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Culture Clash: Justice for All – It Takes Work

Social justice is, at the moment, an imagined future where wealth and opportunities are justly distributed. It is a world free of oppression and barriers due to gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, or all other identity markers.

Social justice recognises the equal worth of all individuals and the right to have basic needs met. It is a move toward better, more inclusive systems that leads to gender equality, poverty eradication, fair employment, environmental health, access to education and numerous other improved conditions.

Social justice as a field, study and practice is sometimes divided into three parts: legal justice, commutative justice and distributive justice. This comes from the idea that we owe society, we owe each other and society owes us. A great deal of focus tends to be on the latter because we need to have systems and institutions structured in ways that protect, affirm and promote our human rights and give us equal opportunity to participate in political and social life. Social justice cannot be achieved without challenging political and societal norms, deconstructing privilege, and having uncomfortable conversations about history and its widespread effects. Maybe even more importantly, it won’t be realised until we learn to engage people who are not in our communities, schools of thought or organisations.

More awareness, more connection

Social justice movements are increasing in number, inclusion, reach and impact. This is not necessarily because we are facing more issues now than we did ten, 20, or 50 years ago. For various reasons, including the advancement of technology and its impact on ease and speed of communication, we have become more aware of national, regional and global concerns. Some would say we are hyperaware and, for some of us, sensitivity is heightened. We know we have to respond.

While seemingly working on disparate issues, social justice movements are growing more interconnected and interdependent. The 2015 adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the United Nations General Assembly has played in role in bridging the gap between communities.

The SDGs cover a range of social and economic issues including education, health and wellness, gender equality, climate action and economic empowerment. Each goal has specific targets. When all 169 targets are reviewed, interdependence of the goals and relevant issues is confirmed. For example, gender equality is dependent on target 4.5 to “eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable”. None of the goals — a distillation of global issues — can be met without working to meet other goals. Collaboration is key.

How we do the work

There are many different approaches to social justice work. For some, direct action is the way to go. Some use it for everything at all times while others see it as necessary in specific circumstances.

One of the best known forms of activism is protest. People flood the streets with placards, demanding action from bureaucratic bodies. Sometimes they are silent, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are peaceful, and sometimes they are not. They are never both the beginning and end of a successful movement. The protest seemed to have died in The Bahamas until recent years. Even being revived, they only seem to draw a few dozen people for any number of reasons. The issues seem too niche, people are generally unbothered, or the action is too inconvenient. Most Bahamians seem to be interested only if the issue personally affects them, and if they can join the protest without consequence. Our protests do very little to disrupt systems and institutions. We protest politely. We give notice, get permission and pack it in after a few hours. No one is unduly bothered, but protests usually make the news.

The petition is another popular action. It is easy on time, effort, and commitment. We can easily create and share petitions, collect signatures, and notify appropriate offices of our demands and the number of people in agreement with us. A petition, however, doesn’t do much to inconvenience the people we need to take action. They can block our emails and ignore the digital masses. They know it’s much more challenging to get the same people who signed to show up and take another action.

Two of the most popular, widely-used forms of direct action are fairly easy and ineffective. This is not to discount the usefulness of these methods, but to highlight the need to take more than one action, and more than one type of action. More than raging against the machine, social justice work requires that we raise awareness, build community, centre the people most affected, open dialogue with relevant bodies, learn, understand and use the law and international commitments to frame and support demands. No one action can get the job done and it’s time to be more creative about what we do, how we do it, and who we invite to join us.

Solidarity

A frequently overlooked component of effective social justice work is solidarity-building. Few communities are large enough to affect change for themselves on their own. Support from unaffected people is critical to building mass, spreading the workload, and resourcing movements. In most cases, for the plight of a group of people to be seen, people outside of that group have to be seen to care. When students were being sent home for having natural hair, non-students and people with chemically processed hair had to stand with them. Numbers are important, and so is empathy in action.

Publicity depends on people, and word of mouth and media are both powerful. International attention to national issues is known to impact the way they are addressed. In banding together, however, we need to be careful. It’s important to be mindful others’ intentions and the ways we all influence outcomes, especially when we are on the outside.

For example, when monitoring events in other countries — especially if the cause is close to us — it can be tempting to jump into action. Even with the best intentions, this can be a careless, dangerous response. There is usually someone on the ground, already working and strategising, and outside voices or initiatives can steal their thunder, confuse community members, and potentially sabotage the developing action plan. It is not only courteous, but responsible and professional to do research and reach out to people who are already doing the work. If you don’t see anyone doing it, you’re probably not very good at research. Get some help.

The role of civil society

Civil society is critical to a fully functioning democracy. We have to constantly remind ourselves that we are more powerful than the people we elect. We need to collaborate, and create opportunities for knowledge-building and skill-sharing. Social media has made it easier for us to raise our voices, but also to preach to the choir, and facilitate laziness. We need to reach people who disagree, and people who are undecided. We need more conversations than sermons. We need to find new, accessible ways to engage. If we fail to engage and onboard new people — those who do not look or think like we do — we won’t get to that world we imagine. Empathy and creativity need to be in the social justice toolkit. They are critical to building a community prepared to help drive us into a better future.

Published by The Tribune on February 21, 2018.

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Culture Clash: The Flexibility of Activism

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on June 28, 2017

As social justice issues become more mainstream, the number of activists, advocates, and allies is steadily increasing. People are more involved in conversations about gender, race, class, migration, and a variety of other issues with social media as a go-to resource for a broad range of news and commentary.

Access to information, opinions, and public action is at our fingertips; we can immediately respond to and participate in them. By becoming vocal, visible, and active, people feel more connected to existing movements, and see themselves as activists. Recently, there has been debate about who can call themselves an activist, and how the title is earned. Activism is more than social media posts and profile picture ribbons, but is it productive to discount the efforts of people trying to make a difference in whatever ways, however small, they can?

The work of activists is not trite, easy, or passive. Risks are assumed, positions are clear, and actions are taken. We all know activists are often demonised and ostracised because of their methods of participation and the challenge we bring to old ways of thinking and being. We are often painted as extremists — dangerous and unreasonable people.

In recent years, we’ve seen changes in this dynamic with people taking centre stage, refusing to be sidelined. In many cases, activists have created the agenda and an environment where the option to ignore or refuse to participate does not exist. Leading dialogues and taking control of both narratives and outcomes have always been critical, and the possibilities have increased along with appreciation for the work, and more people want to be a part of it.

Measuring and Validating Activism

While some take offence when others use “activist” to describe themselves, having a narrow view of what it means to embody the term, activism today takes many different shapes, and can be performed in a variety of ways. As people of marginalised communities fighting against oppression and actively disputing ideas of the monolith, it is unreasonable to expect activists to fit a mold. It is also far from productive to alienate, rebuke, or silence people who are, at the very least, allies.

There is no official list of qualifiers to determine whether or not a person is an activist. Even if creating one, it is important that our own values and abilities are not imposed on entire communities, expecting them to measure up to attain activism status. In fact, dictionary definitions of activism prioritise political causes, giving social issues a backseat. Clearly, activism has grown beyond the definition, and as we continue to be creative and provocative in our work, activism will continue to be dynamic, ever-changing.

Before taking action, most people assess their qualifications, skills, and living situation. Do they have the knowledge to write an informative article? Do they have the charisma to deliver a speech? Can they afford to leave work to protest? With such varied points of assessment, no one can use their own activities and choices to define activism for all. It is as diverse as the people who practice it and, perhaps more importantly, the people it is meant to reach.

Traditional and Social Media Activism

In years gone by, activists were known by their public deeds, from impassioned speeches to protests and petitioning. Today, it is difficult to differentiate activists from non-activists when they claim the term in thought, word, and deed. Do all activists protest? How many times does one have to protest before becoming an activist? How can a participant in (or beneficiary of) an oppressive system be an activist?

How can we give room to people who may not protest, but are active on social media, and have conversations in groups others among us may not be able to access? Their efforts may not be public-facing, but they can answer questions in our stead. We have to be able to value work that may not look like our own, but helps to lessen the burden we carry, saving us from the emotional burnout that can come from engaging both peers and the general public.

What is the value of people on social media sharing articles, giving different perspectives, posting pictures from public events, and directing people to more information? An active social media presence is not always as easy as it may seem. Online harassment continues to be a deterrent from using platforms like Facebook. It is often the less visible and less politicised figures who are able to engage in heated debates and escape relatively unscathed. How do account for the danger activists face just by the nature of the work, and avoid discounting their efforts because of the precautions they must take?

Diversity of Movements

Movement membership and participation are important, regardless of the shape they take. Some people march while others write think pieces. Some people start petitions while others send the link to their friends lists. Some are talk show guests while others wrestle with detractors on Facebook. In movements — large and small — fighting to end injustice and restore peace, there is room for everyone. A variety of personalities, skill sets, qualifications, knowledge, and experience make for a more robust, multifaceted movement.

To reach people in other spaces, movements need people with different experiences, and members of the dominant culture are needed as allies. While people on the frontlines take the brunt of the criticism and abuse, supporters need to be ready to defend fellow activists, dispel myths, and drive conversations forward, using more traditional actions as a springboard. The truth is there is always room for more in social and political movements, the need for people power and passion never diminishing. The differences in audience and approach are strengths, only increasing reach and impact. Recognising the value in our varied approaches will enable us to better work across disciplines and areas of focus, propelling us toward the version of The Bahamas we are all working to build.