Rethinking Social Justice
B Y J A M E S B . CO N N E L LY
s school psychologists, one of our most important responsibilities is to advo- cases, a person may not wish to identify with a group; in others, there may be those
A cate for children. Part of this advocacy is to be sure that we do not “engage in
or condone practices that discriminate against children … based on race, dis-
ability, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, economic status, or
who do not really ﬁt the attributes of the group in which they are included. Can the son
of a wealthy Kenyan doctor who recently immigrated to the United States be consid-
ered as part of the same group as an African American whose own parents and grand-
native language” (NASP, 2000). However, advocating through the lens of social justice parents experienced segregation and poverty? What about the lone English language
may actually hinder the very goals for which we are striving. learner (ELL) from Japan who enrolled in a school where most students speak Spanish
Social justice is a nebulous term itself, diﬃcult to grasp and deﬁne. Six articles as a primary language? In addition, if we think in terms of speciﬁc groups, we may not
about social justice were published in the December 2008 edition of School Psychology notice some students who are being denied fair treatment, being excluded, or being
Review, along with a two-page article in the “Advocacy” section of the same month’s subjected to bullying. For example, what about children who are teased or omitted
issue of Communiqué. Let us look a bit deeper into what we do know of it. That is, from activities because they have poor gross motor coordination? What about those
what do the descriptions have in common, what populations are being addressed, and who have unusual facial features, or those who are short? If we continue to look for
what actions are recommended? groups who are oppressed, there can be no end.
The goals of social justice are commendable; the proponents aim to have schools
■ Sarr, Nelson, and Von Der Embse (2007) made references to “systematic op-
in which all children will be treated with equal respect, have full and complete access,
pression.” In other words, oppression is systematically institutionalized.
and be assumed to be competent to achieve in any area. However, is there another way
■ Shriberg et al. (2008) refer to “institutionalized” racism.
to strive toward these goals other than the potentially contentious one of searching for
■ Briggs, Sarr, and Shriberg (2008) reported that there really cannot be “any dis-
and eliminating injustice? There certainly is. First, we educators should dispense with
pute that Whites are aﬀorded advantage….”
the concept of striving for “social justice in education.” Operationally deﬁning the mul-
■ Power (2008) twice referred to the need to “reform systems” that oppress.
tifaceted concept of social justice is a formidable task in itself, and it may even create
■ Nastasi (2008) refers to two articles that deal with combating oppression.
somewhat adversarial groups. Joseph Zajda for example, refers to Troyna and Vincent
It thus appears that the elements in common are that (a) there is oppression, (b) (as cited in Zajda, 2008) in that “the term ‘social justice’ is a multilayered ideal construct
it is systematic and/or institutionalized, and (c) it is likely to be conducted by speciﬁc and refers to a contested and contentious concept.” Next, school psychologists should
privileged groups. advocate for all students for the very goals that the advocates of social justice want to
We next need to clarify who are among the oppressed. According to the contrib- achieve. We should advocate for the same high standard for every child. These standards
utors in the Review and Communiqué, these most often include Native Americans, include providing the best curriculum, preventing the bullying of all students, insuring the
ELLs, African Americans, the poor, Latinos, GLBT, the disabled, and women. Rogers inclusion of all children in groups, improving parent awareness of community resources,
and O’Bryon (2008) included boys. developing cultural competencies among the staﬀ, and conducting assessments that are
Finally, what means do the writers suggest to use in trying to achieve social justice? comprehensive, fair, valid, and useful. For example, Tyler (2002) provides an excellent
Nastasi refers to Nelson and Prillethensky (as cited in Nastasi, 2008) in describing two free online source for the development of cultural competencies. McCabe and Rubinson
main methods to help those who are suﬀering from social injustices: transformative and (2008), in advocating for GLBT students, recommended “preventing the negative eﬀects
ameliorative. A transformative approach deals with changing institutions, while an ame- of harassment and … enhancing resiliency … establish strong anti-harassment policies….”
liorative one deals with individuals. Implicit in these views are whether we work toward (p. 483). Shriberg et al. (2008) describe a number of laudable goals, including providing
reforming institutions to meet the students’ diverse needs, or whether we look at the “information to families about rights and resources,” “modeling advocacy behaviors,”
aims of the school and assist students to meet these in a fair and equitable fashion. The and “having the courage to diﬀer in opinion from others” (p. 460).
recommendation, as described in the articles, is consistent: institutional-level reform. An excellent source of goals to bear in mind for all children in all schools can be
In essence, then, social justice, as described in these articles, is a method of over- found in our organization’s Position Statement on Sexual Minority Youth (NASP, 200