The findings below describe themes culled from 17 transcribed interviews with respondents ranging in age from their forties to their eighties. There were more than 809 coded statements, grouped together with eight overarching themes. Within these themes, five sub-themes also emerged, which will be discussed in the following pages. This chapter will be presented in a cogent order that tells the story of the development of a social justice advocate. I begin each of these sections with a participant quotation which effectively summarizes that section’s theme. Table 1 (see page 67) identifies characteristics of study participants. Most participants were Caucasian males and the majority of participants hold/held elected offices. All participants were raised in a time before the advent of social media.
The title of this dissertation is The Journey to Social Justice Advocacy and its Implications for Social Work Education, and the following pages in this chapter describe the journey that study participants took. It frequently included unsuspected twists and turns, and participants found profound meaning in unpredictable experiences. One of my participants, Coleman, reflected upon how his journey to social justice advocacy was influenced by an assortment of other people. “There’s some serendipity to all of this, without a doubt… this journey reminds me of just how important it is for people to take an interest in other people.” That is the common thread woven throughout all of these stories – that they are as much about the participant as they are about the others who enter and influence their lives. These experiences begin with gaining awareness of injustice in the world.
Table 1: Participant Characteristics
Pseudonym Gender Race/Ethnicity Have Held Elected Office
Abe Male Caucasian Yes
Amy Female Caribbean-American No
Anthony Male Caucasian No
Arthur Male Caucasian Yes
Coleman Male African-American No
Don Male Caucasian Yes
Harry Male Caucasian Yes
James Male Caucasian Yes
Jeff Male Caucasian Yes
John Male Caucasian Yes
Jill Female Caucasian No
Maria Female Caucasian Yes
Mitch Male Caucasian Yes
Natalie Female Caucasian No
Sophia Female Caucasian No
Stanley Male Caucasian No
William Male Latin/Hispanic Yes
Theme 1: Gaining Awareness of Injustice
“It makes it tangible. It takes it from something that may have an effect on you intellectually, and turns it into something that really affects you viscerally, in your gut.” Arthur.
A social justice advocate endeavors to mitigate injustice. Prior to developing into an advocate for social justice, however, one must first identify the existence of injustice in the world. One of the themes identified in this research refers to gaining awareness of injustice. This was frequently identified as a process – one that I found has three main sub-themes. The first sub-theme is recognizing that injustice exists and being conscious of its unfairness. In this manner the injustice can occur at a social distance – perhaps through a television or a textbook. It can feel impersonal but the unjust effect on the ‘other’ is something internally noted – even if unconsciously. The second and third sub-themes involve when injustice comes alive. It occurs when one encounters injustice, whether directly or indirectly, and the veneer of social distance is eliminated. This is when the veracities of injustice become real and the knowledge gained from its previous recognition emanates into the heart. It is at this point, as Bertha Capen Reynolds (1991) pointed out, that one is forever affected.
Sub-theme 1a: Recognizing Social Injustice
“I have a child’s view of fairness.” Sophia.
Research about radical social workers by Reisch and Andrews (2001) identified that the general social environment was a precipitating influence in their participant’s development. They cited how their participants’ experiences while living in changing times – ranging from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Era – impacted their personal growth (Reisch & Andrews, 2001). Their awareness of social disparities influenced their world views. The current study’s findings corroborated this, in that participant’s references to gaining awareness often began subtly, even subconsciously, and frequently during childhood years. This initial exposure to the idea of injustice is the first step in the process of gaining awareness of its existence.
Arthur is a Caucasian male in his fifties. He is a husband and a father who has been an elected official for many years. During our interview, he described how his family would watch the evening news together and discuss current events around the dinner table. He said that his parents were very aware of topics surrounding social justice. His awareness of social inequality can be traced back to these boyhood days.
I think it’s fair to say that both of my parents have always been sensitive to these issues. Growing up I think I was made aware that I was fortunate to grow up in the home I was living in and fortunate to go to the schools I was attending, and that there were others less well off. So I think my parents first and foremost, helped me to have what I consider to be a realistic view, and the right values, faced with what the real situation is in our country.
His recognition of injustice started at the dinner table with lessons from his parents about his good fortune relative to the less privileged.
William is in his late forties and proud of his Latin roots. In addition to being an elected representative, he is an educational administrator. He explained that he is currently in a position – through his interchanging political and work worlds – to make policies that will affect the educational experiences of thousands of students; perhaps tens of thousands. During our interview he spent little time discussing his Ivy League doctorate, instead emphasizing the valuable way he has been able to influence others, and how others have been able to influence him. Similar to others in this study, he grew up in a politically aware family. He recalled growing up with “dinner time conversations about social justice.” He learned that his parents were Civil Rights activists during the turbulent 1960s. Just as the case was for Arthur, these childhood dinner time conversations were meaningful. In a child’s mind these lessons were enduring.
Maria grew up in the Midwest in what she described as a supportive family. Her first occupation was teaching. Her life’s travels brought her to New England, where she became an advocate for numerous social causes, perhaps most notably working to end homelessness. While in New England, she served as a member of her local school board. A career opportunity that represented the convergence of her spiritual and social justice beliefs led her to the mid-Atlantic region, where she currently lives.
Maria remembers seeing news of the Vietnam War on television. She stated that she was at such a young age she did not fully understand its ramifications on the world, the nation, or her hometown. But she remembered seeing broadcasts on her parent’s television set, and the feeling that this footage transmitted within her.
I remember as even a teenager feeling like, watching the Vietnam War, as it was talked about on the news and thinking ‘this is wrong, we should not be doing this.’ Even though I didn’t know anything politically, and didn’t get politically involved for a long time.
This is an example of a young child beginning to recognize that injustice exists in the world.
But that was not Maria’s only early recognition of injustice. She, along with many others I interviewed, learned of injustice through her early religious teachings. Maria referenced her Lutheran upbringing. Anthony, too, cited his Lutheran faith. Anthony grew up in a religious household, as the son of a Lutheran Minister; now in his seventies he is semi-retired. He explained how Lutheranism and social action go hand-in-hand. He remembered that during his elementary school years his family’s church congregation maintained charitable fundraising goals. He specifically remembered that fifty percent of this would stay locally, and fifty percent of it would be donated nationally to the church apparatus and other assistance organizations. Don said that part of growing up in the Catholic faith included learning of injustice. Similarly, Mitch credited growing up Jewish, and its religious teachings, as his earliest recognition of injustice.
Participants also shared how they recognized injustice through their family experiences.
Don is in his fifties, and is the son of a dedicated union man. Don shared many stories of how he was impacted by his father’s labor loyalties – and some of its related struggles. He maintains strong beliefs on the importance of organizing and the real meaning of solidarity. Don attended a prominent Midwestern university. For many years, he served in his state’s legislature and takes pride in his pragmatic work to successfully advance numerous causes related to progressive beliefs. For Don, his work truly began as he witnessed his father’s actions. He remembered his father being on the picket line for a multi-year strike, one of the longest in our nation’s history. “Some of my memories growing up were that my Dad was on strike…My dad suffered pretty silently during his five year strike at…a large industrial manufacturing plant.” The sentimentality in Don’s description of his father’s struggles identified its personal meaning. When the strike concluded, and the workers won, even in victory his father lost one full year of paid vacation time. “I wouldn’t say it was a Pyrrhic victory but it was certainly a victory with a lot of sacrifices and not just the five years on strike.” The strike’s associated stresses and struggles impacted Don and, looking though his dad’s eyes, gave him a window to injustices in the world.
Others, too, were positively influenced by their families. Among study participants it was not uncommon for them to point out that their immediate families had progressive leanings. James is baby boomer who has dedicated his life’s work to advancing social justice causes. Through James’s adult life he has been able to turn his social justice advocacy practice into a full-time, paid career. He shared that while neither of his parents were the enthusiastic activist that he grew to become, they were socially conscious. “Now my parents were not political activists. So I was not your red diaper baby, as they used to call it. My parents were good liberals.” This familial environment – one that allows an activist spirit to flourish – is emblematic of many study participants.
James recalls when his older brother, who was also a product of their family’s household environment, invited him to go to an anti-apartheid demonstration. James said that demonstration was “exciting.” He explained that this took place when he was in eighth grade and his high school aged brother “took me to a demonstration at the Chase Manhattan Bank against apartheid in South Africa. So that was my very first activist thing that I did. And it was protesting apartheid and Chase Manhattan Bank’s investments in South Africa.” I asked if at that young age he understood what he was protesting.
Yeah, my brother explained it to me. I wouldn’t have known or gone without him…then, shortly thereafter, basically from that point on I got more and more actively involved. And then by the time I was in high school the Vietnam War had started. So that was 1967. I graduated from high school in 1967. And then I was the President of Great Neck Students for Peace in Vietnam. So that was my first organizational activism.
Between having socially conscious parents, and tutelage from his older brother, James began to gain awareness of injustice in the world. These combined experiences proved to be the catalyst for James life of social justice advocacy work.
Harry, too, was raised by socially conscious parents. One result of this is that his first memories of social inequality come from boyhood. As an adult, Harry has had a distinguished career as a lawyer. He was a judge for nearly fifteen years and felt this was the culmination of his legal career. When Harry was a child his mother was a regional coordinator for the March of Dimes. He stated that at only about ten years old he did not fully comprehend their mission; however, he did understand that they were raising money for children fighting illness, disease, and other maladies. He remembered many adults telling him “you’re lucky you don’t have any of these things,” and he recognized it was not fair that other children did. This was Harry’s first recognition of injustice in the world – that some children were sick while others were healthy.
Sophia is the single mother of an adult daughter. She was raised in a rural town that she identified had lacked a sense of community. She has been affected by the sexism she faced in her family, and this is something that she is very aware of. She finds that as a middle class white woman she has a degree of social clout and feels that it is her responsibility to employ this in means that advance social justice for all people. She shared a laconic summary of recognizing injustice by simply saying, “I have a child’s view of fairness.” Her view is rooted in the pureness of how children see the world and this is something that she has kept through her adult years.
In each of the aforementioned examples the participant gained recognition of unfairness in the world. Their outlooks were based on lessons gleaned from their religious teachings, parents, and childhood observations of the world. Sophia detailed how, even as an adult, her view of injustice has not changed. She described how her life experiences have not blunted her perspective. She identified that for the social justice advocate there is a permanency to maintaining an outlook rooted in a child’s view of fairness.
William gained recognition of injustice by looking in his mirror. Following college, he found himself with indigenous people. During this experience he recognized that his work included teaching a colonized population the colonial languages.
I worked for two years with indigenous communities in Mexico and in Canada, in British Columbia, where I lived. And one of my tasks in that project was to teach, ironically, the colonial languages of English to the Mexicans, and Spanish to the Canadians. So part of my transformation was realizing how messed up that was…Ultimately, in a moment of poetic justice, the two indigenous communities of Mexico and Canada basically fired us from the project because we were, like, outsiders.
He saw the ironic injustice in teaching these languages – the conquering tongues – to native populations. He also saw the righteousness of being fired from that task.
Maria described how the developmental process of the social justice advocate shifts from the stage of gaining recognition of injustice to encountering injustice. She told how this evolution occurred for her during her work to end capital punishment.
When I did the work with the death penalty…I didn’t know that much about it. But I really learned a lot about poverty, and I learned a lot about race. And I learned a lot about disparities in the criminal justice system. And the more I learned about…how people who are really poor or…the incidents of death penalty in counties that didn’t have any, or good public defenders, and weak defense and…how they represented African Americans compared to how they represented the whites. And that fact that if it was a black on white crime there’s more likely to be a death sentence. There’s more likely to be all these disparities – that I began to understand…And that was the point where I started seeing…the issue of justice in a different way…I began seeing that there was…some pretty significant injustice in the criminal justice system in the United States.
Maria had a front row seat to witness the practical manner in which the death penalty was administered. This view allowed her to gain recognition of its injustices by witnessing how it was applied differently to oppressed and marginalized populations. As she gained this recognition on an intellectual level, she began to feel it on a more emotional one.
Sub-theme 1b: Encountering Social Injustice Indirectly
“And then she ultimately…ended up spending twenty-two years in jail when she probably should have spent more like three.” Harry.
This second sub-theme in gaining awareness of injustice identified here occurred when one encountered it indirectly. Bertha Capen Reynolds (1991) described how gaining an increased awareness of poverty affected her. Her experiences as a social work intern in South Boston tenement housing was her “introduction to the places where poor people had to live” (Reynolds, 1991, p. 41). For Capen Reynolds, being in this environment made the challenges and struggles of the poorer classes tangible. Through her field work experiences in the hardscrabble purlieus of South Boston its townspeople came alive in ways that a textbook could not detail. The emotional impact was permanent. “The favored classes, learning to know their poor neighbors personally, could never thereafter be indifferent” (Reynolds, 1991, p. 44). It was in this way that encountering poverty changed Bertha Capen Reynolds forever. Research by Good (2010) shows this experience was not unique to Capen Reynolds. The majority of his participants identified that the witnessing and/or experiencing of oppression impacted their individual development.
It was a summer job that assisted Arthur in gaining awareness of injustice. While on summer break from a prestigious university, Arthur worked for the local cable company. He acknowledged that he did “not have the most exciting sounding job in the world.” He was assigned to replace old cable boxes in people’s homes. That summer, Arthur saw that one thing people living in all aspects of the socio-economic spectrum had in common was cable television, and to complete his task he was entrusted with access to homes ranging from impoverished inner city apartments to palatial suburban palaces.
I went into apartments in [poor neighborhoods] where there was little furniture, there were little kids running around who seemed poorly dressed, maybe there was not air conditioning, and yet there was a big TV and a cable box that needed replacement. You know they didn’t have enough money for a lot of necessities but they made sure that they had a cable box.
Visiting these places gave Arthur a view of poverty that he had not seen previously. He was not looking from a distance. He was now inside these domiciles where he could see, smell and touch the economic conditions that these families were living in. But these were not the only properties he visited. In addition to witnessing poverty, he also witnessed a great disparity with regard to how people lived in poverty contrasted to how people live with wealth.
I went into homes in [working class neighborhoods], that just were so different from some of the homes that I went into that were in certain neighborhoods…[wealthy neighborhoods]. And the huge socio-economic disparities that exist in our country and in my community were right there in front of me.
Injustice came alive for Arthur during that summer. He gained an awareness of this because his employment led him into places he had not previously been. He saw things – ranging from destitution to decadence – that influenced his view of injustice. Something that had previously been a topic for intellectual study suddenly became tangible and real.
Referring to the extreme economic inequality he witnessed that summer, Arthur said, “I found it pretty stunning, pretty upsetting, and it just didn’t seem in the least bit fair to me.” For Arthur, like with Bertha Capen Reynolds, this was a time of experiential learning that he described as pivotal to his gaining awareness of injustice. The summer spent exchanging cable boxes provided Arthur with an unobstructed view of his region’s economic landscape. In doing so he began to know his neighbors – both rich and poor – and this left an enduring impression on him.
Harry encountered injustice through his work. He told me that he entered the legal profession because of his desire to help people. He shared with me how he viewed the proper use of the law as a perfect vehicle for assisting others. But then, as a young lawyer he saw the legal system from a different perspective. When I asked him what it was that modified his views he shared a story that took place several decades in the past.
There’s one I recall that was a criminal matter where I felt the lady was getting railroaded by the system. And ultimately did get railroaded by the system. Although I wasn’t the attorney at the time…Well, I was her initial attorney but…it ended up where they put me in a position where I had a conflict of interest and I had to withdraw from the case. And, you know, I felt bad, but I had to. She understood why. And then she ultimately ended up with a public defender, and ended up spending twenty-two years in jail when she probably should have spent more like three.
At this early point in Harry’s legal career he encountered injustice by seeing how the legal system could be manipulated to someone’s extreme detriment.
William remembers being in Southern Mexico during the Zapatista uprising. This short-lived rebellion was a result of the just passed North American Free Trade Agreement, which removed legal protections for indigenous property rights. “I was on a bus. And soldiers got on the bus. And that kind of moment, scary moment, made me think more about…the role of the state and government, and kind of indigenous minority rights.” He described the young rebel soldiers searching the bus. I asked what they were looking for. He responded ominously, “They were…looking for something they hoped they wouldn’t find.” His face-to-face encounter with armed rebels caused William to recognize the meaning of their fight and its associated injustices.
Sub-theme 1c: Encountering Social Injustice Directly
“Just experiencing it first-hand certainly teaches you empathy. I mean you can empathize with others that are experiencing the same sort of ridicule and torment. So, yeah, you’re sensitive to it and you know how it feels.” Natalie.
The third sub-theme in gaining awareness of injustice occurs when someone encounters injustice directly. This is not bearing witness, but instead experiencing injustice personally. Several participants shared being the target of social injustice. They shared how these very personal experiences have had lasting effects.
Natalie’s mother “was born in the thirties, in a small town in Mississippi known as Laurel, Mississippi.” Her father “was born and raised in Shanghai, China.” Natalie, and her siblings, grew up in the nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies in Tennessee, and knew that their interracial heritage meant they looked different than their peers. The result of this was that Natalie encountered social injustice as a young child.
When we grew up in the sixties interracial marriage was an anomaly, and it was, like, we would get stared at, a lot. My mom had blonde hair and blue eyes and here she was walking these six kids and some of us looked like we were fresh off the boat. But beyond the staring and the questions people used to ask my mother where she got us. Meaning, where did she adopt us.
Natalie was acutely aware that people in her community looked askance at her. This became the standard in her daily life. She encountered much worse than staring. She remembered being called derogatory names and her brothers being beaten up at school.
We would get bullied in school and in the neighborhood, pretty severely. You know our neighbors, several of them, wanted us out of the neighborhood and they would write graffiti on our driveway. They would egg our house all the time. One time left a dead bird in our mailbox. And you know it was like three of our neighbors that just really wanted us out of there. And then in school we would get tormented all the time.
The social injustice she encountered as a youth occurred simply because she looked different.
Now in her fifties, Natalie still has vivid memories of these experiences and identifies how she has been impacted by them. “Just experiencing it firsthand certainly teaches you empathy. I mean you can empathize with others that are experiencing the same sort of ridicule and torment. So, yeah, you’re sensitive to it and you know how it feels.”
James recalled experiencing injustice during a high school summer program. He participated in a program that invited students from all around the country to attend. It was at a time when the nation’s youth were becoming more revolutionary in their thoughts and actions regarding social injustice. Simultaneously, there were groups who fought this, whose reactionary beliefs were becoming more entrenched.
I did actually go between my junior and senior year in high school to a thing called The Encampment for Citizenship. And this was a summer, kind of high school leadership, civil rights program that had been founded by Eleanor Roosevelt…And this was fifty high school students: half black; half white. And we all spent eight weeks at a college in…Eastern Kentucky, Appalachian Kentucky. So this was 1966…So there was just a lot of racial tension and upheaval and argument and discussion among all these high school students there. And at one point the Klu Klux Klan came by and fired shots into the college. Nobody was hurt. But it was sort of, it was a radicalizing experience, being with young African Americans who were awakening, getting more militant.
James, a Jewish, middle class, white kid from the northeast, was not in his world; he was a stranger in a strange land. He was on a rural campus in Appalachia just two years following the Freedom Summer. He was fully immersed in the tensions and teachings of his youthful interracial peers, while simultaneously experiencing the Klan’s evil. In the summer of 1966 he encountered social injustice directly, and experienced it with a diverse group of peers. He described how this summer-long intellectual adventure was very meaningful for him. “It was a big deal. It was a big deal at the time.”
Abe was raised by a left leaning politically active family in an isolated manufacturing pocket of northeast America during World War II. This was a social environment that described as producing a degree of social naiveté. He spent his career as an educator. Following his retirement he served on his local Board of Education for eight years. He first encountered the inequality of class difference during his freshman year in college. Growing up in a family that was long established in a small, rural, working class community, Abe had a somewhat insular upbringing. But when he left home to attend an elite New England college he saw a different coterie of people – one where he did not fit in. He cites this as when he first encountered class difference, and its associated social injustices.
I figured out right away that a lot of the people who were there were sons, cause there were no women at that time, from wealthy people. And they didn’t care about anything but having a good time and seeing how much they could get to drink…kind of a lot of them, really, had nothing to do with me…So I said, wait a minute, let’s take a look at all this and we did, I did, and I decided that…my mother was a social worker, so, and my father was very very liberal, so I said “wait a minute, this is not the direction to go in.”
While many of the other undergraduates were trying to fit in, Abe leaned on his upbringing (which included being raised by a social worker) to think critically and draw conclusions about the world, its wealth, and its disparities. This was Abe’s introduction to the collegiate experiences that would lead him to encountering social injustice.
Abe went on to describe how the process of his gaining awareness of injustice peaked while he spent his junior year abroad, living and studying in a major European city. Coming from his rural roots, Abe experienced culture shock. He was no longer surrounded by the security of his parents and his extended family. He described this as being a very influential experience. “I had never been away from home, really. And then when I got there I just couldn’t believe it.” This year-long experience gave Abe more than a front row view of injustice – he encountered it directly. He found himself in several collective demonstrations and he was detained on multiple occasions “because they just grab you for anything. But I was in a couple of manifestations, you know protests, and got clobbered, knocked around, and thrown in jail.” He was far removed from the safety of his hometown and suddenly found himself living in a land governed by an authoritarian regime; all this while making friends with revolutionaries.
Sophia spoke about the experience of growing up in a home where her brothers received deferential treatment. In her family, there was a tendency for the adults to “always take the boys side.” In her youth, she was exposed to a culture of sexism within her own family that would continue to follow her through her teen years, and later as an adult. She recalled that
There was money for the boys to go to college but that there was no money for me to go to college and that I would have to take care of that myself…And those kinds of things continued throughout my life where boys, because, they’re men, have been entitled to certain things within my family that I have never been entitled to.
The vivid memories of her experiences were not shaded by decades of distance, and she recalled being deeply impacted by the very real sexist values and behavior that she encountered in her youth. From her perspective, the example of a college fund for her brothers, but not for her, was an example of an injustice that she may not have had the language to articulate at the time, but the lack of fairness was clearly her reality.
This misogynistic temperament reached to her extended family, also. She shared a heart wrenching story about a female cousin who was sexually abused by a male relative, and her family’s response.
One of my cousins who is very close in age to me was being sexually abused by her step-father, and she had confided this to me, and also had sworn me to secrecy. And then he did something that made me feel that I didn’t have to keep that secret anymore…And, interestingly, our grandparents took the side of the molesting step-father over the side of the girl.
She was appalled then, as with now, at her grandparent’s response. It was upsetting to her that her own grandparents would side with the male, non-blood relative, over the side of their own granddaughter. This was the world she was confined to as a child and her view of justice was being shaped by deeply and personally painful encounters with injustice. These experiences had a lasting impression. Sophia shared about these experiences with a strong emotion that revealed its long-term visceral effects.
I think it boils down to I’m mad. I feel as though, I feel as though I was not given the opportunities, and this starts in my birth family, I was not given the opportunities that the men in my family were given and it was all because of my gender…I’ve been carrying that hot ball of resentment for decades.
The result of the cumulative effects of injustice based on gender in her own family resulted in a sense of righteous indignation, which she carried with her even now, as a social justice advocate.
Coleman is a middle aged African-American male who was raised in an inner city neighborhood of one of the United States’ major metropolises during the tumultuous nineteen-seventies. His life’s path led him to earning a PhD and becoming college professor at a major northeastern university, in addition to being a regional activist for racial justice. He encountered social injustice as a way of life. “The tension between the City of Detroit and its white suburbs was always there.” This was a part of life that surrounded his formative years, and it was something that he did not turn a blind eye too. Quite the opposite, Coleman was an inquisitive child, one who followed the news – local and national – diligently. He remembered how his fervor for knowledge was encouraged by both his family and his apartment building neighbors.
I’ve always been a reader and so people would push things in my direction and I would read those things. I was reading about the State of Black America from the Urban League Reports. Reading about stuff from the Michigan Chronicle, which was a black newspaper in the state of Michigan, and very popular in the city of Detroit at that time. And just paying attention to what was going on and really absorbing it and taking it in.
Eventually, his worldly zeal was rewarded in a manner that was meaningful, and memorable, for a teenage boy. This was an example for Coleman of how the injustice that he encountered as a part of his daily routines actually led to his empowerment.
And so this kind of stuff was in the news and you read about it. I actually, as a high school student, had been involved in current events contests cause I read the paper actually, and had some success; came in second place city-wide two years in a row.
Torres-Harding et al. (2012) point out that simply gaining the awareness of injustice may not be sufficient to birth a social justice advocate. In addition to awareness, and its sometimes associated feelings of empowerment, there also is a need for action. The next section, detailing one’s willingness to participate in social justice endeavors, examines a social justice advocate’s willingness to take action.
Theme 2: Willingness to Participate
“Acompañamiento…in its most basic form, is being with people. Being with people in their own spaces and experiences.” William.
The definition of activism, as found in chapter two, includes the requirement that individuals participate in social change efforts. All of the participants in this research have been a part of such efforts. While they have done this within many arenas where social justice advocacy exists, a number of common themes have emerged. One of the strongest of these themes is participants’ willingness to participate in social justice endeavors. Fiorito et al. (2010) identified that an activist maintains a willingness to participate in organizing activities. Sherkat and Blocker (1994) add that a sense of hope also matters. They state that people involved in change efforts have hope that they can influence change (Sherkat & Blocker, 1994). The willingness to participate was reflected by all of the participants’ experiences. Each came to social justice advocacy in different ways, but when they arrived, each chose to participate. In different ways, participants described feeling compelled to participate.
Sub-theme 2a: A Call to Action
“I think there’s a point when you can’t just say ‘sorry, nobody needs to do this’ because somebody does need to do this.” Jeff.
Jeff’s outlook on participation is embodied by his decision to twice run for public office. This was a commitment that he twice did not expect to make. His willingness to participate is what guided him. His first campaign was for the local City Council. Though he had not intended to run for public office at that time, when it became evident that nobody else would, he volunteered to do it. He said that the local party “needed somebody to do it.” Jeff’s experience is reflected by Maria’s view on view on participation. She said, “My feeling is like if you feel like nothing will ever happen, and you’re not willing to talk to anybody about it, well, it won’t happen.”
Two years later the same local party needed someone to run for the Board of Education. He was on the candidate search committee and again they were having trouble finding people willing to participate as candidates. He recalls a candidate search committee meeting that took place in a friend’s living room. When committee members looked at him and suggested that since he had run for office before he should run again. His response: “oh crap, alright.” I pressed him on the fact that he could have said no both times; that certainly many other people had in each of those election years. But declining did not seem to be an option for Jeff. “I think there’s a point when you can’t just say ‘sorry, nobody needs to do this’ because somebody does need to do this.” Jeff answered the call to action, and this was the motivating force that led to both of his unintended candidacies.
Natalie first answered the call to act when she was in high school. “I was a student body president of my high school and just from there wanting to make a difference in some of the rules and regulations in school that maybe some of the kids felt weren’t necessarily fair.” First, I pointed out to her that many high school students – perhaps all high school students – perceive their school to be unjust but most do not become involved in change efforts. Then I asked her why she was different.
I guess I was influenced by my peers at school. Just voicing some of my gripes about the school and them saying “why don’t you run for student body. If you want to do something about it run for student body.” And it was just like, they’re right. Instead of griping about things trying to get out here and change it.
Natalie answered the call to action by deciding to run for Student Government President. She described this as the catalyst to her participation in social justice efforts. “I guess that really wet my appetite for politics.”
Coleman also felt the call to action during his high school years. He said that “pushing for…conversations about Black History Month, and just being sort of socially involved with the life of the school was something that was really important to me.” Though he was involved in some activist efforts while a high school student, his involvement blossomed when he was an undergraduate.
College was the moment for me. I entered [college] in 1984 which was around the time that the struggles were going on in South Africa, and also across the country on a number of different college campuses. Black students were agitating on those campuses as well. So when I got there I was able to basically fall into those activities. And got involved on my campus with work on the anti-apartheid movement…we organizing the march on campus when we marched through the streets…That’s something that I remember…that I helped to organize…and also the work to get the university to disinvest. I remember when you do things like present a list of demands to the President at the University, sit out in front of his office.
This is how Coleman first felt the call to action, to agitate and to organize against an oppressive system half-the-world away. In describing these events it was clear that he felt empowered by his work.
James identifies that there were a combination of factors that led to his call to action: some were embedded deep within him by his family; others surrounded him in the national environment. It was the synthesis of these elements that led to his answering the call to social justice action.
What it was – a very simple summary – was a basic core set of liberal values from my Jewish parents, collided with white racism in the Jim Crow south and what we then considered, I still consider it, a genocidal war in Vietnam being waged by the United States. So if you have liberal values and you saw this going on, you got fired up, and you said you were going to do something about it.
For James, the experience of his environment colliding with his person, was a type of internal atomic collision; one that put his life in motion with newfound kinetic energy. Beginning at this time he was committed to the advancement of social justice. He summarized the impact of all of these factors on him by saying “in my case that further led to deciding that this was going to be my life story.”
Sub-theme 2b: Collaboration and Solidarity
“What solidarity means is if somebody you know is in a struggle you gotta help him because when you’re in a struggle you need his help.” Don.
Don views the willingness to take action from a cooperative perspective. He described participation in terms of solidarity and explained how he sees it in collaborative contexts. He shared that he has been willing to participate in numerous efforts, even when he has had a degree of hesitation about the cause. “I’ve gotten arrested at picket lines, or supported causes, that I’ve had real reservations about. But, I said, you know what? They’ve been there for me and I better sure as hell be there for them.” To Don, this mutual participatory support is what solidarity truly is. “What solidarity means is if somebody you know is in a struggle you gotta help him because when you’re in a struggle you need his help.” While taking a practical approach he acknowledges that his perspective is not universal. “I don’t think that people fully understand, I think they feel that they can only support people who are 100% on their issues, and it’s like, well, that’s not how the world works. You know? Not everyone’s the same.” In this manner, Don’s willingness to answer the call to act supersedes the value he places on perfection.
Coleman again points to his undergraduate participation in an effort “to get our university to disinvest in companies that were connected to South Africa.” In this context, his efforts show his willingness to collaborate with others to advance social justice. This was an example of African-American college students showing solidarity with oppressed South Africans living under a political regime of institutionalized segregation. He emphasized to me how this was an on-campus cause that he did not start, but was proud to enter. He said that this was an “effort that I was a part of, and certainly not anything I started but something that I joined…And when we were able to successfully do that I really felt good about that.”
William, also, spoke of solidarity and how it is rooted in participation. He gave a multi-faceted definition. He began by defining solidarity with the Spanish word for accompaniment, “acompañamiento.” He described that this meant “Being with people in their own spaces and experiences.” By accompanying them along the natural course of their life one shows solidarity through being present. He explained how he practices “acompañamiento” in his hometown region through what he calls “ontological cosmopolitanism.” He defined this as “being in multiple spaces as a way of creating solidarity and connection with people in communities.” This provides natural settings with which he can participate with his fellows to build both comradery and community.
William’s definition of solidarity also includes jazz music, and the ensemble participation that it can necessitate. He calls this orientation towards solidarity “Radical Jazz Pedagogy.” He explained how jazz’s emergence came from injustice and how its sound is collaborative.
That is, thinking about jazz music improvisation as a cultural idiom that emerged from moments of oppression and marginalization to create a system of beauty based on kind of fundamental collaboration and team building. So I play jazz piano, and I play in a band. And what I always tell my staff and my students is that the skill there is being able to listen, to know your instruments, but to listen and play with others. And this, for me, translates into politics and solidarity which is again like accompaniment about those kinds of hearing and listening and creating – whether it’s a piece of music together or an effort to make change in the world vis a vis lobbying or peaceful protest.
Participation includes listening to others; hearing them and responding to their needs. The sounds of jazz, or in the case of social justice participation, the sounds of solidarity are based on the influence and inspiration of others.