Four years ago, I wrote an article for Academe Magazine titled “The Ivory Tower and Scholar-Activism.” In it, I criticized various sectors of academia for taking on the mantra of social activism, or social justice, without understanding the true meaning of such. Most had been — and many still are — saying that just by being provocative or even controversial in the classroom, that this is a form of activism. Well, maybe, but only if your job is threatened as a result of it. I pointed out that there are many good examples of scholars and intellectuals (not to be seen as the same thing) who have sacrificed all they have for a social justice cause, and that few full-time professors have that kind of dedication, despite some protestations to the contrary. I suggested that many so-called scholar-activists should become more like the social justice advocated in and out of academe in order to understand what it takes to be an activist.
Now I’m writing about social justice and privilege again, but this time from the perspective of a nonprofit manager who helped run a social justice program for a bit more than three years. It was the only non-education-related job I was excited to take, and for good reason. I would be developing a social justice and leadership development curriculum, organizing conferences and retreats, doing site visits, have input on selection and other strategic issues regarding this one-year old program.
That was back in 2000. Over the next three years and change, I’d learn some rather interesting truths about the nature of social justice activism as represented by seventy-five individuals employed with different organizations across the US. One was that almost to a person, they were a wonderful group of young men and women (and at least in one case, a transsexual woman) for me to work with. They came in dedicated, hungry, fierce and ready to take on our incomplete and unjust world. Seeing that level of enthusiasm for their work was awe-inspiring at times.
Two was the fact that many of our selections for social justice fellows were of folks who had suffered some hardship in their lives. At least one had been incarcerated, another had been homeless and a drug addict, while another was a refugee from a war-torn country in sub-Saharan Africa. That made their selections for our program all the more sweet. Still, the majority of our grantees were folks who had attended the best colleges and graduate programs in the country, from Georgetown to Berkeley to Stanford. Even for the ones with a deep well of personal experiences to draw upon for this work, seeing so many with master’s and law degrees was an interesting contrast.
Observation number three was watching how they interacted with each other and how they interacted with staff. With each other, they saw themselves as equals — at least for the most part. They talked about their work, their losses, struggles and learning curve, as well as about themselves. With staff, many of them did just that. I got to learn about these folks during my site visits, from the forests of central Alaska and Big Sky Country of Montana to more common places across the country. That part of the work was wonderful. But I also got to see grantees who thought that it was our job to serve them. One grantee my first few months on the job said as much.
That was when I realized that about a third of the social justice fellows I worked with that year, and in the years that followed, saw themselves as special, unique, both because of their experiences and because of the work that they were doing. As far as some of them were concerned, staff folk like myself were just that, staff. Whether we had done any form of social justice work or had anything of value to offer besides the fellowship itself was immaterial. Because we were staff, this group of grantees often talked to us as if we were waiters at a five-star restaurant that had just brought them undercooked fish.
It made me think, what were these people like in their public lives outside of their work? Did they treat actual customer service staff at 7-Eleven or at a dim sum brunch the same way they barked orders at us? Did they complain about me trying to keep a conference or retreat on schedule when they attended other meetings and dealt with other professionals? The answer, I’m fairly sure, was and is yes, they did and do.
It was the combination of the privilege of their advanced education combined with their selection as social justice fellows that had given some the room to actualize that privilege in their dealings with folks whom they didn’t see as deserving of their full social justice respect. It made me realize that not everyone with a background ripe for social justice is suited for this kind of activism. God knows you also need a humble and patient temperament for this kind of work as well. It may well explain why a fair number of these folks are no longer working in the social justice world. If scholars who claim to be activists need to learn a bit about activism, then emerging leaders in the social justice world could stand a little bit of humility and patience as they learn their craft.