Why “Social Justice and Community Development”?
by Susan Rans
Many current and incoming students have asked for a description of the differences between the Social Justice and Community Development tracks of the Master of Arts in Social Justice & Community Development (MASJCD). In the past, I have answered this question in a kind of shorthand: Social Justice “thinks globally”; Community Development “acts locally”. Here, I attempt to put more meat on those bones.
The biggest idea behind the creation of the MASJCD was to join the theoretical and theological study of social justice to a place-based practice and policy approach to change in urban communities. While the study of social justice leads toward action, the study of community development provides effective and proven tools for action. So, another formulation might be that the study of social justice reveals why we must act and the study of community development shows what we can do.
It can also be said that community development is a form of social justice. Our religious traditions speak clearly about the injustices of poverty, of war and of oppression of the powerless. Answering this call often leads students to involvement in justice issues like eliminating poverty and hunger, ending wars, empowering women or welcoming immigrants. Community development–building strong and liberating communities in which the economy is available to all, in which every member is a valued contributor, and in which access to health care, education and secure housing is a mandate–fulfills the social justice vision.
Community development also concerns itself with systems—their analysis and the ways in which they must change to become equitable and sustainable. Understanding housing policy and the details of housing production are essential to changing the housing system. Knowing the economics and politics of food production is necessary to work to provide local communities with access to healthy food. As one Chicago community developer often says, “We need to discover ways to make big systems work for small places.” Studying community development leads to that discovery.
In the end, an argument can be made that significant knowledge of both areas is essential to real and lasting change, and that’s why there is an MASJCD. Toward that end, we do not require students to declare a track until one full-time semester has passed (one year for part-time students). And we highly recommend that students take courses in both tracks early in their studies and even after they have chosen a track—a sort of major/minor arrangement. The best mix of theory and practice, of global issues and local systems will produce the best agents of social change—the goal of our program.
MASJCD Graduate Program Director