Thoughts on Social Justice

Posted on: October 1st, 2014

Dale Tampke, Assistant Provost for Student Academic Services, reflects on four key aspects of social justice.

It is daunting to think about social justice these days. There’s so much need in the world. So much need in the neighborhood even. Where to get started is the question. Here goes.

To me, transformation is an important element in social justice. Here, I mean turning something – a situation or perhaps a system – into a thing that is completely different. We hear a lot about change. In the context of social justice, “change” seems like an awfully small word for what is needed. In the same sense that the original meaning of the word “repent” is to “turn around,” I see transformation as a critical aspect of moving toward a greater realization of social justice in our world. In short, a lot of “turning around” is in order. Change is needed, certainly, but complete and abiding change, well, that calls for transformation.

Another element of social justice is action. Thinking, praying, talking, all of that is important, but the point is to do something, isn’t it? I have had my share of invigorating discussions about the things that need fixing in society, and I have often found them helpful in clarifying my own thinking. Prayer is helpful is discerning where to devote my energy. Eventually, though, getting up off the couch is what it’s all about.   It’s helpful for me to remember that the “end in mind” of my thinking, praying, and talking is for me to figure out my role in moving our world toward greater realization of social justice for all people, then pursuing it.

Engagement is a third aspect to consider. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote of not just “lobbing charity over the wall,” but of “serving with.” The context here is his ministry to the poor in England in the 18th century. Wesley’s point serves us well today: social justice is best served through engagement with people, rather than for people. My community development colleagues know this best. There are assets in every situation, even the most dismal. It’s through engagement that we discover the hidden assets. And we find true partners for the work.

Finally, immediacy comes to mind. Here, I’m thinking of urgency, not haste. This is trite, I know, but today is the best day to get started working toward social justice. As a normally cautious person, I can plan myself right out of getting started, as I tweak the plan, make sure the benchmarks for success are well-defined, secure all of the funding, make sure the stakeholders are all invested, and so on. Planning is critical, but social justice work involves a fair amount of faith, doesn’t it? Faith strong enough to act now, even though the plan isn’t perfect.

The daunting aspect of social justice remains. As does the original question: Where to get started? Perhaps in Rogers Park, maybe in greater Chicagoland; how about somewhere else in Illinois or in the US? Maybe Central America or Africa is on your heart. Wherever. The need is great and the opportunities to serve are abundant. Today really is the best day to begin.

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