The Sojourner, an organization Caroline James (pictured) started in August 2021, has created ” WE The Sojourners” which is a multi-social media project where the “isms” that keep us from creating the most equitable societies are deeply examined using research, personal stories and a lot of humor. Designed to be approachable, “WE The Sojourners” is not a political ecosystem, but rather explores the assumptions and gaps that the political stuff can overshadow [AKA the feminist bits]. The aim of this work is to make deep learning about social justice commonplace (and not simply the musings of academics, activists and politicians.) WE The Sojourners officially launches (with instagram, tik-tok, youtube and weekly articles) in early January 2022. In September 2021, The Sojourner won a racial equity grant from Humanity in Action, an international organization which works to promote knowledge, community and action in defense of human rights, pluralism and democracy all over the world. The document you have today is the seminal article created and released by The Sojourner in September of 2021 as a permanent introductory article to challenge, assess and redefine whether or not justice is real, why it is/isn’t, and potential ways forward.
The following article can be found live at https://www.wethesojourners.org/a-new-view-of-justice.
Why Social Justice and Diversity Isn’t Working? An Answer Using Kids and Research
The business world has been ablaze with a realization that some of us intuitively know: something ain’t working with this equity thing we’ve been “driving” towards. Let’s remove all of the fancy marketing, new “interventions” and policies. Let’s start with a real question: do we even have the orientation towards justice that would support social justice or diversity? In this article I look at the state of justice for one of the only issues folks of all political backgrounds tend to agree on: children should have justice. Drawing on my personal experiences and research, I ask myself- what can this tell us about why social justice and diversity aren’t working? I end the article with my contribution to the solution.
Fleeing Your First Injustice
Social justice and diversity both assume we want justice for all. But what is justice? I don’t mean social justice; I know for some that’s just a liberal political word. I mean this American, old-fashioned, not political- because it’s just a human right, kind of justice. This justice (the non-political one) that “belongs to us all”- especially children… since, they aren’t even old enough to be “social justice warriors.” What justice (that we all agree on) do we give to kids?
I only ask because I’ve been trying to find it since I was a little girl. In fact, I remember the first day I went searching for justice. I was an elementary student in Tuskegee, Alabama. It was hot. Or maybe I was just uncomfortable.This new land [Tuskegee] was my life’s first extreme departure. Here, below the Mason Dixon line, I saw things differently because they were different. For example, “water bugs;” seemed like unfair mutations of hood roaches. But at least, I understood hood roaches. Why the hell did a waterbug need to fly and be as wide as a thumb? The world, as I knew it, was upside down. My “normal” Chicago inner-city landscape [buildings and concrete] were replaced with lush Southern trees and miles of open field between destinations. On the way to Alabama, in a cold Greyhound bus, I registered this; if something went wrong, safety would be miles away. In fact, it would be miles away on foot. In Chicago, we moved relatively freely between shelters and food-lines; in this new land [whose name I couldn’t pronounce] our resources for food and shelter seemed even more undependable. But on this day, I was preparing to gamble my life on my belief in justice. Steadying my sweaty palms, I walked up to an educator and asked for help: my brothers and I were being abused and neglected.
Running Into Systemic Injustice or Finding Systemic Justice?
As Ancient Greeks and not-so ancient Southerners say, sometimes “saving yourself” is actually jumping out the frying pan into the fire. Let’s update that wisdom- call this: “A People’s Philosophy-” a particular brand of wisdom only learned from being under the foot of broken systems. A month after I had successfully gotten my brothers and I into foster-care, I learned what many marginalized adults already knew: sometimes the ONLY option is to stay in the original fire (injustice) or jump into a grease fire (the system). But either way, you’re getting
burnt. Like many foster youth, I quickly realized that “home” could be loving foster parents or abusive ones. Despite the additional abuse, I knew I wasn’t an extraordinarily unlucky foster kid; as compared to my peers, many of my experiences were “mild.” As the Executive Director of the National Coalition of Child Protection Reform, said: “The rate of abuse in foster care is much worse than official statistics suggest. […] That’s because official statistics are just agencies investigating themselves.” Like so many children, running into the arms of the government and people who “wanted to help” didn’t actually mean justice.
Children Fighting for Justice as A Necessary Survival Strategy
However, I learned some valuable things about justice. For example, I learned that I wouldn’t get any justice at all, if I did not know the rules enough to force someone to act in a just manner. Like research shows, becoming a “ward of the state” increased my likelihood of accessing necessary resources (like emotional and developmental support for addressing my trauma.) However, like that same research shows, it’s fairly common for social workers to under-identify youth needs and under-refer for resources. So, I had to know my own needs and fight for them. Similarly, us foster kids were less likely to even get critical resources for academic interventions. As a child, I read voraciously; I began to understand how knowing my rights as a foster child meant I could force my way into some resources. I became an activist out of survival. When I graduated high school, I watched many of my foster sisters and brothers struggle to even beat the current rate of 50% of foster youth graduating high school. When I went to college, I was one of two foster children in my group home to even go. And honey, it wasn’t actually because I was SO smart. No, I remember the day my teacher asked where I was going to college. I smiled and coolly shrugged my shoulders: ”I don’t know. I haven’t decided. Maybe Harvard.” My senior year, that day, I was told you could only go to college if you applied and took the ACT. Imagine my surprise- I thought you just showed up. College was almost entirely a dream; in fact, the rate of foster youth graduating college was 3% and became a whopping 10%. Unfortunately, behind those statistics are real humans who went from being victimized kids to the government’s responsibility and (often) to underprivileged adults facing every unjust American system at higher rates. For many of us- myself included- justice never fully came- despite some very caring adults and some very valiant efforts on the part of the child.
Justice for the Innocent?
In the beginning of this article I showed you evidence that Americans across the political spectrum believe that children are deserving of justice. Are foster children experiencing the non-political justice we agree on? As a society, many of our arguments about why certain social groups are experiencing injustice are based on the assumption that if they were somehow better or more deserving, they wouldn’t be experiencing inequity. Is this argument true for foster children? Why don’t they get the benefit of being considered innocent children who we offer (the non-political) justice? The data and experiences of foster children, in fact, that of most American children, illustrates a glaring flaw in our justice argument. Global data unequivocally illustrates that we are uniquely failing at getting justice right for children (not just foster kids.) In fact, “Only Chile, the United States and Malta are in the bottom third of rankings [of rich countries across the world] for each of the three well-being outcomes [for children].” In fact, our
case of inequity is actually fairly unique because we are one of the few nations who have very high income and very high inequality. It appears that we live in a country where access to justice [social justice or otherwise] is relatively determined by the time the child is born. The same lack of justice trapping my parents, trapped us kids within the system . That hot day in that Tuskegee elementary school, my fate was mostly sealed before I even asked for help. Foster children, in fact most American children, illustrate an undeniable gap and contradiction in our very definition of justice; though we may agree that “justice” is deserved, we don’t have an actual agreement on what justice is, how you should get justice, how you assess justice, if we should address injustice, if justice has ever happened on this soil or even who justice is for. Unfortunately, these are not negligible disagreements- they are fundamental to the very design of any form of justice and are the background of the beliefs we hold about addressing injustice. Social justice and diversity are not working because we can not manufacture anything but the illusion of social justice, diversity and inclusion if we do not actually collectively redefine justice and truly address injustice.
Original Print Address: https://www.wethesojourners.org/a-new-view-of-justice
This creative-nonfiction article about reframing justice using various markers of assessing our current framework of justice was originally printed as the pre-launch of “The Sojourner.” The Sojourner (launched and designed in 2021), is the first social media and web-based “freedom school.” The Sojourner empowers The People to facilitate a more thorough human rights movement where critical (and accurate) deconstructions of injustice are simply common knowledge. The Sojourner combines a black feminist lens with a deeply interdisciplinary reading of research and human rights issues; as Audre Lorde famously teaches, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” The Sojourner assumes that there is no such thing as single-issue or group justice either.
Caroline James has had a long career in weaving social justice, black feminism, and education together. As an elementary educator in New Orleans, Caroline won Teach for America’s National Sue Lehmann Excellence in Teaching Award in 2014. Since leaving the classroom, Caroline has brought her expertise to bear in managing well over 50 Teach For America educators in the Chicago Public School System, being an Assistant Principal in Brooklyn, New York, serving as an advisor for the design of an LGBTQIA school. In 2017, Caroline was named a Bill Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge. Caroline has formally explored education and diversity issues in Poland, India, Nepal, and France. In 2021 Caroline was named one of six Humanity in Action “Racial Equity Grant” recipients for “WE The Sojourners.”