Lighting the Torch of Social Justice

social justice
I Profess, by Dr. Nick Ladany

Toward the end of the 2008 Fall semester, well before we could retreat to the solitude of winter break, my colleagues and I were asked about the courses we’d like to teach the following summer.

Forecasting the twists and turns of an academic calendar was never a strength of mine, but neither was keeping quiet. So in an attempt to change the image of the crotchety full professor, I offered the amicable response: whatever works best for the program and college.

The best response would have been to say nothing, to ride out the year teaching courses that I've helped craft over time. Besides, I had a teaching engagement in Turkey, the planning of which would occupy considerable time in the weeks leading to summer.

Before I realized my error, though, a smile broke out on our program coordinator's face. Her reply was quick and direct. "Great, we really need a social justice course."

And so the fun began. 

Truth is, it sounded terrific. Social justice is at the heart of Lehigh’s College of Education and, as a counseling psychologist, it’s at the core of my beliefs. But while we proudly carry the torch of social justice, understanding the nuts and bolts was a different matter. I had six months to pull the course together and figure out what, exactly, social justice is. 

Six months is a considerable amount of time, and so I did what any full professor who thinks he or she can do anything would do in such a circumstance: I waited. Better yet, I purposefully forgot, which, in reality, is more in line with what full professors who are full of themselves do. 

That came to a sudden end as the Spring semester began to wind down. In the final, disconcerting weeks, I was woken from my stupor when I received a few notes from students who indicated they were excited to take the course. I asked them if they were sure and noted that there were probably many more courses that would ft their schedule. It was a not-too-subtle diversionary tactic that failed, miserably.

And so I went to work. To be fair, the concept of social justice was familiar to me and was the constant thread that connected my other classes. At the macro level, social justice, in its simplest form, is related to countering the effects of an oppressive society - one underwritten by streams of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. As I continued researching, however, I found varied definitions. Some resources had no definition at all.

I suspect those authors were like me, except they were asked to write a book instead of teach a class. 

In the end, I found what I think was the best definition of social justice by Wronka (2008), who used the etymological roots to offer a fine and articulate definition. Social refers to friends, allies, and partners who share, accompany, and act together; Justice is what is just, equitable, fair, and right. Therefore, social justice is doing right among friends in ways that are equitable and fair, and unite us. 

As researchers and practitioners, we all agree that social justice is linked with, and inseparable from, human rights. And they are, by no means, new concepts: Plato encouraged the idea that “Rulers should not own private property so they could concentrate on the common good.” 

The Code of Hammurabi was put together in 1760 BC and identified 300 laws or codes of ethical conduct. A person caught stealing was put to death, for example—though, interestingly, these violators had the option of being thrown in the Euphrates River instead, with the caveat if they came out alive they would be declared innocent. 

There were also the Magna Carta (1215), the Iroquois Confederacy (1800s), the declaration of Independence (1776), the U.S. Constitution (1789), and the Bill of Rights (1791), all of which served as a foundation for the United Nations United Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). 

The creation of the UDHR document was done via a committee and chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, and endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The UDHR consists of five core notions, including human dignity; nondiscrimination; civil and political rights; economic, social, and cultural rights; and solidarity rights. 

The document was quite an accomplishment given that no country voted against it (48 for and 8 abstentions). To be sure, there was much quibbling. For example, the Soviet Union opposed the notion of freedom of speech, South Africa thought the notion of human dignity would mess up their system of apartheid, the U.S. was not keen on aspects that would limit use of the death penalty, some theocratic monarchies such as Saudi Arabia didn’t like the idea of freedom of religion, and—I kid you not—the United kingdom insisted on a statement that included the right to periodic holidays with pay. 

It was only after the U.N. and UDHR that nations had a structure to look at human rights violations in other countries as well as their own. The UDHR continues to influence international debate, such as the  notion that healthcare is a right that all people should have. Its impact on the social justice movement is clear.

All quite fascinating, and interesting fodder for a summer class. In one particular project, my students decided on a salary structure for occupations based on Aristotle’s notion of how much “good” is afforded to society based on the tasks of that occupation. needless to say, occupations in education and human services were well compensated. And perhaps, that’s the way it really should be, because what more important work is there than working with children, adults, and families to ease their suffering and facilitate them reaching their potential?

In the end, perhaps the take home message is social justice practitioners all deserve a raise!

By Nicholas Ladany, professor of counseling psychology