Community Engagement · Social Justice

Charity, Caring, Social Justice

This past summer I read the book Service Learning and Social Justice by Susan Benigni Cipolle. Her description of the path all of us must take when reaching out to help others — from a mindset of charity, to one of caring, to one of social justice — has helped me reconsider many of my own engagement practices (a summary chart of her proposed stages is available online). The movement from charity, with its “Do for others” deficit view, to caring, with its “Do for, but in relationship with, others” reciprocal service, reminds me of the relief, rehabilitation, development concept outlined in the WhenHelpingHurtsDiagrambook When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. When a traumatic event occurs, we need to certainly provide immediate relief, but then we need harness an asset-based, participatory approach to foster efforts to rehabilitate the person and the conditions that allowed for the event requiring relief. From there, we need to move towards a broader development that “teaches the person to fish”. In this way we leave behind a perpetual “giving the person a fish” cycle that hurts everyone. While helpful in a number of ways, I find Corbett and Fikkert’s arguments only moving us from a charity to a caring mindset. While important, this is insufficient to address root causes of hunger, homelessness, poverty, oppression, etc.

What I appreciate about Cipolle’s stages is that she helps us take one further step, encouraging us to develop a social justice mindset. Social justice is difficult to define in concrete terms, given it means different things to different people. I am finding it helpful to extend Corbett and Fikkert’s concept of relief, rehabilitation, and development beyond a focus on the system of the other. Instead, by bringing in a social justice mindset, we begin to recognize the many interwoven systems that all need rehabilitation and development. That is, we begin to recognize that rehabilitation and development only solves half the problem when it is focused solely within the system of the other without simultaneously recognizing and working towards rehabilitation and development of our own systems. We need rehabilitation and development of our systems as much and more as do those of “the other”, for ultimately each system is tightly interwoven with the other.

Extending the fishing metaphor, we add to, or potentially even replace, the emphasis on giving a fish or teaching to fish, with a question of why people who knew quite well how to fish in the past no longer have access to waterways that would allow them to continue fishing. As Paul O’Brian,Vice President for Policy and Campaigns at Oxfam America, points out:

Teach a man to fish with a high tech rod, and you will feed him for a lifetime. Unless of course, someone steals all the fish, the water gets polluted, or the government sells off the access rights!

A social justice mindset is a developing mindset as we work to continually expose, understand, and undertake to rehabilitate and develop the pieces of each system that together contribute to injustice. In so doing, we work towards our own liberation as well as the liberation of the other. But we must also move beyond the simple and the quick, because the ripple effects of our actions to address an injustice in one place may contribute to increased injustices in other places given the deeply interwoven nature of our systems.

Late in his all-to-short life, Martin Luther King, Jr., increasingly came to appreciate that addressing the civil rights violations in America without addressing the poverty in America or the human rights violations we were committing in places such as Vietnam was to only address a fraction of the root causes of injustice to people of color in the U.S. Even as we each individually commit to working on one or a few aspects of a problem so as to maximize our personal impact, we need to continually develop a broader social justice mindset that works to recognize how our work intersects with the justice initiatives of others. And we need to also come to see that our work will have both positive and negative ripple effects if we are to continually try to maximize the positive impacts while minimizing the negative.

To this end, developing a social justice mindset requires both ongoing engaged action with those around us combined with constant critical reflection on the assumptions, privilege, oppression, and power structures that create and reinforce embedded injustices within our social, economic, and political systems locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. It is action with reflection in community, by community, for community predicated on diversity with inclusiveness. It is to see every person as equals who bring essential strengths and resources to the table, and to understand that any person who is less than fully flourishing is not fully contributing those strengths and resources to the benefit of themselves and those around them. It is to see that those strengths and resources are the heart and soul of building a healthy, thriving, resilient community, not for their exchange value but for their immediate and direct use value within community. It is, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to work towards an essential radical revolution of values.

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