Why social justice?
Social justice promotes equity in resources, rights, and treatment for groups of people who have been marginalized because of immigration, race, ethnicity, age, social class, physical ability, religion and sexual orientation. Instead of dealing with each of these issues as individual entities, social justice education considers these subjects and resultant issues as an interconnected group. In promoting social justice, there is a focus on issues of identity and oppression, the nuances of racism, ethnicity, privilege, and social systems, along with an appreciation of history and legislation.
There is general agreement that inspiration for a social justice focus has originated from the historical works of Marx, Kant, Weber, Foucault, Gramsci, Dewey, Habarmas, Derrida, Freire, Vygotsky, Du Bois, Washington and current perspectives of Giroux, McLaren, bell-hooks, Apple, Lather, Steinberg and Kincheloe. A host of approaches have been deeply entrenched in the social justice tradition including democratic education, critical pedagogy, multicultural education, and culturally responsive education.
The establishment of social justice as moral, political, and social policy in the U.S. and specifically to much of education is attributed to the late John Rawls (1921-2002). In the seminal work A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls framed the American civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s as a moral narrative that had consequence. This narrative helped empower groups such as African Americans in working towards equal representation in the United States. Additionally, this social justice focus provided Native Americans, women, gays, and individuals with a foundation to advocate for anti-discrimination legislation and other forms of civil rights protections in public spaces and businesses.
Paulo Freire, (1921-1997), the Brazilian educator and influential educational theorist believed that effective social justice education incorporated the idea of informed action, or praxis. This praxis places emphasis on critical self-reflection, dialogue and action. Students in this process are not empty vessels waiting for teachers to deposit information, but active participants in a symbiotic process which makes the teacher and students co-learners. The goal for the educator then, is to build a bridge from students’ current experience to a new one with adequate support.
Raising critical consciousness of social justice issues is a necessary process, particularly in light of the social and economic conditions (e.g. poverty rates, health disparities) that exist. Social justice is intricate and contextual and requires understanding of economics, the importance of language, ethnicity, cultural norms, generational status, religious practices, sexual orientation and marginalization within groups.