Thinking About Social Justice Education

Social justice education is an idea that has captured the attention of teachers, scholars, leaders, and other in recent years. I have tried to find just what it means for me for some time.

For context, I am a white, heterosexual male with grey hair; while I was raised in a weakly-practicing Protestant family, I usually describe myself as “areligious,” but atheist is more accurate. I have been married to the same person for all of my adult life and we have two grown sons. I have lived a privileged life. As a young man, I believed that it was the hard work of my parents that contributed to my food and shelter security, health care, and college education. As I entered the world of work and encountered families whose experience was different from mine, I realized it was circumstances, not hard work, is the more powerful influence on our lives.

As a middle-aged man, I have purposely tried to expand my network to capture a glimpse into others’ experiences. I know I cannot know what it is to be a person of color or one whose gender is non-binary, or any other variations on experience. I recognize the privileged life I have led, and I can make no claims about knowing anything else.

So, the question I have been pondering: “What is the role of a white, educated, atheistic, politically independent who leans (strongly) to the liberal, heterosexual male who works to support online teaching and learning as a social justice educator?”

Fortunately, I have a colleague who is passionate and eloquent about this topic and who shares her ideas and helps people like me recognize and respond in a productive way to racism (and all of the other biases that are deeply embedded in society and its organizations).

When I heard her speak recently, she made two points that I have heard her make before, but this time, they stuck with me.

First, “social justice education is about creating safe spaces for students to see themselves in the curriculum we teach.” Simple, or so it seems. Sometimes they are not there, sometimes they are there, but their story is not there. My colleague says, “We listen, we support, and encourage questions, we engage, and we seek to understand. It is difficult to have these conversations, but we make space for it and honor their voices.”

I can do that. It means I may have to question the assumptions that are built into the curriculum, the goals we set, the methods we use, and the conclusions we draw. This is not a threat to me, out institutions, or our fields of study, however. We understand these more deeply when we get others’ perspectives, and that is what I believe to be the great advantage of aligning one’s teaching with social justice education.

Second, “use your privilege to stand beside others.” I get here point here. I cannot be standing in front of others as I have my perspective, but I seek to understand theirs. For now, I need to be behind others. I need them to help me recognize and understand the world through their eyes and ears, and I am grateful to belong in a community where leaders in social justice education are willing to have me in their midst.