Constituting social justice

Throughout this semester, this column has attempted to offer reflections about how the values that Grinnellians espouse relate to the real world. The premise was to restrict my lens to conversations in the dining hall: our mealtimes offer us precious unstructured time, in which we can discuss with our friends the things that matter most to us. I learn the most about Grinnellian values, however, when I leave campus. Riding with my uncle to northern Minnesota this past Thanksgiving reminded me of this.

“What is social justice,” asked my uncle, after I described it as a central goal of the Occupy movement. A minister by profession, he had heard the term, but did not know its precise meaning. Ironically, although it was a term that I used often as a tour guide, I had no definition to give. Phrases like “rectifying inequality,” “social responsibility,” and “respecting the rights of the underrepresented” were the best I could muster.

Upon returning to campus, to my surprise, other students could not define “social justice” any more clearly than me. For some, the term had professional connotations, entailing a non-profit career of “social justice” as an activity pursued during the workday. For others, it meant the equality of initial opportunity, perhaps something to be provided by government. “Social justice” in this sense is more a voting acting act inspired by social responsibility, without a requirement of personal financial sacrifice.

Grinnellians’ uncertainty about the precise meaning of the term is unsurprising when one considers that the College itself offers none. Defining social justice often relies on deferring to other Grinnellian staple terms, such as “self-governance” and “personal responsibility” (“A Historic Commitment to Social Justice”). The Social Justice Action Group, the primary on-campus group officially dedicated to social justice, promotes “peace, justice and positive social change,” and targets its efforts toward “fight[ing] hunger, promot[ing] volunteerism and build[ing] understanding.” The Social Justice Prize provides no defining terms at all, asking nominators to categorize how the nominee’s action “disrupt[s] the status quo or create[s] systemic change” to make a particularly positive and long-lasting effect on the world (Prize: FAQ).
This lack of definition seems to have little effect at Grinnell. After all, while on campus, we need do virtually no cognitive work to evaluate the social justice of an action: the information is provided to us, free of charge or effort. Campus-wide symposia tell us what social justice means, and college-sponsored Prizes show us cutting-edge projects that we can support and aspire to. Our peers give us endless “worthy” initiatives from their tables in front of the dining hall, as they collect signatures, volunteers, and monetary and in-kind donations for innumerable causes.
But beyond campus, this clarity is largely absent. Without dining hall tablers to pressure us into awareness and action, and with many more immediately pressing concerns to handle, how will we find the time, energy and motivation for concepts like “social justice,” to which we were so dedicated in college? This apprehension likely stems partially from the fact that I am a senior, and that I sometimes worry about how being faced with new ways of living and ‘doing business’ may change my own priorities. For seniors considering employment in the for-profit sector, the matter seems to be especially pressing: how to maintain one’s own not-necessarily-only-motivated-by-profit values without the support structure of institutionalized like-mindedness (or at least open-mindedness) that we find in our college?

What I propose is that, next semester, SGA lead a process of student discussion about the meaning of social justice. As official representatives of our self-governing community, SGA is uniquely well-situated to address such issues, which have been central to the College since its founding. I propose that we write a constitution, documenting in concrete terms what we consider our social justice mission to be. An excellent side effect of the process will be that we can see the true diversity of understandings of this fundamental concept.
The best-laid plans, if not written down, are easily waylaid, or worse, forgotten. I hope that this one small communal act of definition will provide us the clarity to better pursue our goal of a socially just world. At the very least, we could then confidently share with our uncles, on future Thanksgivings, precisely what is means to be socially just.