryeh Neier (the founder of the Human Rights Watch) defines human rights work as seeking constraints on the exercise of power, whereas he sees social justice work as seeking the redistribution of wealth and resources.

 

However, the person who really put it together for me is Mia Mingus.  Mia works on disability justice and is an eloquent and passionate speaker.  She is at an astounding nexus of identities: transnational and transracial adoptee, disabled due to polio infection in her youth, woman of color, and queer.  But I digress.

 

Mia's framework is that equality/access and rights work seek to raise the privileges of certain folks without looking at the reasons why there always seems to be people at the bottom of hierarchies.  In other words, equality/access and rights try to make redress through current available systems and social justice tries to create a reality where those problematic systems do not exist.

 

Here, Mia probably describes it better herself:

 

 

(The whole thing is worth watching, but she begins drawing distinction between rights and equality/access work with justice work in the context of disability at 53:16 or so.)

 

I hope that looking more closely at social justice work, what it is, and what it isn't helps lead you down many rabbit holes, because I think they are very much worth investigating.  And I hope that -- if you haven't already -- are beginning to see why social services, including child welfare, should concern itself with the project of social justice work.

 

Till next week! :)  (Which, let's be honest, will probably be really cute photos!)

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