"There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled. There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled. You feel it don't you?" Rumi
You fell it don’t you? That nagging deep inside that compels you to think, to act in the name of social justice; justice for all and not just the privileged spin. That undeniable feeling of what is wrong in the world and what can I do to make it right. You feel and experience that cognitive dissonance about an idealized history of the world you were taught in school, home and community and the true history of the world that you are beginning to understand and allow into consciousness. But, you say, the problem of justice for all is too big and I am but one person with little power to change events – how can I impact such a huge problem? I will give you some things to ponder; you will have to decide to act.
I am going to be upfront, what I suggest is hard work and lasts a lifetime but I believe it is a worthy undertaking. To work with other people to fight injustice for others and yourself is empowering and incredibly powerful. You cannot just read a book, go to a conference, go to a workshop or have casual friends that are different from you and expect to know everything about social justice. The learning about yourself, history and others is a journey that is difficult and requires you to go outside of your safety net, it requires courage. Most white folks have a difficult time of it because of the way we were socialized; most persons of color know firsthand about injustice. I believe that it is the right thing for you, for our communities, country and world.
In my work as a Social Justice Consultant, and as a person committed to justice, I have presented to many groups of teachers groups of teacher assistants, organizations and groups of citizens on Unlearning Racism, Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity, and led discussion groups on the current status of racism in America. I have spoken and worked with people who possess a great deal of knowledge about social justice and people with little or no knowledge of social justice. I have learned from each and every person I have engaged in conversation; about them and about myself. I have learned that we all need to go through a process to advocate for ourselves and others. I will outline some of the basics for you and you can chose how, when and if you want to make a change in your life that will positively impact others in all areas of life.
One of the first things I suggest to people is to complete a socialization inventory because you have to know from whence you came. The inventory should include your ethnicity, your family members, your beliefs and values and where you got them from (relatives, parents, schools, churches, media, etc.), your experiences with people different from you and people like you, and anything that you want to include in the inventory about yourself. Then you should do a searching moral inventory where you write down all experiences you have had with racism, GLBT folks, religions that are different from yours, abled/non-abled people, men if you are a woman and women if you are a man, people in poverty and people who are rich, your experiences with people younger than you and older than you, and your understanding of the history of the United States. Take the time to really give thought and honesty to these suggestions and keep the inventories – don’t throw them away because you need them. In the Tao Te Ching is this: “Those who know others are wise, Those who know themselves are enlightened”. I hope you will be enlightened.
Second, begin to immerse yourself in reading books that may run counter to your beliefs (remember we are talking about social justice); you need to have this type of education/information to check against your inventories. I would suggest reading Paul Kivel’s book, Uprooting Racism; any book by Tim Wise; Howard Zin’s book, A People’s History of the United States; any book by bell hooks; W.E.B Du Bois’ book, The Souls of Black Folk; Frances E. Kendall’s book, Understanding White Privilege; Beverley Daniel Tatum’s book, Can We Talk about Race; and finally Reading For Diversity And Social Justice edited by Maurianne Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Rosie Castaneda, Heather W. Hackman, Madeline L. Peters and Ximena Zuniga. While you are reading, begin to go to websites such as The National Association of Multicultural Education; Americans for American Values; Equal Justice Society; The Southern Poverty Law Center that tracks hate crimes and groups; The White Privilege Conference and others dealing with the concepts of social justice. A tall order but achievable for those who wish to light a candle in their heart and fill a void in their soul.
Third, you should begin to expand out of you solitary work and begin to venture out into the social world. You can elect to attend a workshop on Unlearning Racism; most YWCA’s have these programs. You might want to attend a National Association of Multicultural Education conference; or go to your states conference. An excellent workshop is the White Privilege National Conference developed and put on by Dr. Eddie Moore. Watch PBS’s video entitled “Race: the power of an illusion”. Attend any workshop on social justice and anti-racism so you meet and talk to people who are like you and different from you so that you may gain another perspective.
By now you should be experiencing some cognitive dissonance in regard to who you thought you were and who you are becoming. You should be asking yourself about your hidden biases, your stereotypes, what you were taught by your family, schools, churches, and government, what the media told you and is still telling you, and what giant corporations really stand for. If you have done a searching moral inventory and socialization inventory then you should keep referring to them as you learn new things to help you learn your old anti- justice habits and replace them with positive and believable statements about people different from you.
Fourth, by completing all of the above you are ready to really have a discussion about social justice with those who are different from you by virtue of race ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, class, age and physical ability. I believe that it is only by putting yourself out there and working/sharing with people who hold differing views of the world and beliefs that you truly grow, learn and reach new understandings of fellow human beings and yourself. It is easy to hide out in what is familiar and comfortable for us; it is quite another thing to “push the envelope” and open yourself to new ideas, new ways to look at problems, create new alliances and allies.
Fifth, never forget the power of the pen. After learning and practicing social justice then you can write letters to the editor and to your congressmen and women outlining your views for a more just society. You can write a letter to your state and federal congressmen and women and let them know how you feel about the rash of anti-immigrant laws purporting law and order but really engaging in profiling and applying laws unequally for persons of color. You can join alliances fighting for justice and join with people from all walks of life in the common goal of “indivisible with liberty and justice for all”.
You will find yourself in old situations of racism towards another group be it a racist joke or making fun of someone’s language and now (with your new knowledge) you will be compelled to do something to stop these practices. Homeland Security (I am not overly fond of the zealous enforcement of injustice in regard to civil rights) recommended that if you see something, say something. That is what you must do, you must speak up and out against injustice. You must stand up for all people and justice. If you are more comfortable giving voice through writing that actual voice then this may be the path for you. Inevitably you must speak up for justice. Lending your voice to support social justice is the most powerful of acts; one that should never be taken for granted.
Remember, no one can do social justice work alone and you need allies like you and different from you. You will need to keep up on events around the United States and the world. Remember 11,000 children die each day from malnutrition; innocent women, children, men die each day from wars waged across the world; there are some 40 million Americans classified as being in poverty in the United States – the richest nation in the world; 5% of the population of the United States control 63% of the wealth and the bottom 80% of the US population control only 12.8% of the wealth; thanks to the War on Drugs and Law and Order we have the highest number of people incarcerated (mostly Latino and African American) than any other developed country; and we still have segregation and racism in the United Sates.
I cannot tell you the path to chose but I can recommend from the journey for social justice I have been on as a white man. You may not move mountains but you can carry a shovel and start at home and in your community to build a compassionate and just society where everyone has an equal opportunity to access the mental, spiritual, economic rewards of America. I hope that you find some of these suggestions helpful – good luck on the path you choose. “Can’t you feel it?”
Timothy A. Bess
July 15, 2011