What is social justice?
At Esperanza Education, we speak often about the importance of social justice education and the necessity to include social justice in our curricula and teaching practices. While reviewing some literature for the final project of my M.Ed., I have come across some very interesting ideas about what forms the basis of social justice. In order to pursue the fight against inequality, I think it is necessary to share common perspectives on this issue. Here I share some of the ideas I’ve encountered so we can keep the debate alive.
The three basic factors of social justice
According to Dr. Morwenna Griffiths, professor at the University of Edinburgh, there are three separable factors that describe social justice: distribution of goods, recognition of a person’s full humanity, and association (p. 658). This distinction is based on an ethical perspective. The main idea is that we are faced with a problem of inequality when any of these factors privilege a specific social group.
The factor most commonly discussed is distributive justice. What is important to note here is that we are not only talking about resources (such as money or capital), but also this factor considers social status and power. Secondly, recognition is an issue of justice that concerns how people are regarded by others (p. 658). Here Griffiths talks about “cultural or symbolic injustice”. How we represent, interpret, and communicate with someone may involve issues of justice. Finally, issues of association involves the way in which people form groups and associates with each other. For example, “consider the reasons that specific schools or universities are popular just because they provide membership of high-status associations” (pp. 658-659).
Who suffers injustice?
Once we understand that there are many ways of injustice, it is necessary to think about who suffers it. As Griffiths remind us, “different social groups of people may suffer injustice of some or all of these kinds” (p. 659). The question, thus, becomes which social groups are being affected by injustice in my society? According to this author, the most mentioned social groups in a western context include gender, race, social class, sexuality, and (dis)ability. However, there are other groups that may be affected by injustice, such as religious, international, rural/city, settled/traveling/migrant, etc. The complication resides in the proper identification of these groups, because even though it is important to recognize different kinds of oppression and injustice, it is essential to diagnose our own society in order to change it.
Social justice education
The most comprehensive definition of social justice education I have found is one articulated by Dr. Avi Mintz, professor at the University of Tulsa:
“it is any educational curriculum, activity or encounter in which a teacher explicitly intends to facilitate students’ moral development in order that they be able to recognize the mistreatment and suffering of others, refuse to add to it, and act to alleviate it, especially when that mistreatment and suffering are due to marginalization, discrimination, and oppression” (p. 228).
Thus, our job as critical educators is to identify which social groups are suffering of injustice, and focus on providing academic content and life experiences to our students that give a voice to those who cannot access privileged spaces. To include social justice education in our practices as teachers and administrators does not involve only delivering and managing specific content, it implies observing classroom and staff room dynamics, talking about the concerns of people around us, and involving the community. This is a matter of re-framing our practices by placing the less privileged at the center. Then we may start a conversation about social justice in education.
Griffiths, M. (2012). “Why joy in education is an issue for socially just policies”. Journal of Education Policy, 27(5), (pp. 655-670).
Mintz, A. I. (2013). “Helping by hurting: the paradox of suffering in social justice education”. Theory and Research in Education, 11(3), (pp. 215-230).