Many people working in community building – and more widely in the social sector – will affirm their commitment to social justice. I am an organiser because my values start from a deep seated conviction that each human being is worthy of the same respect as I am. Whatever your background, knowledge, age or race, you have an equal right with every other person to be treated as a valued contributor to your own life and that of the community in which you live.
My understanding of social justice has been expanded by studying community organising. I now recognise the way we construct our approach to citizenship as a means of giving some people privileges over others. Citizenship – the role we play in our common life together – is too often framed around insiders and outsiders and the distinction is drawn up and imposed by the insiders. Participation in our common enterprise of forming thriving and sustainable communities is fundamental to our nature as social human beings. We have too often restricted such citizenship to the few, leaving the many to become subjects of the few.
How do we become actors in our own destiny?
For the many, both the state and the market take power away from citizens, inviting them to become passive bystanders to their own future. Turning round this experience of powerlessness requires effort at several levels. It certainly means awakening community solidarity and an awareness of how power is distributed and used. It requires us to find allies and friends sometimes in unusual places with whom we can collaborate. It means building a sense of common purpose amongst those independent of market and state. And it will undoubtedly mean calling to account those who wield power and bringing them into living relationship with their own community.
Divisions and oppression
We have created a prison for ourselves, no doubt made up of good intentions. We live in human silos that keep us separate and powerless. The divisions we encounter are based on superficial characteristics such as our gender, race or disability. The fundamental reality is that our human nature gives us the same respect and value whatever these apparent distinctions may mean in society. These differences are transformed into exclusion, discrimination and impoverishment by the abuse of power – by one group or interest running rough shod over the aspirations and dreams of another.
Power used wisely
So, social justice is a question of rebalancing power. Power comes in many forms – power-over, power-to, power-with for example – and it exists inherent in every human relationship. We can exercise our personal power with care and awareness or we can abuse others with it and crush their spirit. Parents and children, partners in relationship, employers and employees, retailers and customers all exercise power in relationships. Lawyers and clients, teachers and learners, authors and readers, athletes and spectators exercise power in differing degrees and with wildly varying results. Analysing power and its sources is a critical factor in addressing social justice.
Useful Resources on Social Justice
Lisa VeneKlasen with Valerie Miller (2006) A New Weave of Power, People & Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation http://www.justassociates.org/ActionGuide.htm
Paulo Friere (1993) Pedagogy of the Oppressed Revised edition Penguin
This foundational document inspired many to engage in raising the consciousness of oppressed people around the world through working as teacher-learners. Highly
Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel (2003) Understanding Power: The
Indispensable Chomsky Vintage
A useful introduction to the thinking of Noam Chomsky, one of the most influential activists of our day.
Do you agree that social justice is about rebalancing power?
Does your vision of justice also start from respect for the fundamental equality of all human beings? Or do you have another starting point?
I want to include justice for the global eco-system for which we are stewards. How can we frame a single justice paradigm for social and environmental justice?
Justice is a great topic to start this blog with as it is something lots of people hold dear but express their commitment and practice in really different ways. I look forward to hearing what you think.