Community Learning Series explores concepts, challenges of social justice

Jocelyn Santana
Jocelyn Santana

Jocelyn Santana remembers going to protests and picket lines with her mother, a public school teacher, even though she was too young to understand what was happening.

She remembers sitting among “brown and black bodies” in a remedial math classroom at her high school, where the teacher in charge mostly propped his feet on the desk and read a newspaper.

She remembers when her father became ill and needed the services of a caregiver who was undocumented; the woman worried every day about driving to work without a license, and panicked that her children’s honor roll grades might lead to out-of-state school events that could then lead to deportation for her child.

It’s motivated the NIU College of Education doctoral student – already a two-time alumna – to a lifetime of advocating for social justice and striving to remove barriers for marginalized communities.

“There are a lot of misunderstandings and fears, and internalized guilt or anger,” said Santana, coordinator of Social Justice Education at NIU and a panelist at the College of Education’s April 11 Community Learning Series.

Moderated by Joseph Flynn, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, the 90-minute conversation explored what social justice is and is not.

Panelists spoke of how they became involved in social justice, expressed their opinions of the media and explained how they relate with others who disagree with their notions of social justice.

Katy Jaekel
Katy Jaekel

Katy Jaekel, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education, defined social justice by what “it isn’t – it’s not a pie.”

Unlike material assets, Jaekel said, “there is enough social justice for everybody. There are not a finite amount of resources in the world. If we give access to somebody, we are not taking away from someone else, because it’s not pie.”

Meanwhile, she added, “very few people are against social justice. We just don’t agree on what social justice means.”

NIU Presidential Engagement Professor Kurt Thurmaier, founder of the Tanzania Development Support organization, called social justice “a matter of personal discipline” that requires listening and understanding as well as the ability to recognize unequal starting lines and tools.

“How do we balance taking care of the least of us,” Thurmaier asked, “with meritocracy and grace?”

The Rev. G. Joseph Mitchell, senior pastor of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in DeKalb, offered a simple explanation of social justice. “It has to do with treating people like human beings,” Mitchell said, “with the humanity they should be treated with.”

Mitchell talked reverently of the teens who survived the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School and turned their grief into activism; of the similar origins of the Black Lives Matter movement; of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling that “started a national conversation” from a peaceful protest that “didn’t break any laws and didn’t hurt anyone.”

The Rev. G. Joseph Mitchell
The Rev. G. Joseph Mitchell

“We have to be willing to challenge systems and institutions that hold power and work to keep people disenfranchised,” Mitchell said. “We have to give everyone a fighting chance, and if we have systems that don’t give everyone a fighting chance, we have to fight against them.”

He included in those systems people who are afraid to lose their “power, privilege and position” – people who, for those very reasons, are opposed to social justice because it will impact their status.

“There are too many privileged people who want to keep their privilege,” he said. “There’s not a lot of poor people who have a problem talking about social justice.”

Further complicating the conversation is media.

Journalists frequently do good work by casting a light on people who are facing injustices, Thurmaier said, but profit-driven news organizations often fall down by focusing “on the people who are shouting rather than the people who are suffering.”

Meanwhile, divisiveness is fueled by “the morass of cable news,” said Flynn, who is also associate director for academic affairs for the NIU Center for Black Studies. “Everything turns into an argument. There’s no resolution. There’s no way of saying, ‘This is a better argument.’ ”

Kurt Thurmaier
Kurt Thurmaier

But civil discourse is needed, requiring courage and “researched truth” backed up with facts

“I have no problem speaking truth to power, no matter who it is,” Mitchell said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I’m not going to make it pretty.”

Thurmaier offered a solution from the heart, remembering friendly arguments about presidential candidates that reverberated around his family’s dinner table when he was growing up.

“You can argue about things and still love each other at the end,” he said. “We’re engaged not to win but to listen and learn. It’s the respect that’s been missing – respect for each other. Everyone gets to this from a different path.”

The Rev. G. Joseph Mitchell, Joesph Flynn, Kurt Thurmaier, Katy Jaekel and Jocelyn Santana
The Rev. G. Joseph Mitchell, Joesph Flynn, Kurt Thurmaier, Katy Jaekel and Jocelyn Santana
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