by Jeremy Laporte
At the end of my interview for the position of graduate fellow at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, the director of the office asked me a question I had been expecting: why is social justice important to you? Knowing that question was coming, I rehearsed answers to it in the days leading up to the interview, but had trouble defining social justice in a way that explained my commitment to it. Instead, I muttered the first words that came to mind, saying “uh” many times as I tried to remember intelligent-sounding phrases about the importance of equality. In my mind, the answer instantly became a blemish on an otherwise successful interview, but it must have met the director’s standards, as I was offered the position. Still, that incident stuck with me. It revealed my lack of knowledge about a term I often use. While I can speak to my investment in many social justice-related topics quite well, I struggle to describe the overall concept beyond a basic formulation like the balanced scale presented in the picture above. I worried that this inability to articulate what a just society looks like would hinder my career goals of contributing to its pursuit.
It was a small comfort, then, to recently discover that my chosen field of community psychology is also unable to produce a clear definition of social justice (Gokani & Walsh, 2017). Apparently, I am not the only one who cannot decide on the specifics of a just society! Some prestigious community psychologists share my simultaneous commitment to social justice and confusion over its meaning. However, reading the article that relayed this information also dispelled my hopes that my education in the field would dismiss my worries around my ability to contribute to social justice in my career.
In that article, Gokani and Walsh (2017) also suggest that community psychologists should not make social justice a goal of their work, but instead pursue this end as private citizens. At first, this notion bothered me, as I had always hoped to use my career to advance this cause. In retrospect, though, those authors’ ideas are much more sensible. My hope to contribute to community psychology as a scientific field necessitates the ability to operationalize the concepts with which I am working and study them in a concrete manner. In the case of social justice, this will be impossible as long as I am unable to adequately define it even in the abstract. This does not prevent me from studying the concepts I believe are social justice related, however. For instance, I can operationalize racial discrimination in the education system by looking at the differential rates of school punishment for students of color as compared to their white counterparts. Research like this, in turn, will influence my opinions and actions as a private citizen, allowing me to more emphatically and persuasively pursue social justice in this realm of my life. Perhaps, with enough research, I will be able to formulate an operationalized definition of this concept. In the meantime, I can be content to investigate related topics in my work while advocating for social justice as a citizen.
Jeremy Laporte is a graduate student in the Community Social Psychology department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Gokani, R. & Walsh, R. T. (2017). On the Historical and Conceptual Foundations of a Community Psychology of Social Transformation. American Journal of Community Psychology, Pages 1 – 11.