The Future of Social Justice Education: A Liberation Perspective

A guest post by Victor Lee Lewis

My approach to personal growth, healing, group learning, and activism is grounded in a general systems theory perspective. One of my guides for this approach is r. buckminster fuller. From reading his essays and major works, and sitting in his lectures, I came to appreciate the value of beginning with the whole, and with general principles. In applying this overarching principle to the complexities of interpersonal and cultural realities, I see the role of grounded theory in these areas as comparable to the role of microscopes, telescopes, and calculators in the area of physical reality. In both instances, they provide a way to address the complexity of the domain because they are instruments that extend our perceptual and computational powers.

It is my view that organizations committed to saving, healing, and restoring the earth community, with the human family as a thoroughly positive and regenerative presence within it, need a rigorous and theoretical frame to guide their efforts. Existing efforts for change, and approaches to achieving such change have several problems.

I have been investigating and observing movements and organizations for transformative social change for decades, first as an activist and subsequently as a social justice educator. I have looked closely at the limitations and shortcomings in our social change efforts and how we think about activism. This article is a concise distillation of the lessons learned.

Social justice education is meant to provide a systems map, for the territory of change and the personal/intrapersonal, interpersonal, organizational/community, and institutional/cultural level.

 

I have often seen activists and organizations have an unclear or incoherent vision of what they are striving for. If we are to match means and ends, we need to begin with the end in heart and mind. The end of social justice education as I see it is “liberation.” Liberation, paraphrasing Erica Sherover-Marcuse, one of my first teachers, is the undoing of the effects and the elimination of the causes of every kind of social oppression so that the human family may become a viable and regenerative presence in the earth/life community.

Beginning and proceeding with the end in mind, means being able to ask and answer a simple question at each emergent step in the learning journey of transitioning to a regenerative society: “Is this liberating?” Liberation theory then helps us answer this question wisely, quickly and powerfully, in a variety of changing real-time scenarios. Theory becomes a tool and a lens for precise and powerful engagement in emergent problems.

Based on applying this framework and rigorous approach for 45 years, I see the following as a way to redefine the future of social justice education along the following lines:

  • The future of social justice education will be cosmologically grounded. Both indigenous and scientific knowledge and wisdom will provide guidance. The human story will be seen as an integral dimension of the earth story. It will be r/evolutionary.
  • The future of social justice education will be rigorously feminist/womanist and nonviolent in its orientation. This will demand constant feedback and adaptation/learning to align means and ends, nonviolence with liberation and a regenerative future.
  • The future of social justice education will account for pain, violence, and injustice without assigning personal or permanent evil to those socialized/domesticated as “oppressors.” Privilege, power, implicit bias, internalized oppression, and “oppressor fragility” will be theorized in a compassionate frame, calling for the liberation of the oppressed, and the liberation of the oppressor (not their “defeat”).
  • The future of social justice education will offer a compelling vision to “the 99.99%” (only because I don’t know if there is room in a regenerative society for “psychopaths.”)
  • The future of social justice education will reject punitive justice as a means or end, because no matter how emotionally compelling, it is not liberating.
  • The future of social justice education will favor dialogic and collaborative learning, based on wisdom-seeking principles (consistent with “citizen’s assemblies”). The primary curriculum for transformative social justice education work is the self-reflecting learning community making meaning together, itself. The future of social justice education will involve helping persons and communities to “learn how to learn.” When we reflect on what life conditions and decisions have yielded the greatest harvest of social wisdom, we increase our capacity to collaboratively produce this kind of working social knowledge.
  • The future of social justice education will be body-wise, brain-wise, and trauma-wise. Because violence and trauma are primary mechanisms for the enforcement and reproduction of oppression, we need to be able to wisely determine which aspects of a problem can be solved interpersonally or organizationally, and which aspects have to be resolved internally to the person/s involved.

Navigating social power, privilege, status and rank are common problems in aspiring “cross-cultural” groups. Any organization that wants to work more powerfully together, with deeper cross-cultural and inter-group attunement, can either be blocked from doing so because of the current existing limitations, or learn how to engage with and apply these principles to sort out the remnants of patriarchal process in its functioning.

This work is not easy or comfortable. For example, understanding and confronting implicit cultural biases requires navigating ugly and awkward feelings that come up: shame, guilt, social resentment, bitterness, defensiveness, and more. It requires understanding and dealing with the impulses to “punch down” or “up” or “across” from our social location. It requires learning about and tending to other such expressions of the will to violence in service of control against a member of lower, higher, or similar social rank. It requires leaders to reclaim flexibility and choice in stuck places, where fear, personal trauma, or early socialization/domestication threatens to undermine their leadership.

The gains are beyond measure. What awaits us when we do this work is high-trust environments in which decisions are made with ease, in which feedback is shared and learning is ongoing, both individually and systemically, and in which the goals of the work in the world match the actual functioning within. Such environments are prefigurative seeds and islands which, whether or not they succeed in bringing about the larger changes they seek to effect in the world, serve as inspiration and role models, attractors and magnets, imaginal cells of a future for the entire earth community.

Victor Lee Lewis is a social justice educator, public speaker, trauma practitioner, and writer. He lives in Berkeley, CA.

INVITATIONS:

  • Experience Victor’s work in ongoing classes with Patti Digh called Hard Conversations: Whiteness, Race, and Social Justice. Classes fill up quickly.
  • Victor works with groups and organizations, doing both training and consulting. In alignment with his vision, he offers his solo work on a “gift economy only.” He offers everything he knows and can do as heartfelt gifts. In consideration for this, he requests a gift that, in the client’s view, is one they can financially afford, even if they choose to stretch; that feels respectful of my knowledge, skills and the spirit in which it is offered; that is generous in the client’s personal and collective judgement; and that the client wholeheartedly wants Victor to have to sustain his simple urban life (no savings or investments) and his work in the world which he aims to provide with excellence and generosity, and without ambition, except to be a positive force in the world.

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