Theme 3: Inspired by Others
“They got me connected with folks who were working for social change and social justice in the grass roots political level.” Stanley.
Social workers believe that the social environment shapes human behaviors. Schools of social work teach theories devoted to this notion. The principle of person-in-environment is a trademark of social work practice. The theme of being inspired by others can be seen through this lens. Research has identified the important role that peer and social networks can play (Good, 2010; Taha, Hastings & Minei, 2015). Gordon and Taft (2011) found that for teen activists peer networks were a contributing component to their development. These networks can play a critical role in bringing people to social justice advocacy practice. This is supported by my research, as many participants shared examples of how their interpersonal networks brought them to their social justice advocacy work. In addition, Barretti (2007) stated that modeling behaviors is an effective manner in which to convey professional values. Participants explained how they were inspired by the behaviors modeled by others in their social networks.
Anthony takes a psychological perspective on this subject. He explained that he believes there are people who have an inclination to be open to the influence of others, but believes that there are also those who are not as susceptible to the influence of others – if even at all. He presented this by referencing his own internal makeup in relation to his brother’s.
Some people, including one of my brothers, you know, as a child they figure out who they are and they pursue their own course regardless of outside influence. Then there’s other people who are in contact with other influences and are basically affected by those outside influences. I have a brother who’s the former, and I am certainly the latter.
Anthony shared that being open to the inspiration of others has frequently led him to his sustained social justice efforts. To illustrate this he shared that his wife’s inspiration had been a sustaining force in his many decades of advocating for social justice. He said that at the time of their marriage she was more interested in social activism than he was, and that her influence brought him back to it.
Stanley grew up economically disadvantaged in an otherwise wealthy community. In addition, he was raised by a parent who suffered from severe mental illness. The combination of these life factors led Stanley to feeling different than his peers, and as a result, a certain kinship to marginalized populations. Now forty years old, he takes an introspective approach during our interview. He begins by sharing that his first introduction to the world of social justice efforts came through his teenage employment at a local coffee shop. He described how this happened due to the influence of a few of his regular customers. He said that when they frequented the coffee shop they would talk about politics with him. One day they arrived wearing badges indicating they were lobbyists at the State Capitol. He “found out that they worked for nonprofit organizations, and labor unions, and for organizations that try to make a difference in people’s lives.” This was something that Stanley had long wanted to be involved in himself, but he did not know how to go about it. He said that eventually
They got me connected with folks who were working for social change and social justice in the grass roots political level; working in towns and cities to help bring about the types of policies that were aligned with my thinking about insuring a level of fairness and opportunity [for those] who were less advantaged.
Stanley’s involvement with social justice advocacy was initiated by the influence of his coffee-drinking, lobbyist acquaintances.
Coleman shared how Jesse Jackson, and his 1984 Presidential Campaign, was an inspiration for him. “I was able to cast my first vote ever, in the Democratic Primary, and it was for Jesse Jackson. I was so inspired by his campaign, and what he was talking about.” But prior to this electoral experience, there were many others who inspired Coleman to engage in social justice advocacy practices. He shared examples of this phenomenon occurring at different points throughout his life, beginning when he was a child as he had educational, and informative, interactions with adult activists in his neighborhood. They were presenting ideas and modeling behaviors.
I just had the ability to have those conversations with older people…I think that a part of it was that these people who were involved in these things really took an interest in me…I mean I was having those conversations with them. And I had an interest in it. And they would sort of feed that interest by providing me with material and encouragement to learn more and to figure out how to become engaged.
These “older people” were examples of power for Coleman, who inspired him to learn more and seek ways to be part of their efforts. Along his journey he developed meaningful relationships with these adults.
I think about Mr. Grace, for example, who provided me with the opportunity to just work on behalf of Congressman Crocket at the time, who was a long-serving black Congressman in the City of Detroit. And that experience was just a great experience. Learning about his campaign; learning more about the Congressman and the work that he was doing inside of the city. When I applied for college I got a letter of recommendation from his office. Again, that sort of helped me connect about the importance of being politically and civically engaged. And getting that letter of recommendation also is about one can be rewarded for that kind of effort.
The opportunity to work with African-American leaders inspired Coleman. He learned about civic organizing and the ripple of good it could have across his city. Similar to his experience with the city-wide current events contest that he was runner up in back to back years, he was personally rewarded by this experience, also.
Coleman also remembered a neighborhood man named Mr. Bowles whom he would speak with frequently. Mr. Bowles was active in the Urban League. Coleman remembered “having conversations with him and being encouraged to learn more.” He remembers Mr. Bowles sharing copies of the State of Black America with him. These are examples of how Coleman was inspired by people he met – frequently neighbors who took an interest in him. He summarized these experiences by saying that for him “it’s really the totality of things instead of one specific, life changing, event. It’s just the culmination of many conversations from many different people.”
Arthur, Don, and Abe were all influenced by college compatriots, but in different ways. Don described having a “Reaganite” roommate who was his “antithesis.” His roommate’s influence on him was magnified due to the amount of time they shared in their small dormitory quarters. “He kind of drove me to become more liberal. Maybe I would say he forced me to see who I was and where I was coming from.” Arthur shared a similar belief in social justice with his peers, but they viewed it on an international stage. He remembers joining them at demonstrations. Their influence aided Arthur in seeing social justice from a more global perspective. “I started to realize that as bad as the skewed income distribution is in the United States of America, the problem is in some ways even worse globally.” While spending a college year abroad in a nation governed by a totalitarian regime, Abe’s roommate brought revolutionaries into their home. Abe explained that this peer was influential in his development. “I had a roommate who was a left wing anarchist. And he was very influential, and brought these people over to the house and I got talking to them…and I found out how bad things were.” In different ways Don, Abe, and Arthur’s social justice involvement was inspired by collegiate comrades.
Research by Back, Back and Knapton (2015) found that someone with a strong desire to belong has a greater likelihood of participation. This is how Jill first got involved. The combination of her recent divorce and the amount of time she was spending raising her two young children left her socially isolated and feeling “very lonely.” When a mother of one of her daughter’s classmates invited her to participate on an Election Day, Jill jumped at the opportunity. The inviting mother had been involved in social justice efforts for many years. Jill estimated that this took place in 1973 and she, herself, has been involved in social justice advocacy efforts since. Jill described to me how her many decades of involvement have been characterized by the friendships she has made. She said that these friendships, in large part, are what drive her.
Maria states that her participation began while she was in high school. She said that she had friends who were involved with a church-based youth organization and that she joined this group for primarily social reasons. She said her participation in this group made her “feel like I was part of a community and part of a group of people who cared about one another and who cared about the world.” Looking back on her life, Maria summarized the importance of her social community in the social justice work she has done. “The idea of relationships and having kind of a community of people that I feel connected to, I think that’s really important to me.”
Anthony and James, both, shared a similar sentiment with Maria. Anthony, too, identified that it is not an accident that the influence of his peers influences his advocacy work. “My personal relationships are with people who are trying to help the same way I’m trying to help.” James shared that while there were many people who inspired him, including public figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and his family, “I think what really influenced me were the people that I was closest to because we were doing it together.” He elaborated that he was strongly influenced by activist minded high school contemporaries. These were
Peers who were on the same path that I was, that were sort of mentors. There were a couple of people at my high school that were activists. We had each other, we read books together, we talked together, that was really important.
James found a high school home within a web of teenage social activists. When he went away for college this experience repeated itself.
There were a few people who were part of the anti-war movement who took me under their wing, and pushed me forward, and encouraged me to run for various things, or volunteer to speak up at a meeting, or speak at a rally, or write things.
In college, James found new mentors who helped his social justice activism progress. In high school they “talked together,” while in college they would “speak up at a meeting, or speak at a rally.” In high school they studied other peoples’ works as they “read books together,” while in college they would create their own works, as they would “run for various things” and “write things.” James’ development as a social justice advocate was sowed by the influence, and inspiration, of his peers.
Theme 4: Duty
“And I just felt that…it was my responsibility to stand for people who wouldn’t be listened to as well as I will be listened to.” Sophia.
Willingness, standing by itself, does not portend action. For the social justice advocate, however, the willingness to participate is married to the obligation to do so. The spirit of obligation is a common theme found in this and other similar research. Ellis-Williams (2007) summarized that there are people whose participation in “social activism was more a deeper understanding of their life’s purpose” (p. 123). Among her study’s participants she found some who described social activism as a “calling” (Ellis-Williams, 2007, p. 123). This is exemplified by a participant in her study who said “I think this is what I am supposed to do” (Ellis-Williams, 2007, p. 123). A compulsion, or a calling, is more than an impulse. It is an impossible-to-ignore internal compass which, in the case of many of my study’s participants, drove them to participate in social justice efforts. Activism, as defined in chapter two, includes feeling compelled to act. When one’s willingness to participate is tied to one’s perceived purpose in life, it leads to action.
Cannan (1975) describes that it is a social worker’s responsibility to challenge prevailing power structures. Though none were social workers, the participants in my study maintained a similar viewpoint: they felt that it was their responsibility to challenge established social and political mores and praxis. Jane Addams (1912) penned that “the responsibility of tolerance lies with those of the widest vision” (p. 163). Social justice advocates have this “widest vision” and those in my study view their advocacy efforts as their “responsibility.” For many of this study’s participants engaging in social justice efforts was less of a choice, but instead more of a duty for which they felt responsible to perform.
Many of my study participants described having an internal motivation to strive for the advancement of social justice. They shared examples of how they felt compelled to do this work. They viewed that engaging in these efforts was not a choice, but instead, a type of duty that they felt it was their responsibility to partake in. There is something inside of social justice advocates that directs them to this calling. But what is it that stirs this desire within them?
It appears to begin with a basic desire for fairness. Many of the participants described this feeling – the guttural desire to take social justice oriented actions – as coming from their core. Amy is recently retired from a long career in the helping professions. She was raised in the Caribbean and emigrated to America as a young adult. When I asked her what it was that kept her involved in her social justice work through the course of many decades, she replied by saying “I want to see people treated fairly and not denied of their rights. That’s one thing that really drives me.” Numerous other participants described a similar ardor. Anthony said “I always want to help. I always want to improve situations.” Being driven by the desire to advance social justice is at the heart of many social justice advocates. While many people have a strong desire to accomplish something, not everyone follows through with action. What, then, is it about the social justice advocates in this study that drove them to make the choice to take action? For the answer to this question, I look to the additional experiences of the study participants.
Sophia described that as a middle-aged white woman, she resides in a place of relative advantage within the social environment. As such, she feels compelled to advocate for her less privileged peers. She said that it was her “responsibility to stand for people who wouldn’t be listened to as well as I will be listened to.” During our interview I asked her to elaborate on this. She responded by saying “I feel a responsibility for other people.” Sophia had no hesitation in her response, and it seemed so simple as she presented it.
Though experienced from an economically and racially different perspective, Coleman sees his social standing and its associated responsibility, in a similar way.
As an African American male who earned a PhD, who grew up in a welfare dependent household, in a neighborhood with an incredibly high level of concentrated poverty, I’m actually quite unique that I’m standing where I stand in life…it’s just a reminder for me about how important it is to have people in your life who take an interest in you and are willing to do things to aid you on this journey.
Both Sophia and Coleman feel a responsibility to give voice to the disadvantaged. In Sophia’s experience, her role is to make sure their voices are heard. For Coleman, his role is to stand with them in such a manner that it will foster empowerment within them to further their life’s journey.
According to Harry, advancing social justice occurs in a large group context. He described how he sees high value in doing this work. He said that the reason he chose to become an attorney is because he sees the legal profession as a vehicle to help others. “I felt, as an attorney, you have an obligation to give back to the community…I got into law to help people.” As his career progressed and he found himself presiding at the judge’s bench, he was able to “give back to the community” in even greater magnitude.
Phenomenological research is based upon participant descriptions of their lived experiences. When reviewing the language Sophia and Harry used to describe why they have worked to advance social justice there is a clear similarity. Sophia said it was a “responsibility,” while Harry said it was an “obligation.” Concurring with this, John said that for him this was a “duty.”
Stanley approaches this topic from a different perspective. He spoke of his maturation process. He said that his desire to work for the justice of others was something that initially grew from “the difficulties I faced growing up in a difficult circumstance in my household…As I matured…I wanted to help other people who I thought I might have the power to help.” Stanley makes a valuable assertion. He describes the obligation to aid marginalized groups as something he has the “power” to do. In viewing social justice advocacy in this manner, he is taking a strengths perspective in describing how the manifestation of his personal maturation has led to having the “power” to help others. Stanley recognized that having the ability to assist others is a form of empowerment.
Theme 5: Challenging Social Conventions/Rebellious Framework
“I had always had an orientation for standing up for the little guy.” Arthur.
Doctrine is established by those with authority and frequently is designed to protect their power. Whether intentional or not, a byproduct of this can be the manifestation of oppression. In other words, doctrine can serve to maintain power structures. Regarding this notion, Saul Alinsky (1971) wrote that “dogma is the enemy of human freedom” (p. 4). There are people who obey the trappings tradition, and others who challenge it. “The power of systems of oppression and privilege are propelled by individual actions and behaviors. Each person has a responsibility to examine their own positionality within the system, understand where one colludes with the system, and where one can evoke change” (ASHE, 2013, p. 72). Those who endeavor to “evoke change” on unjust systems are those who possess a rebellious framework. A key component of advocacy, as defined in chapter 2, is taking action to open such systems. This section explores ways that the rebellious framework found within social justice advocates drives them to challenge inequitable systems.
Swank (2012) identified that while some people build their identity within the confines of established conventions, the identity of others is constructed through the questioning of authority. These are people who challenge social canons. Attempts to challenge authority and its associated cultural norms, can be a very difficult task because dominant classes guarding the status quo will persevere for its permanence (Alinksy, 1971; Berberoglu, 2015). Social justice advocates are those who challenge the status quo; those who do not accept the authority of the establishment; those who are not opposed to a political fight. These are people with a rebellious framework.
Study participants shared numerous examples of them challenging long-standing social standards. Arthur shared a story about being a participant in the legislative fight for transgendered equality. This took place prior to bathroom bills prompting the national media to give attention to this topic. He shared that “giving protections against discrimination to transgendered individuals was a controversial issue and I was one hundred percent for equal rights for the transgendered community.” While many elected officials may have shied away from a controversial issue, Arthur did not allow the public contentiousness which surrounded this to hinder his support. He shared poignantly that “some of those debates were pretty ugly.” In his support of this cause, Arthur challenged traditional practices.
Amy sees herself within history; this is where her rebellious framework comes from. Her grandfather was a member of the Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, and worked directly with Garvey himself. In addition to being known as a leader for challenging the status quo, Amy described Garvey as an entrepreneur, a poet, and a preacher. “He was the first person who came out and said ‘black is beautiful’ and about…black pride.” She credited Garvey as “the person that instilled awareness into Malcom X, Martin Luther King, and also Obama.” It appeared that he also instilled awareness in Amy. But due to her grandfather’s relationship with Garvey, himself, the awareness instilled within her was more personal than historical.
This rebellious passion did not skip her mother’s generation. “My mother remembers when Garvey came to Jamaica her father brought her to the parade to see Garvey. So, it’s embedded.” Garvey’s influence on Amy’s family started with her grandfather, included her mother (who she said emulated Garvey), and was eventually inculcated within Amy. Amy said someone “I really embrace and look up to a lot was my mother cause she passed it on to us. You know, she passed on about her father, about her political…not being afraid to be involved politically.” Amy embraces her rebellious nature, which was gifted to her by her family. The rebelliousness that beats within her heart is manifested in her beliefs. She said “if they could have an opinion about black people going for greatness, why is it now we cannot have an opinion and strive for greatness?”
Natalie, too, had an intergenerational introduction to social justice. She cited her mother being a powerful influence in her development.
My mother was a remarkable teacher for all six of her kids. There’s six in my family. She was a remarkable teacher as far as trying to right social injustices. She was born and raised in Mississippi. And during that time, she was born in the thirties, in a small town in Mississippi known as Laurel, Mississippi. And during that time that area had some of the worst hate crimes imaginable. I mean lynchings were not anything out of the norm. And she grew up in this environment, yet she grew up not having a racist bone in her body. She was really a person ahead of her years. She didn’t really fit into that time.
She continued by describing how her mother lived against the cultural grain – not just within society but within her own family. As a young child, her mother recognized injustice and inequality, and it did not sit well with her even in the context of her privileged life.
She would tell us about some of the arguments she would have with her mother, in particular, cause her mother would insist that the help come into the house through the back door and my mother would always let them in through the front door. And that was just an ongoing battle with them. The black help did not come in through the front door.
As a child, her mother rebelled against the social structure. This is a framework that has been passed down to her from her mother, and is something that Natalie is very proud of.
The rebellious nature described in the above experiences can become the lens through which people see the world. During our interview, Don described being “under attack” nine different times. He referenced times when the labor movement generally, and individual unions specifically, were under attack. He also spoke of times when both state employees, and private businesspeople, were under attack. He summarized this by saying “I think it’s a class thing for me.” He continued by elaborating on this perspective.
Don describes different aggressors at different times but the common philosophical thread they shared was to maintain, or even exacerbate, unjust systems to the detriment of common people. These proprietors of power practice oppression as defined in chapter two: the utilization of power to limit individual or group access to social resources. Don’s sensitivity to this leads to action. “I don’t like being under attack, and so I usually try to fight back.” Arthur stated that “I had always had an orientation for standing up for the little guy.” This orientation is shared by Don and is at the core of his rebellious nature.
Jeff may be the definition of a reluctant servant. He shared many stories that described how his feeling that public service is an obligation led his way. He views politics, advocacy, and government in philosophical terms. His philosophical beliefs and his public service are amalgamated in his activism. Jeff’s family lives in a working class section of his town. He remembers people speaking derogatorily of the neighborhood elementary school that his daughter attended – a school that he believed in. “People said to me ‘it’s a terrible place.’ You know. And I would look at them and say ‘what do you mean it’s a terrible place? My kid goes to school there? How do you mean it’s a terrible place?’” He found this partly flabbergasting, and partly offensive.
He recalls a similar experience that took place later. There was a woman, who resided in a different part of town, testifying at a municipal hearing who spoke of the dangers of his daughter’s school, and by association, his neighborhood.
[She] testified at this hearing, and said “well, you know, you can’t ask people to go to Charter Oak School, that school is surrounded by a huge wrought iron fence. And you know why that is? That’s because there are so many evil people they have to have that fence to keep them out, out of the school grounds.” I said “really?” I had no idea that that’s why they put the fence there…I thought it was to keep the kids from running into the streets.
Jeff perceived that the beliefs intimated by the above testimony could sustain unjust perceptions of inequality. He views America as a “place of opportunity and place where people are treated fairly.” This experience shows how Jeff felt that his belief system, his daughter, and their beloved school, were under attack. His willingness to fight back by representing both his daughter’s school and the town show his rebellious framework.
By the time James arrived to college he knew that advocating for social justice was what fueled him and that he was ready to challenge conventions. The sundry experiences of his youth showed him that. As a result of his rebellious framework he soon found himself at the center of a campus wide protest that gained national attention.
By the time I got to [college] it was as if I had a sign on my chest that said “come recruit me to some radical organization, I’m ready.” And sure enough, probably the third or fourth day that I was [there] I got a leaflet under my door that said “if you want to join the Students for a Democratic Society, call this number.” And it was signed by a couple of other…students who were a year ahead. And so I called them up. And a week after I got to [college] I was already a member of SDS. And never stopped.
One year later James and his peers made national news when they led a student strike that shut down the university for nearly one month. His school was known for its decorum, high mindedness, even snobbery. Its Ivy League status was buttressed by its Greek Revival architecture, gigantic endowment, and tradition that dates to before the American Revolution. But on this college campus, in 1969, the students took over.
I was a sophomore…there was a gigantic student strike at [my college]. All of the students went out on strike…mainly against the war, and [our school’s] complicity in it. So we took over the…administrative building. We escorted the Deans out. We sat in the building for a couple of days. Police were called and beat the crap out of us, and arrested us. The campus was basically then shut down for almost a month with student strikes, and meetings, and teach-ins, and rallies, and counter-rallies.
The Students for a Democratic Society led strike had influence beyond just James’ college campus. It became national news, and an example of the power of organizing. “It was on the front page of Life Magazine…The…strike really showed that students were on fire and the war was incredibly unpopular.” In the middle of all of this was James. Though he was just a college sophomore his organizing skills were being sharpened, and pointed towards challenging social conventions. The effectiveness of his efforts – both for his school and the nation – made this “quite a kind of extraordinary moment” for him.
A rebelliousness framework can take many forms. William subscribes to Freirean beliefs. When teaching English and Spanish to indigenous people in Mexico and Canada he explained how he brought a questioning authority stance to his classroom – while making it clear that his was a classroom not bordered by bricks and mortar.
So instead of, for example, having a classroom and teaching them how to conjugate the past predicate, or something like this, I would go into their space and they would guide their own learning based on their vocabulary and their language needed to liberate themselves as part of their engagement with their communities. And…using language in this case to understand broader structures as Freire would say of oppression, whether it’s racialized or land or labor or other kinds of systems. So using language learning as an opportunity of empowering these different communities.
William was using his own authority, in this case as a teacher, to empower marginalized classes in their struggle to justice. Challenging power structures by increasing access to resources for oppressed populations is linked to the tenets of political progressivism, which is the next theme that I discovered.