Theme 6: Progressive Vision
“Government stands in the middle, and looks both ways for people, and asks how do we clear the path so that the most people get the most good?” Jeff.
Progress cannot happen in the absence of change. Mimi Abromovitz (1998) identified that social work history has been marked by left leaning reforms. This dates to the Settlement House Movement at the profession’s inception (Gil, 1998). With a long, distinguished history of supporting progressive reforms, social work’s progressive roots are well established. One of the most interesting findings of this research was the strong connection between the social justice advocates I interviewed and their own progressive beliefs. As I detailed in the previous chapters, progressive thought and social work have been closely connected for over one hundred years (Gil, 1998; Murdach, 2010; Talbot & McMillin, 2014). Supporting this sentiment, Paolo Freire (1990) said that social workers must have a “progressive obsession” (p. 7). The social justice advocates in this study possess exactly that. In fact, there were many examples of participant beliefs representing the historical roots of progressive thought.
The early twentieth century Progressives believed in labor reforms and instituting protections for the workers of America (“PBS,” n.d.). They championed new standards of fairness in the workplace with proposed reforms that included establishing a minimum wage and limiting children to eight-hour work days (“PBS,” n.d.). These progressive pioneers made their support of organized labor explicit. “We favor the organization of the workers, men and women as a means of protecting their interests and of promoting their progress” (“PBS,” n.d.). This sentiment – believing organized labor as the apparatus to protect workers – is mirrored by many of my study’s participants.
Don, who at different times called himself a “practical progressive” and a “working class progressive,” explained his belief in labor unions. He explained that the modern workers are frequently under attack and being organized is their best defense. Buttressing Don’s beliefs are Amy’s actions. She described how she has been able to use her leadership position within her union to safeguard her peers’ rights. “When I see people being denied of their rights and representing them, and being able to speak to the managers too, and to be able to get different things changed for the betterment of the patient and the staff.”
Don also believes that organized labor is an effective means to address economic injustice. “I actually believe in labor unions because I think they’re an important way to equalize economic power in the United States.” Though the Progressive Era was one hundred years ago many social justice advocates, including Don, continue to fight for its principles. Regarding the need for labor unions he lamented, “I just think that actually, sadly, they’re needed now more than ever.”
Belief in equality of opportunity is the entrant to progressive beliefs. The 1912 Progressive Party Platform stated “the people must use their sovereign powers to establish and maintain equal opportunity” (“PBS,” n.d.). Many of the participants in my research maintain an orientation towards equality. Maria stated that both equality, and opportunity, were very important to her. Abe felt similarly, saying that he believed in “justice for all.” Amy, too, endorsed this notion. She said “I like to be part of change and to see better for every[body].”
The early twentieth century Progressives believed in a Federal Income Tax (“PBS,” n.d.). This would mean a more equal national taxation program whereby taxes would be based upon one’s ability to pay: those with greater income would pay a greater share of the taxes. One hundred years later, during a time of economic turmoil in his home state, Coleman subscribes to the benefits of graduated taxes based upon income. He said that “austerity is not the answer to the budget problems here in the state, that revenue…and especially making people with the ability to pay to pay.” His beliefs are firmly rooted in historically progressive thought.
While an elected leader, James fought hard to advance a progressive income tax in his home state. He humbly emphasized that he was but one of many people who worked to enact this legislation, and underscores that this was a great progressive victory.
We actually completely changed the tax…I was the guy who kind of organized the legislators…And that fight led to, after eleven months of struggle, and big
demonstrations, this, that and the other thing, led to a major progressive change in the tax structure that has helped…immensely over the last 25 years.
His work as an organizer shifted his state’s tax revenue from a sales tax, where everyone pays equally, to an income tax, whereby peoples’ tax contributions are in accordance to their ability to pay. Similar to Coleman, and most of this study’s participants, James’ beliefs regarding the equitability of taxes is tied to Progressive thought.
Natalie explained that a social justice advocate must have progressive beliefs, and she tied progressivism to justice. She referenced the progressive stance towards increasing access to health care for all people as an example of social justice.
Progressives are all about justice. Progressives are really very much about equality and treating people with, you know, in a humane way. That everybody should have universal health care. That’s a social justice issue. Why should impoverished people, why should poor people not have health insurance? So the progressives are very, very, very much about just treating people humanely.
Her world view is perhaps rooted in the discriminatory, unjust manner that her biracial family was treated when she was in her formative years. Her stories about these years, which are described earlier in this chapter, were neither just nor humane. Natalie views progressivism as being opposed to that kind of treatment for anyone.
Jeff, too, spoke about the important value of equal opportunity. “This is a place of opportunity and place where people are treated fairly,” he said. He elaborated on his beliefs in describing his prospects of the American democratic experiment.
The notion of grace the notion that people need acceptance, that they deserve acceptance, and that on everybody’s terms you could sort of, um, you don’t have to be a remarkable person, you just need to be striving to be the good person you can be, and that’s gotta be enough…I think that’s universal. I think that that’s really what you want. I think that’s what the Declaration of Independence was about really. When you get back the idealism of America that’s really kind of what we think. You know? We’re gonna set out to make it possible for everybody to achieve the best things that they can achieve. And we’re gonna do that in this sort of balanced way where we have this crazy government and these, you know, nutty ideas about being created equal.
While the Progressives endeavored to protect the Constitution from those who “would convert it into an instrument of injustice,” more than one hundred years later Jeff represents a contemporary link in the progressive chain as his views are closely tied to progressive precepts (“PBS,” n.d.). They are rooted in equal opportunity – that there’s an avenue to reach the American Dream – whatever that may be – for everyone.
Maria first grew interested in politics while working for the Nuclear Freeze Campaign. She identified how this experience taught her “how politics could have an impact on making what I would call, systems change.” The Progressives believed that the government systems can be a force for good. They were not afraid of a larger government. This is a political belief that is shared by many of my participants. Anthony explained this in the context of his of social security check and how this is a government program that assists people nationally. “I believe, actually, is if you really want to get something done…you tie into the government.” Social security was rooted in progressive policy (Gil, 1998). Don cited how government regulations can protect workers by limiting their hours and protecting workers’ compensation benefits – both ideals championed by the Progressives (“PBS,” n.d.). Amy said “I believe, my basic belief…that everybody is entitled to good health and good education.” The Progressives wanted to codify Amy’s beliefs. They wanted to end illiteracy and expand public education (“PBS,” n.d.). They also proposed creating a Federal health service (“PBS,” n.d.).
But what is the purpose of government, both in the eyes of progressive thought and in the eyes of many of my participants? Jeff gave this summary: “Government stands in the middle, and looks both ways for people, and asks how do we clear the path so that the most people get the most good?” Jeff closely ties government’s ability to be a tool for righteousness with participation. “I think the willingness of people to participate means that government has to be fair and even-handed. And if that can happen then I think it works.” This position regarding
“even-handed” governing is represented by Lady Justice, herself. This also aligns with the definition of social justice found in chapter two that focuses on the equal sharing of society’s boons and burdens. A progressive view of government, one that is shared by many of this study’s participants, is that it can be society’s protector of equal opportunity.
Theme 7: Fulfillment
“I’ve become one of the village lawyers.” Amy.
Another theme found among my participants was how they felt fulfilled. Fiorito et al. (2010) state that the results of an activist’s work can lead that activist to self-actualization. This was supported by the participants in this study. Participants described gaining deep satisfaction from advancing the causes they believe in. In different ways, these participants found that the work they have done has led them to feeling personally fulfilled.
It became clear that Amy’s life as a social justice advocate really began in previous generations – with the work of her mother and grandfather. She takes special pride in being a link in this chain. She told a story that she learned from her mother. Her mother told her that grandfather was a self-educated, well-informed, Jamaican soldier.
He used to write letters for people. He used to advise people. He used to play the violin. He was a deacon in the church. He used to have services on Sunday evenings, and singing and all that. And my grandmother…would be in the house and people would come to him for advice, she would say “oh just look at that village lawyer, look at the village lawyer.” I’ve become one of the village lawyers. People come to me a lot for advice.
Amy finds great meaning in striving to live a life consistent with her grandfather’s values, and sees herself as having been molded in his image. Others may not be aware of this, but it matters to Amy. In this manner she finds deep fulfillment.
Amy is not alone in feeling fulfilled by the work that she does. When describing the passage of the transgendered equality bill that he supported, Arthur described it as “a very proud day.” Don worked to increase union solidarity among different factions of workers. He looks back on these efforts and notes “I really kind of changed the union.” Jill shares of the positive feelings she gains from hosting different political events at her home. Abe says that his successful support for the construction of a new elementary school is one of his “great accomplishments.” He said, “I fought and fought right to the end and won. And we built the school and it’s gorgeous.” I can only imagine the pride he feels each time he drives past it. In these differing ways, all of these social justice advocates found fulfillment in their achievements.
Natalie expressed fulfillment realized based on her many years as an advocate for social justice. When I asked her if there were particular endeavors that she has felt most proud of she gave a global response.
I guess just the fact that I’m still involved. I do take pride in that. It’s not just something that I got involved for one election and then was done with it. It has been something that I’ve been involved in for a number of years, and continue to be. I guess that’s what I take the greatest pride in.
When I probed further on this subject, she said that her greatest accomplishment within the social justice arena was “getting my daughter involved.” She detailed how she feels responsible for her daughter’s social justice development.
I’ve taken her out to protest, I’ve taken her out to rallies…so she’s tasted it for sure. And she gets very passionate about issues. And I think that as she matures, I don’t think, I know, I know she’s going to be involved. You know, in what capacity I don’t know. But I know whenever I ask her to go to different rallies and events with me by and large she’s interest in going along with me.
In this case, it is not the advancement of specific causes that brings the most pride to Natalie. Instead, it is seeing her daughter develop into a social justice advocate, herself, which fills Natalie with feelings of fulfillment.
Coleman shared two meaningful stories of how his efforts to advance social justice has brought him fulfillment. First he shared about the feeling he associates with this work. These are feelings of fulfillment that are associated with advancing a cause.
You find yourself involved with really good people working on things that really matter that are important. And it helps that from time to time you feel that you’ve made a meaningful contribution. And so if I’ve had an opportunity to testify on some legislation, and maybe that legislation gets passed, or it’s seriously considered, you feel good about that. When you are having strategy sessions with people about various sorts of campaigns that they’re working on and you’re a part of those conversations – that feels good.
Second, he shared a specific story about a former student. He shared how he learned that he had been an important part of her own journey, one that has led her to working for social justice. He remembers taking a supportive interest in her, and advice he would give her during her college career. What was the advice? Simply not to panic. In explicitly conveying that message he was implicitly conveying the message that he believed in her.
I had a student we brought back who was a young alumnus. She had started her own sort of non-profit, and some other things. And she really talked about how she tried to take every class I taught and she just remembered that day of coming in and that simple advice, and just being a mentor, and taking an interest and encouraging her to do things and to take on challenges, and so things really matter.
Harry reflected on his journey to judgeship as the culmination of life’s legal work. “It’s the one job I’ve had in my life where almost every day somebody said ‘thank you.’ I mean think about that. I got into law to help people and then I’m Probate Judge where I actually did help people every day.” Harry attained fulfillment in using the law to help people daily. In addition, he also felt fulfilled by the kind words of thanks that his court’s clients would bestow upon him.
One of Jeff’s goals for his service on the Board of Education was to bring it greater harmony. When he ran for this post that nobody else wanted it, but his recognition that there were people clamoring to run for his seat at the conclusion of his term signifies to him that times had changed. This brings him satisfaction. “I sort of felt like I did the thing I set out to do. I think I got the board, to the degree I was able to do it, I was just one person, to the extent that I was able to bring some sort of balance, and some sort of reason back to the activities of the Board, I think that that was my goal.” At the conclusion of his term, Jeff realized fulfillment by witnessing new, town-wide interest in Board of Education candidacy.
Maria identified that the fulfillment she receives from her work is a motivating factor to continue doing it. She suspected that this is the case for others, too.
I think that doing social justice work is obviously important for making change in the world. But there’s something that’s also, I don’t want to suggest that it’s…completely altruistic…I feel like people pursue careers that are also very fulfilling for them. And so I think it was also really fulfilling for me to do this work.
Pride can come with fulfillment and while it can have a negative connotation this association should not be leveled here. John describes how he views these as two very different things. Describing his social justice work, John said “I suppose I get a little dopamine hit out of fulfillment, but I distinguish that from ego because, after all, the point is really…you’re trying to help others who are less fortunate.” He identifies that his moral motivations differentiate this from a purely ego-based endeavor; therefore, getting “a little dopamine hit out of fulfillment” is not diluted by selfish intentions. John’s assessment is supported by Erasmus and Morey (2016), who suggest volunteerism motivations related to self-growth can be different than those related to ego. This is reinforced by Stukas, Hoye, Nicholson, Brown and Aisbett (2016), who examined volunteerism as being “other-oriented” or “self-oriented,” (p. 128). They identify that volunteerism primarily oriented toward others positively correlates to social connections and self-efficacy (Stukas et al., 2016).
Abe also feels fulfilled from the international youth exchange program that he spearheaded. He told me about his feelings related to starting, and then maintaining, this program.
I loved it because I believed in the exchange program…And it was very important to start with young people. Never mind teachers and adults and all that…what I wanted was to get people in Spain, young people in Spain and the United States together so that they could understand each other and the two countries could, you know, foster a good relationship. Which has happened. It really has.
He said that the program has been very successful. The fulfillment he feels is not focused on having created a program, but in seeing the ways that it has benefited its young participants.
Finally, Stanley describes feelings of fulfillment in personal terms. He looks inward as he considers the work that he has accomplished. “Through my journey of helping others I have helped myself and now I have the sort of lifestyle that was, I felt, unattainable to me growing up.” He views his social justice advocacy work as central to his personal growth and development. He finds fulfillment in reaching life achievements that he thought not possible, and recognizes that these achievements were driven by his social justice endeavors.
Theme 8: Tikkun Olam (repairing the world)
“I felt motivated to do something to make the world a better place.” Maria.
One of the strongest themes found in this research is that participants have deep, embedded desire to make the world a better place. Many participants spoke these exact words. Both Mitch and William, independent of one another, referenced the Jewish charge of Tikkun Olam as a reason for being involved in social justice work. Specifically, Mitch shared how his Jewish upbringing bestowed this within him. But what is Tikkun Olam? What do those words mean in a scholarly setting? And what do those words mean in practice?
William defined Tikkun Olam as “repairing the world,” and there are researchers who endorse this definition (Cullinane, 2008; Gutow, 2000). Chanes (1996) defines Tikkun Olam as “the betterment of society” (p. 62). It is a command which requires Jews to take action that will diminish suffering (Gutow, 2000). Specifically, Gutow (2000) references suffering in terms of “poverty, persecution, hunger, the lack of health care and basic educational opportunities,” all of which fall within the realm of social justice (p. 46). Advancing Tikkun Olam is tied to action (Chanes, 1996; Fried, Bennett & Keidan, 2009; Gutow, 2000; Liebling, 2003). Specifically, it is action directed by faith (Cullinane, 2008; Gutow, 2000). Consequently, Tikkun Olam can be identified as taking faith-based action to repair the world’s social injustices. In a secular view, this action does not need to be tied to the Torah, or any other religious texts; one can simply believe in the necessity to take actions that will lessen suffering within society.
The natural convergence between Tikkun Olam and social justice advocacy connects one’s faith in bettering the world with one’s actions to accomplish this. Liebling (2003) describes this as the intersection of spiritual and social actions. “Taking responsibility for ones actions is the heart of any spiritual path, and taking responsibility for one’s role in society is the heart of good citizenship” (Liebling, 2003, p. 13). Chanes (1996) states that the route to Tikkun Olam “is the enhancement of those conditions in society that ensure and protect democratic pluralism” (p. 62). This is closely related to Progressive thought. Therefore, the Progressive history of social justice advocacy can be seen in light of Tikkun Olam.
The idea of taking positive action to better the world is not unique to any one religion. Earlier references by Don, Anthony, and Maria all revealed aiding those in need as a teaching emanating from different religious denominations. In this fashion, Tikkun Olam may have some universal meaning. Maria described being a social justice advocate as being related to feeling “motivated to do something to make the world a better place.” In addition, Maria maintains a “sense of internal drive to work on this from a basis that I believe that God loves everyone and wants the world to be a place with peace and justice.” She is not dissuaded by the belief that this is a long, slow process; one that will out-live her time on earth. “I don’t believe that it will happen in my lifetime, but I believe that it’s important to work toward that. And work with other who want to work toward that.”
Natalie shares a similar sentiment to Maria’s. From Natalie’s childhood years, when she was the victim of countless injustices, to her adult years, as she has fought for social progress, her efforts have been consistently to heal society.
I’m not so naïve as to think that ignorance and hate will ever vanish from this earth. But I do strongly believe that through education and exposure it becomes less. It’s gotten better. There’s no doubt. When I consider how society has developed since the nineteen sixties, seventies, it’s changed quite a bit but we still have a long way to go. I would like to do my part to change that.
Natalie is able to look back on how society and culture has changed in her lifetime. Her work has represented, in its own way, her part of to advance fairness and justice in the world.
Coleman approaches his work from a similar point of view. He recognizes that his change efforts are a small part of a much greater whole. He believed that his contributions to advancing causes of social justice are helping to make his state, and the world, a better place.
I’m not saving the world, I’m not doing anything that’s a game changer necessarily, but I’m a part of the effort that people are making to try to make this a better state, a fairer state, a state in which people who have needs, that those needs are being met; that we’re really addressing the challenges being faced as a state and as a world.
John takes pride in his work to bring cultures together. He was instrumental in expanding a youth exchange program that brought American and Cuban children together. He understands that the two nation’s differing political systems can serve to separate their populations. He spoke of how he believes this program has affected the children who have participated. “They have a view of people from different cultures that is certainly more accepting, more open, and the opposite of the sort of narrow minded kind of blindly following propaganda issued by governments about people.” John believes that his work to bring children of different cultures makes the world a better place. He shared about the impact of the exchange program on participants as well as on his own family, and about the relationships developed, which, according to John, “I have every reason to believe will be life-long relationships with their counterparts…we have some wonderful life-long friends.”
In chapter 2, I detailed how association is an intervention to fight injustice. Association is a “social solidarity with others” that disregards class (McGerr, 2003, p. 67). This exchange program is an international version of association. John said, “At the end of the day…a very simple fact is that we’ve all rediscovered is that people are people.” This exchange is Tikkun Olam for it certainly is repairing the world (Cullinane, 2008; Gutow, 2000).
There is a spiritual element to this work. Amy explained how this realization came to her. Though she has been an advocate for social justice for many years, this awakening was recent. It is the culmination of her life’s experiences.
I dig deep down and I say “God put us here for different reasons.” God. He put us here for different reasons. And why am I here? And why am I here? We may not believe it but we’re here to serve each other. You know, and one day it became clear to me. And the things, it says “am I my brother’s keeper?” It’s not that we’re our brother’s keeper, we’re here to serve each other…All of a sudden it hit me. This is why we’re here, really to serve each other. Think about it!
Bettering the world through participating in service work for each other – that is Amy’s conclusion.
Social justice advocates possess an awareness of injustice and are willing to participate in efforts to alleviate it. The choices they make as they follow this path are frequently influenced by others. They are not easily dissuaded because they view this work as their duty and are oriented to challenge injustice. Their beliefs are closely tied to the Progressive Movement. The combination of all of the above falls under the command of Tikkun Olam. This process is summarized in Figure 2 (below), which diagrams the thematic steps in the developmental process of the social justice advocates who participated in this study. Frey and Carragee (2016) identify that social justice research has been hampered by “far more abstract critical theorizing than on-the-ground interventions” (p. 4030). In the following chapter, however, I will present how the social justice advocates’ data described above offers a fresh approach to social work education.