Social Justice pt. 1

Last week, I was able to participate in a roundtable discussion with leaders from progressive organizations here in Michigan. The discussion was led by Professor John Powell, a simply brilliant man who is the executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University. I am proud to add that he is a Detroit native. It took me days before I could talk about what I learned. This will be the first of many posts related to this dialogue.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss Race and the Movement but we dug much deeper than race. Nevertheless, Professor Powell opened up the dialogue by asking, “What is progressive? Who gets to define it? The room of about 20 full time organizers and staffers was silent. You would have thought it was a trick question until someone gave a somewhat stock answer about how everyone deserves a chance to succeed or something to that effect. I felt so stupid for using the word ‘progressive’ so freely without giving much thought to what it actually means.

Professor Powell went on to say that it is interesting how so many people self define as progressive but can’t define what it actually means. This issue of definition inspired me to write about social justice. I don’t know who coined the phrase ‘social justice’ but it has permeated the vocabulary of most anyone doing work on behalf of the disenfranchised. I think if you were to ask liberally-minded people to imagine an ideal world, some semblance of the concept ‘social justice’ would undoubtedly appear. I think this is good but what is social justice?

I ask that question because I wonder if we need to revisit our use of language to describe the movement, progressive, and in this case, social justice. When I talk to people in my circle of influence, we often talk about the need to change the institutions of this country/world before we can truly witness a fundamental change in favor of hope, opportunity, justice and equality.

I couldn’t agree more which is why I think our language needs to change. On a real basic level, if institutional change is the ultimate end goal, why doesn’t our language reflect this common goal amongst liberal-minded people? If we are going to be honest, social justice doesn’t quite get it. The word ‘social’ is in and of itself too broad of a term to grasp for the average person just trying to pay bills and raise their family. People are naturally selfish and only want to be social when it is clear their self interest will be satisfied. Therefore the difficulty stems from connecting the benefits of institutional reform to the benefits of joining a social group that is advocating for these reforms.

In the same vein, justice is too broad and I think most people only think of justice in the context of a court. Of course, when people who are down for the cause refer to justice, we are often referring to the responsibility that government has to not sacrifice the needs of people for the needs of greed and profit. Justice just doesn’t cut it. I could give the same logical arguments for progressive and movement but I think you get my point.

As it relates to communicating our vision, the language we use should at least do two things. First, it should reflect our ultimate goal clearly and concisely. (Institutional reform) Second, it must be simple enough to understand without having a college degree. (an example from the Right is individual responsibility) I will be brainstorming to come up with ideas but let me know what you think.

Stay up fam,

Brandon Q.

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