The alarm sounded. It was 1975. We knew the drill. Pull out our chairs and crouch under the little wood-topped metal desks with our hands wrapped over our heads—then wait. We didn’t understand the context, only that the Soviets were bad and wanted us dead. I had seen the black-and-white video footage of the ways “the bomb” decimated Hiroshima. Why, I wondered, did we want to die in such a position?
I raised my hand and asked, “If the bomb gets dropped, will our school still be standing? And, if not, then what good will it do for us to be under these desks?” I was told I could pull my chair in closer. This under-desk crouch was, apparently, our only recourse; God would oversee the rest.
Each generation faces multiple crises, personal, social and global. Often we are taught to be passive in response. Get under the desk. Don’t ask questions. But the more knowledge, power and resources we have, the better we are able to create conscious and progressive change, rather than just react to injustices in the world.
As director of the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation, I am often asked to define social justice. Here’s my definition: Social justice is equitable access to information, resources, and power with a prioritization of humanity and nature over systems that control and contain people in favor of granting freedom to markets.
Social justice is equitable access to information, resources, and power with a prioritization of humanity and nature over systems that control and contain people in favor of granting freedom to markets.
I engage with these principles on several levels. As a sociologist, I have the tools to analyze the world and the ability to help students develop these tools. My sociological imagination allows me to uncover injustice and think about progressive ways to engage in systemic, collective and individual transformation. As a scholar activist, I have skills to put my knowledge into action. And as a human being, I have an obligation to struggle for those without access to the information, resources and power that will allow for pathways to hope and a better world.
As an educator, I must help my students carve paths that allow them to have lives of meaning, even as they struggle with stress, student loans, and anxiety about their futures and the future of the planet. Seeing the next generation claim their obligation and responsibility in this world is such a privilege.
A great example is our work on disrupting the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Black and brown youth with invisible disabilities, such as ADHD, find themselves in the juvenile justice system at a disproportionate rate. The exact percentage of youth in the juvenile justice system with disabilities is unknown, but studies agree it’s a significant percentage; estimates range from 30 to 70 percent.
This is a crisis. And rather than hope for it to get better on its own, we have chosen to act. To that end, the Mansfield Institute launched a new program in the Cook County Juvenile Justice Division in 2012. Our Roosevelt University students are trained to serve as liaisons between probation officers, attorneys and youth with disabilities. This team makes sure kids get the services they need to complete their education, stay out of detention and be able to imagine having a productive and happy future. To prepare our students, we train them in the basics of disabilities, special education laws and advocacy.
The exact percentage of youth in the juvenile justice system with disabilities is unknown, but studies agree it’s a significant percentage; estimates range from 30 to 70 percent.This is a crisis. And rather than hope for it to get better on its own, we have chosen to act.
This experience isn’t just critical for the children involved. It saves taxpayers money by reducing the number of kids in the juvenile justice system. Even more importantly, it gives our Roosevelt students a chance to develop a sense of ubuntu, a Zulu word that means “I am, because we are.” Stated another way: we have an obligation to one another.
It may be easier to follow the drill, crouch under the desk and wait, but we need young people to dream of a better world, to learn to ask questions—despite fear. We need them to search for answers, to build community, and to be guided by an education that connects insight and action, university and community. That, to me, is social justice.